Destroy All Monsters: JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, A Weird Experiment With Fan Engagement

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, A Weird Experiment With Fan Engagement

Let's start with a couple of caveats:

1) Jem and the Holograms, the 2015 adaptation of the Hasbro toy line and cartoon series directed by Jon M. Chu, is terrible;

2) I sort of adore it.

I don't like it in any of the "underappreciated good movie" ways or even the "so bad it's good" ways. Honestly: Jem is atrocious filmmaking. It's miscast: Aubrey Peeples can carry most of her scenes but can't cry-act to save her life, and has to cry-act maybe ten times in the needlessly cry-acty motion picture. It's misconceived: the Misfits are left for a Nick Fury stinger in the end credits, leaving Jerrica's crushing self-identity issues as the film's only real "villain."

It's also misguided: the film seems underwritten and overwritten at the same time, and it's directed with the finesse of an 8-year-old playing with iMovie on his father's iPad, rushing through plot points (and songs, which are - arguably - the point) so quickly that the band literally breaks up and gets back together in the space of five silly, third-act minutes.

But I'm a Jem and the Holograms fan from way back, i.e. the actual beginning, i.e. yeah, I was watching the cartoon back-to-back with G.I. Joe and Transformers when I was growing up. So I'm invested, somewhat.

Hasbro, as a production entity, has a ghastly track record in capitalizing on that nostalgia. The fact that the Transformers movies keep making money seems nearly accidental, an alchemy of kill-crazy fighty robots and the inexplicable hardcore fanboy appeal that Michael Bay continues to hold - not to mention whatever studio juju has kept Bay chained to that franchise for three whole films past his announcement that he'd made his last one.

G.I. Joe and Jem were equally off-model of their respective source material, with none of Transformers' financial success, so both franchises have stalled out and gone nowhere - although, being about, and made for, boys, G.I. Joe of course got a sequel, where the hyper-cheap, girl-focused Jem has been abandoned to the dung-heap.

There's a good question to be asked about how directly a "fan" property needs to service its own fanbase in order to succeed (see Rogue One for reference). This leads us to Jem's sole, weird innovation: the fans are in the movie.

In a crowd-sourcing effort par excellence, Chu and the filmmakers chose to solicit webcam content from the Jem fanbase about what the franchise has traditionally meant to them - teasingly proposed as "audition videos," naturally, though as far as I know no one who submitted one got to play Aja or Kimber or anything. Instead, the filmmakers used some of the submitted material in the film, as a kind of Greek chorus for Jerrica's ascension from internet-famous acoustic guitar player to glam-pop megastar.

It's so close to a good idea, refashioning Jerrica's "holographic" alter-ego Jem from the cartoon series into an exploration of the ways we express (or stifle ourselves) between our online and IRL identities, that it gets a slow clap out of me... even if the immediate dissonance of the thing itself - a Jem movie that barely seems to be aware of the material from which it is drawn, which nonetheless contains painfully earnest videos of girls and boys surrounded by vintage '80s Jem dolls, wearing Jem cartoon t-shirts - undoes the whole enterprise.

There's a great theme there, which the film completely fails to carry, thanks to the general ineptitude of the filmmakers.

There's also a fascinating branding exercise at play, though. Hollywood has long since understood that weaponizing fan engagement is as good as, if not better, than having a fully-functioning marketing team. They've turned every major comic book convention into a launch event for their next two years' worth of "genre" film and TV properties, leaking their own press materials to fan-run "entertainment news" sites to amp up the furor around their consumption while having their stars/spokespersons raffle off meet-n'-greet opportunities to drive charitable giving.

It's becoming a perfect closed loop, one which - albeit unsuccessfully - Jem takes a step further, as though someone in the production office wondered aloud, "what if we can get them to shoot, say, 5% of our movie for us?"

It's hard to see an open submission call for, say, fan filmmakers to shoot B-roll for Episode VIII, but the Jem fans who submitted content for that film inadvertently turned themselves into a free focus group / think tank for a studio which was, in that case, uninterested in listening. It's only a couple of steps away from turning that fan outreach into a direct conduit of influence on the content of the film itself.

We speak often of how the mega-franchise world is closing the distance between films and fan fiction (again: see Rogue One), as fandom and nostalgia open up a cycle of circle-jerkdom to studios and content creators which may not be sustainable in the long term, but is generating so much pleasure (and profit) right now that it will be a decade before anyone notices or cares.

Fans aren't the core of these movies' audience - they make up too small a chunk of the profit pool, demographically - but they are the connectors and igniters of wider interest, thanks to their hugely interconnected online presence. And they sometimes know the property better than the filmmakers do. I wonder how long it will be before a studio with nothing to lose turns the keys of a low-risk property like Jem, wholly, over to them.

I'll end with a couple more caveats/advisories.

3) A Misfits movie starring Ke$ha as Pizzazz? Come on, Hasbro, get your shit together and do it (for me)!

4) Anybody who loves the original Jem and the Holograms and wants to see someone doing something great with the property should be reading Kelly Thompson's two comic books from the franchise, Jem and The Misfits.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.

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