The Fanboy Effect


Ben Fritz and John Horn file a story in the LA Times about the disappointing weekend grosses for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright’s much-anticipated film adaptation of the cult comic book series. What’s interesting about Fritz and Horn’s account is how the economics of the sci-fi/comic book genre have changed since the early Star Wars films.

In the 1980s Hollywood studios were wary of big-budget sci-fi projects because the sci-fi fans were notoriously fickle. They were the most unpredictable of all genre audiences. A film could have all of the elements for a successful sci-fi film, yet bomb at the box office. (Think Dune.) But when the fanboys were interested, a film could rake in millions.

These days the fanboys, by themselves, aren’t enough.

The audience for Hollywood films is usually divided into four segments:

  1. Males 24 years old and younger
  2. Females 24 years old and younger
  3. Males 25 years old and older
  4. Females 25 years old and older

A studio almost always targets their films for at least two quadrants. A film’s budget is usually directly related to the number of quadrants it is expected to reach. A big tent-pole film like Avatar is aimed at segments all four quadrants. Fanboys (quadrant 1) aren’t enough to float a film like Scott Pilgrim, which cost $85 million to produce and market–well below the Hollywood average of $107 million.

Scott Pilgrim was also a tough sell beyond its core Comic-Con audience because of the film’s unusual narrative structure and special effects. While there is such a thing as a D.F.E. (“Do Fucking Everything”) marketing department, Hollywood marketers often specialize in certain types of films. The Renée Zellweger vehicle New in Town, for instance, was marketed by the same team that did the Saw series of horror films. Not surprisingly, hardly anyone bothered to see the romantic comedy in the theaters. Scott Pilgrim required a marketing team of unusual talent and experience, and evidently it didn’t get one.

Really, Wright’s imaginative film should have been entitled Scott Pilgrim and His Fanboys vs. the Other Three Quadrants. And the fanboys would lose.


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