Friday, August 21, 2015


The usual suspects dominated the screen this summer.

Another summer of screen blockbusters is nearly over and once again the multiplex has been dominated by comic book heroes, post-apocalyptic survivors and teen warriors of the future. Though romance has been generally lacking in these action-packed thrill rides, science fiction has certainly been featured, even in the speculative nature of disaster movies like SAN ANDREAS.

The small screen, too, is full of SF—from the SYFY Channel’s more traditional space opera KILLJOYS to ABC’s Earth-based THE WHISPERS. There’s even a soap opera about space (ABC’s THE ASTRONAUT’S WIVES CLUB, about the women behind the men of the Mercury space program).

Obviously Hollywood thinks SF sells. What’s so appealing about the genre for film and television?

--SF is visual. Spaceships! Monsters! Disasters! The end of the world! Superheroes and arch villains battling it out in the middle of cities, destroying everything! Cool tech and even cooler special effects and makeup. The guys (and, make no mistake, they are overwhelmingly male) on the technical side of filmmaking love this stuff and delight in one-upping each other. No other genre gives them the same opportunities.

--SF lends itself to simple plots. Good guys vs. bad guys. Monsters/aliens vs. humans. Superhero vs. super villain. Etc. The exceptions to this rule in the last few years can be numbered on maybe two hands—GRAVITY, INTERSTELLAR, HER, LUCY, a few others. They get lost in the avalanche of mindless fare at the multiplex and, with the exception of the first two titles, are seen by only a handful of dedicated SF film fans. Simple is best, especially on the big screen. More room for explosions. (Television fares better in this regard, since paying for big effects is a problem for TV networks. A show like DEFIANCE or PERSON OF INTEREST can focus on relationships and ideas and find a faithful audience on the small screen.)

--SF skews young. The majority of the movie-going audience today consists of teenagers and young adults. (People like me, who can remember when comic books were not an art form, but something you could buy for a dime at the corner drug store, tend to watch movies at home.) This audience is most likely to be drawn to stories and heroes taken from the media it is already familiar with—comics and graphic novels, television, retro movies, young adult science fiction bestsellers like The Hunger Games and its clones.

--SF skews male. Yes, I know, dear reader, many of you are female and love SF, too, but Hollywood doesn’t much care about that. The powers that be have convinced themselves that men drive the entertainment decisions—including what gets seen on date night and what is watched on TV or computer or tablet. Hollywood has decided (presumably by market research, but who knows?) that, with some exceptions,  “audiences” don’t want to see women in lead roles, they don’t want films by or about women, and they damn sure don’t want films in which women play the heroes. Science fiction, in which, traditionally, the men dominate, gives Hollywood what they think they want—and lots of it. The percentage of women starring in, directing, producing and writing movies and television has actually dropped since the 1990’s. We can only hope the success of films like MAD MAX:FURY ROAD (starring the mesmerizing Charlize Theron) will change some minds.

In the SFR community we have long hoped that the trending love for SF on the screen will open a door for us with both readers and the not-so-Invisible-Hand of the market. But that has not happened so far, and I fear it will never happen. The problem is that the science fiction we see onscreen--certainly the SF we see on the big screen, though to a lesser extent the SF we see on TV--has little similarity to the kind of SF we are writing. In general, our stories are much more diverse, female-centered, character-driven and complex than the majority of stories we see in the multiplex. Then, of course, there’s the romance, which is most often only hinted at in the theater.

We have assumed all along that the audience for SF on the screen is the same as the audience for SFR in readable form, or at least that there is a great deal of crossover. That’s based on the anecdotal evidence that lots of us like SF movies and read SFR, too. We need to determine whether the majority of the movie-going audience is really open to what we’re selling, and, if so, how do we reach that audience? If our basic assumption is not true about this film/SFR connection, then who are we really writing for? The answer has to be greater than “people like us,” lest we continue to sell books to only each other.
 I don’t have the answer to these questions. If I did, I’d be Number One on Amazon. But if any of you has some insight, I beg you to share.

