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GettyImages_Michael Tran-AFP.jpg

‘Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour’: What Hollywood Can Learn from Taylor Swift

By Melanie Fischer | Film | October 28, 2023 |

By Melanie Fischer | Film | October 28, 2023 |

GettyImages_Michael Tran-AFP.jpg

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is a concert event movie that’s such a Big Deal it gets its own special versions of trailers. (“Hey Swifties, get ready for your next concert,” the Trolls Band Together ad attempts to manifest through the power of positive thinking). Swift herself has reached a point of cultural saturation such that when the actual concert movie begins with a graphic of a clock counting down from 13 seconds to midnight, I know this is because 13 is her favorite number, and her most recent album is entitled Midnights. Not because I have ever sought out information about Swift, but because of her Capital One ad that keeps popping up while watching Hulu.

To make the implicit here explicit: I am not a Swiftie. Nor, to be clear, am I a hater. Swift is, undeniably, a talented singer-songwriter and a truly astounding businesswoman. I just don’t particularly connect with much of her music.

The Eras Tour, much like most everything Swift has done over the last several years, is incredibly well-strategized. The film does an impressive job of capturing the energy of a concert. The roaring of the crowd stays at a near-deafening volume, just short of uncomfortable. Closing your eyes, you do almost feel like you’re there. Not quite, of course—nothing can fully replicate the real deal—but there’s little imagination required.

The spectacle of it all is truly next level. But, notably, the film consistently favors the kind of up-close-and-personal access the camera uniquely affords—even when that means not being able to see the full scale of the spectacle at hand. This element of the film surprised me at first. Coming in, one of the aspects I was most curious to see was the much-lauded wristband light show. While the technology is clearly impressive, it’s relegated to the background. Capturing the full magnitude of the choreographed array of lights dancing through the stadium would require taking the focus off Swift. When there is a choice to be made between a sense of intimacy and one of awe, The Eras Tour favors intimacy every time. Moving past my initial surprise, this decision ultimately speaks once again to what, above all else, makes Taylor Swift Taylor Swift—her remarkable skill when it comes to growing and maintaining her audience.

It is generally worthwhile to take the time to consider the most popular artists of any era, and what they say about us. But in this case, it feels especially important. The fervor around Swift is the antithesis of the apathy bringing Hollywood to its knees. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes poured gasoline on the situation, but things were already somewhat on fire. Hollywood doesn’t really know how to connect with audiences any more. Outliers like Barbenheimer and Top Gun: Maverick, as many celebratory articles their successes spawn, do not shift the conversation. These exceptions are seen as dying gasps, not glimmers of hope. Big IP and top-tier A-list talent are still the only chance of reeling in any audience, but now it’s a gamble instead of a sure bet. Audiences don’t care, the refrain goes. They are gone and we can’t get them back. They’re all playing video games. Tik Tok destroyed Gen Z’s attention span. Gen Alpha can’t even read. So on and so forth.

To be fair, there are elements of the statements above that are objectively true. However, there’s so much more to the story than that. The shift of “nerd culture” into the mainstream with the superhero movie boom, along with Hollywood’s ever-growing obsession over existing IP, shows the entertainment industry’s interest in tapping into fan bases and fan culture. And it’s a very logical strategy.

The problem is, the film and TV industry, on the whole, is doing a very bad job of it. “Franchise fatigue,” much like the demise of moviegoing, tends to be one of those things discussed as an inevitability, but that’s an easy excuse. You don’t see people speculating about Swiftie fatigue, because that simply isn’t happening. Taylor Swift and her team knows how to maintain and grow fan engagement without burnout.

So the question is, how? Of course, this isn’t a controlled experiment; there are no means to scientifically prove anything here. Still, there are some informed speculations we can make.

The biggest involves respecting and rewarding one’s fans. Swift puts upon a “relatable” persona that, at times, feels more than a little heavy-handed and transparent. “This is about to start going to my head real fast, you just make me feel so powerful,” she tells the arena, like she doesn’t know she’s the highest-paid female entertainer in the world. But Swift always comes across incredibly earnest when it comes to showing appreciation for her fanbase and generally rewarding fan engagement. She’s utilized a range of interactive online guerrilla marketing techniques, and is well known for her use of Easter eggs and “secret messages” in her song lyrics and social media posts.

