Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Fandom films are tricky – too dismissive, they mock subjects; too respectful, they’re dull.
Films about fandom or subcultures can be extremely popular – you’ve got a core fanbase which hopefully will embrace and support the film (out of an obsession with the subject matter and/or because they see themselves reflected on screen) and the potential of attracting more general audiences to bear witness to the fanatics and their escapades.
Making a film about a specific fan culture can initially seem like a great idea – a plethora of quirky characters, sometimes involving dressing up, obsessive behavior/interests (by definition), and outsider status. However, these very qualities can lead filmmakers to approach their subjects in a way that isn’t always the most respectful, highlighting or exaggerating what differentiates them from the “normal” people watching the film in the audience. Serving up figures for mockery or ridicule is an easy way to entice viewers not part of that fan culture to watch – but it replicates a grade school gang-up-on-the-nerd mentality, and that’s generally a bad way to treat the people who’ve entrusted you with profiling them.
On the opposite end, either because the filmmakers are themselves avowed participants in the subculture, or instead take pains to not be perceived as ridiculing their subjects, fandom films can take themselves much too seriously, and consequently lose those elements that might attract a wider audience. If you treat your subjects’ fascination with dressing up as ponies and wearing saddles as something reverential, you’re going to appeal only to the small human ponyplay community who are vocal and proud about their fetish. Even with this example, there’s what some might view as a freakshow factor, however. When you don’t even have a subculture that’s necessarily visibly different (via costumes or props), such as the obsessive fans of a particular genre writer, you lose even that gawking factor and can end up with something even worse – a deadly dull film that wallows in minutiae that will leave the unconverted scratching their heads and heading for the exits.
Finding the middle road between outright mockery and hyper-serious reverence is difficult, but largely a more successful path to take. Don’t lose your sense of humor – identify what made you think this group would be interesting to film, without being cruel. Try to select characters that are not carbon copies of one another – find subjects who are involved at different levels of obsession. Chances are, you’ll find someone who speaks to the most rabid fan, and another who might offer a more grounded perspective, one that might be closer to that of your general audience member and may have a greater sense of self-awareness of how they’re perceived by outsiders. It’s ok to point out differences and when people are acting out of the mainstream – it’s called fandom or subculture for a reason – but think twice about how best to do so without alienating either those on the inside or outside.