Cheers, Donna


  1. TV and movie viewership has NEVER translated to reading audience. Never. It probably never will. The two are very different experiences. Movie fans don't tend to be readers. There are exceptions of course, but as a general rule it's one or the other.

    SFR isn't going to make it if you can't hook into the base romance market. That's where SFR readers are by the thousands. The problem is they don't know they like it, or they want it and don't know it exists.

    There's also the issue of I see the same names in SFR circles, over and over and over. There's no visible push to acquire new readers and make it an accessible genre to the average romance reader. As the average romance reader myself, there's a lot about SFR as a genre and a community that I find off-putting.

    I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that--at least for me--being an SFR author hurts me more than it helps. Hence why I've spent the summer rebranding myself as a paranormal author and making inroads into the greater paranormal readership. I have visible results on my sales dashboard that confirm I've made the right choice for my work.

    I know most SFR authors want to have the best of both SF and romance. But right now, it doesn't look like a viable option. I also see quite a few people within the SFR community either purposely making paranormal readers feel unwelcome, or doing nothing to show them why they might like SFR. That's only going to hurt SFR as a genre IMO.

    Then there's also the issue that SFR seems intent on maintaining its position as a heroine-driven genre, when romance as a whole has become equal POV time, or is starting to skew to majority hero's POV. That's part of why paranormal is such a juggernaut--it meets readers where they are, is responsive to the market, and there's no... "guiding philosophy" for lack of a better term. Paranormal survives because everything is welcome, and there are no unspoken rules about what can and can't be done. (I'm using myself as an example, because I have often felt all of these things I've described, within the SFR community)

    If SFR's going to make it, SFR authors MUST go where the readers are. They have to write things that will hook romance readers. They have to be responsive to romance readers. I know most SFR authors want the best of both worlds. But the reality is the best of both worlds doesn't exist in large enough numbers to make SFR as a genre truly relevant and accessible. So you have to choose which readership you want and go after them.

    I made my choice, and it's paying off.

  2. I don't trust or expect Hollywood's big screen crew to be able to do much--they exist as a reactionary element focused only on catering to what will play to the broadest audiences. "Big ship go boom" does not require nuanced translation from culture to culture, nor does it require much alteration to convey itself.

    Part of what makes the "romance" part so problematic is the same thing that makes it universal. You can tell a good romance story in any setting (just about), so a big budget sci-fi backdrop just gets in the way.

    The other part is that the minute you slap a "romance" label on anything, it becomes For Women Only, and only certain kinds of women at that. We've gotten really really good at branding, but there's a downside to that which says our embrace of our core audience is exclusionary to those outside it (not on purpose--our culture sort of forces people to self-deselect from girly things in general, which is a reason to breathe fire all on its own).

    However, I'm not convinced that the SF-viewing public even realizes there's an SFR genre out there. We tend to stick to the friendly skies of Romance, rather than venturing into the waters of SF (and given current goings-on, I cannot fault anyone for doing so). I think this might be a cultural thing as much as it's a marketing thing. At the last SF Con I attended, there were two very distinct author/book/writing tracks--girls to one side, boys to the other, and if the twain did meet, it wasn't obvious. Maybe we need to be a little more brave and push our chair in between the ones already at that table.

    1. >we need to be a little more brave and push our chair in between the ones already at that table.

      I'd rather they welcome us genuinely and with open arms since the burden isn't on us to fix the problems some in SF have caused. Barring that, we build our own empire and enjoy the heck out of it!

  3. Rachel, I'm not so sure I agree with you entirely that the movie-going public doesn't read. I do think when it comes to choosing things to read, they splinter into distinct male and female groups. That's why I agree with you whole-heartedly that the future of SFR lies with the romance audience. I'm sorry, Athena, but the SF world has proven itself to be less than welcoming to us, both in readership and in the writers' community. Just look at what went on at WorldCon and the Hugo Awards, with the Sick, er, Sad Puppies highjacking of the awards process IN REACTION to any attempt to recognize diversity in SF.

  4. Great food for thought! Here’s my two cents, part 1:

    > Obviously Hollywood thinks SF sells.