No matter how big the Taylor Swift machine becomes, she and her team create interactive experiences that give fans a compelling illusion of closeness, particularly with the way so many of these Easter eggs and messages connect to Swift’s personal life. It creates a similar sense of direct, personal connection with the audience to what is generated by the filming choices seen in The Eras Tour. It’s particularly noticeable because Swift, herself, is not a particularly interactive performer. Part of it is the genre and the kind of show this is. That kind of audience interaction is much more common to rock than pop, and generally hard to do at a show of this scale, anyway. But the remarkable thing is how Swift is able to create that feeling of connection anyway. And ultimately, so much of it is just about little but very consistent and very intentional choices.

As someone who is a non-Swiftie, the influence of Swift’s collaborators on her sound is quite evident, especially considering one of her main creative collaborators on her last two albums, Aaron Dessner, is a member of my favorite band, The National. Now, by all accounts I have heard, Swift compensates people who work with her and for her very well. However, what she noticeably does not do, generally speaking, is discuss creative collaboration. Any mentions of her creative process between songs are “I” and “me” statements, maintaining this illusion of a very singular creative process, wherein Swift pulls inspiration from her life that goes directly into her music, which then goes directly to her audience. Talking about how, for example, the music for “Cardigan” and “Willow” were originally intended as songs for The National—while quite fascinating to consider—does not fit well into this picture, so Swift doesn’t do it. All choices, big and small, point in the same direction: maintaining that strong sense of parasocial closeness her fanbase feels.

Hollywood, in general, is not good at this. Maintaining this kind of engagement properly requires playing the long game, and Hollywood has been so taken over by a Big Tech mentality over the course of the past few decades that it fails to do this, over and over again. Hollywood goes too hard, too fast, and makes a little extra profit off of feeding into initial hype at the cost of running things straight into the ground. Swift is one of the most popular musical artists right now, beyond a doubt, but part of the fervor around the Eras Tour is that it is also her first in five years. If Swift toured more often, barring the same Covid pause everyone else had, she would undoubtedly still be selling out massive venues and doing incredibly well. But would it be the same kind of economic powerhouse? Probably not.

Imagine, for instance, an alternate universe where, following the massive success of Avengers: Endgame, the MCU went on an actual intentional hiatus for a couple years, not merely a Covid-related pause. A world where audiences were allowed a little more downtime between Batmen. Or where, for instance, the Star Wars sequel trilogy took whatever time to make it to screen that would be required so that the plot of the final installment didn’t hinge on the embarrassingly nonsense line, “somehow, Palpatine returned.” And yes, the coffee cup and “Dany kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet” were both low points for Game of Thrones fans in that oh so disappointing final season, but if there was a single moment that best succinctly captured the way that season felt like a bit of a slap to the face for fans, it would probably be the scene where a fan favorite supporting character, Gendry, calls himself by the wrong surname.

There are exceptions, in the same way a broken clock is still right twice a day. But for every The Last of Us TV show, there is, well, almost all of the other video game adaptations that have made it to television. When it comes to film and TV, how often do we see terms like “fan service” thrown around pejoratively? And how often is it used to describe content that is quite simply bad, and generally speaking, reviled by fans? What fans are being serviced?

There are definitely people out there who take their fandom to toxic extremes. There will always be extremes, it’s human nature. With the way social media and the internet more broadly works, those extreme voices will always get far more amplified than the vast majority who are reasonable, whose fandom brings them joy and community and is generally a force for good. There will never be any pleasing people who are at the extremes, this is true. But for the vast majority of fans who are very invested in a non-toxic way, they just want to feel respected, and like the people working on the things that they love also truly care—because fans care a whole, whole lot. This is precisely what Swift gets right, time and time again, while Hollywood consistently stumbles.

It is true, there is more competition for audiences than ever before. People have more choices of things to watch and more ways to watch them than ever. And that’s even before taking into account all the other forms of entertainment competing for audience’s time and money. However, it’s also true that audiences are still eager to turn out and tune in when given the proper motivation. Figuring out how to do that is supposed to be Hollywood’s job, and the failure to do that is far more a Hollywood problem than an audience one. Fixing the issue is easier said than done, of course, but taking the right cues from a fan engagement expert like Swift is a great place to start.

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is now playing in theaters.

Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, AFP, Michael Tran