Why People Should Cut George Lucas Some Slack

Originally posted 7-29-2012

Over the last fifteen years of so, George Lucas has come under increasing and increasingly vitriolic fire from people claiming to be “fans” of his work. Let me admit up front that I found Star Wars Episodes I-III to be inferior to the original trilogy in raw storytelling terms. Much of those weaknesses could have been avoided with more focus on character development and less on visual effects. Did those scripts need another pass or three? Absolutely. Have the various changes and amendments to the original trilogy made it worse? It’s debatable, but that’s not really the point. What the question all really boils down to is whether or not a creator can or should retain creative control over properties once those properties become available to the public at large. I say, yes, the creator can and should retain creative control over the work. Here is why. I’m about to do the same thing.

I self-published a novel a few years ago and I’m presently closing in on the finish line for the sequel to it. The people that read and loved that original novel have my eternal gratitude. It’s been their persistent and heartfelt interest in those characters that has kept me going back to the keyboard to chip away on the new novel. That gratitude does not, however, extend to leaving that original novel in its original form. Since I wrote that novel, I have consumed millions of words of writing. I’ve read close to a dozen books on the craft of writing. Finally, I’ve set down hundreds of thousands of words of my own writing in the form of blogs posts, articles, reviews, and a new novel. The point is that, while creative works often remain static, our understanding and abilities as creators in our chosen fields do not remains static. I am a far, far better writer now than I when I wrote that first novel. I can understand its flaws, and why they exist, well enough to make a serious effort at repairing them.

More important to me, as the author, is that I feel a responsibility to that book and its characters. I honed it and shaped it as well as I could at the time, but I can see where I took shortcuts and where I shortchanged the character development in favor of skipping ahead to the big drama scenes. I did the kinds of things inexperienced writers do on their early works. Would that book have benefited from another pass or three before I made it available? Absolutely. Should I not take that pass or three now because people have read the original? I can’t think of a single good reason why I should refrain from taking another pass at it.

I’ll grant you, I’m not George Lucas. My fan base is small. I haven’t sold millions of copies of one version of my book just to say, “Wait, no, this new one is going to be the definitive version.” I can see how that would aggravate fans. On the flip side, though, I’d like to believe that George Lucas has enough integrity as an artist that he at least believes he’s bringing his creative works closer to what he meant them to be in the first place. It’s not a question of whether or not he’s succeeding. It never was. It’s a question of whether he remains the controlling creative voice in his properties. I say that he is and that he is doing nothing more than exercising his due rights. If you don’t like it, that is your prerogative, but express it by not buying his movies. Stop burning the man in effigy. Stop browbeating him in forums, columns and blogs. In short, cut George Lucas some slack.

What Fans Can Learn from Eureka’s Cancellation

Originally posted 7-17-2012

Unless something extraordinary occurs, the final episode of Eureka aired last night. (If you’re interested in helping something extraordinary occur, visit the forums over at Save Eureka.) This got me thinking about what lesson fans can take away from the show’s cancellation.

For the duration of this musing, I’ll set aside the argument that Comcast only cares about money. Every miserable experience (read every single experience) I’ve had interacting with any part of Comcast suggests to me that it is, indeed, dead-set on milking every red cent out of its customers, while delivering mediocre service. So, we’ll take the “Comcast only loves money” argument as prima facie true. I think there are other, more important, lessons that fans can take away from the cancellation.

I look at shows like NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy, moving into their 10th and 9th seasons this fall, and I feel confident saying that Eureka stacks up well against them in most ways. I absolutely believe that both NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy are more played out, and have been for years, in terms of storytelling potential. So why were they renewed, while Eureka got cancelled?

The answer is simple: ratings numbers. I’ll admit that both NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy command huge audiences, but it’s also true that cable-based, scripted shows don’t need those kinds of numbers to stay on the air. Eureka proved that for five glorious seasons. This brings me back around the fans. For this last season, Eureka averaged around 1.5 million viewers per episode.

These are not terrible numbers for a scripted show on cable, but they aren’t great. It is very clear that Eureka had a die-hard base of fans that watched the show religiously, week after week. If that weren’t true, the numbers wouldn’t have been so steady over the course of the last season. What is also apparent, looking at the numbers across season 4 and season 5, is that the fans weren’t selling other people on the show.

I don’t blame anyone for this. I’m as guilty as everyone else of shirking my fan duties in this regard. It’s only been in the last year, when it was too late to help, that I really started pitching the people on the show. More is the pity. Virtually every single person I’ve introduced to the little town with a big secret has liked it. With a bit more encouragement, I certainly could have converted some people into regular watchers. I know one person who has become a devout Eureka fan since I introduced her to the show.

Here is the real question. What if every single one of those 1.5 million viewers had talked just one other person into watching Eureka back during the second half of season 3? It wouldn’t have been hard. Eureka is an easy sell. It’s family friendly, especially from season 2 on. Whether a person wants comedy, drama, character building or cool special effects, Eureka can supply it.

If that had happened, there is a decent chance we wouldn’t be talking about how Eureka got cancelled. We’d probably all be wondering what cool thing they were going to do next season. Even if a third of those hypothetical new viewers had dropped off between seasons 3 and 5, there would still have been a big cushion to justify keeping the show on the air. Keep in mind, Warehouse 13 (another SyFy offering) was renewed on the basis of ratings numbers not much higher than Eureka.

So why are rating numbers so important? The higher the rating numbers, the more advertisers are willing to pay to place their ads during a show. This is why shows like NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy continue getting renewed, in spite of increases in pay for lead actors and the inevitable rise in production costs. Those huge audiences convert directly in advertising dollars that fuel future seasons.

Science fiction fans tend to be a dedicated lot, as the many pictures of fans dressed in everything from Ghostbusters costumes to Steampunk apparel at SDCC attest. (SDCC = San Diego Comic Con for the uninitiated.)  We also tend to be an insular lot. We associate with other science fiction fans. These are the people that let us feel safe openly sharing our geek love for shows like Eureka. Yet, even in this day and age when geek is the new cool, we shy away from telling our non-science fiction friends and family members about the shows we love. Or, if we do mention it, we do so briefly and quickly change the subject.

When it comes to science fiction shows that are posting so-so ratings, we need to be more. We need to be both dedicated and socially active on behalf of our shows. We need to talk to people about the show and why we love it. We need to invite them over to watch an episode, or a season on DVD, and show them why we love it so much. We need to make the case for our shows on our blogs, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Most importantly, we need to do it before the shows get cancelled. Outpourings of love and support after the fact, while genuine and no doubt appreciated, are no substitute for being renewed.