    They think it sells *now*, but that wasn’t always the case. The main reason I raise this point is that cultural tastes change and in the case of SF, for the better. So maybe there’s similar hope for SFR. :)

    > Good guys vs. bad guys

    Right, and it’s often one good guy vs. one bad guy. There’s a whole host of protagonists (e.g., female action heroes, couples-as-protagonists, even ensembles/communities) that haven’t had their time in the spotlight yet. Inevitably, change will come. But it will take time and significant cultural shifts. We will have to fight to get our stories watched and read because the patriarchy is as fierce an oppressor as they come.

    > the science fiction we see onscreen--certainly the SF we see on the big screen, though to a lesser extent the SF we see on TV--has little similarity to the kind of SF we are writing

    I completely agree, yet I can’t discount technological advancements that will likely cause the current bias to shift. Theatrically released movies is only *one* of many ways we consume films and it’s already being supplanted by home video, streaming, indie releases, fan-made films/videos, and yes, even pirating. Therefore, getting an SFR into mainstream theaters may not be the most strategic goal. That venue also shuts out film lovers who can’t afford the theater or even get to one. Films/TV that *are* similar to literary SFR will more likely thrive in other markets and have the added benefit of being more accessible.

  5. Part II:

    >majority of the movie-going audience is really open to what we’re selling, and, if so, how do we reach that audience?

    Perhaps a shift in perspective is in order? I think the days of any one type of story appealing to the majority of the movie-going audience are waning (MINIONS notwithstanding, heh heh). The Internet alone has given rise to a more varied, fractured market, which is actually great for consumers because we have more access than ever before to the stories we *really* want vs. the ones paid for by advertising dollars. I for one *never* want to return to the days of 3 U.S. TV networks, no Internet, a handful of mainstream films, no Pandora, etc.

    If I have an SFR film and want to reach the widest audience, I’ll release it on Netflix or direct to DVD/Blu-ray in order to make it available to the working women and parents who are a) the actual fans and b) don’t have time/money to get to the theater. A blockbuster film is out of reach for many genres, and like you said, isn’t likely to result in a crossover (e.g., AVATAR, JUPITER ASCENDING). And thanks to current technology, it’s easier to reach interested audiences.

    Heck, I could film an SFR on my *phone* and upload it to YouTube. If I’m meeting an unmet need and serving an underserved audience, folks will watch. I know I would. A mainstream film could have the highest production values in the world, but if it’s a flick about Nascar, I’m not interested. At all. I don’t care if it wins an Oscar—not my cuppa. I’d much rather watch an SFR film. As long as the production values are decently adequate, I’ll give it a try.

    Another interesting fact is that the cost of professional digital film cameras, like the RED, has dropped to the point that one can rent them for only a few hundred dollars a day. Undoubtedly that kind of access will impact the types of films produced in the future. Folks who were previously shut out of filmmaking can now enter the field. That could mean something good for SFR.

    SFR is similar to fan fiction in the sense that we’re writing the stories mainstream venues refuse to tell. The audiences may be smaller, but they exist. So perhaps it’s a matter of using technology strategically in order to reach them. We can still have the dream that an SFR blockbuster could be a game changer, but given the points you raised, there’s no point in holding our breath.

    Perhaps someday we as a society will better understand that women are beautiful and wonderful and that the stories we love are just as valid as any other. At that point, we’ll see SFR and similar genres given the first-class Hollywood blockbuster treatment.

  6. As always a very thoughtful and forward thinking response, Heather. I just wish I could see all this fracturing of the media universe (both visual and literary) as optimistically as you do. When we have a major network head stating publically that we have "too much scripted television," it may be time to recognize there is just too much out there for viewers to absorb--and it's the same with readers. I agree with you that we have the freedom to produce what we want and try to find our audience, but that audience is shrinking daily and distracted by a million other shiny things. What's the answer?

  7. Time & waiting for technological changes that shift how art is monetized. Not a fun answer nor an easy landscape to navigate, but on the other hand artists, authors, filmmakers, etc. *do* find different, new paths on a regular basis (e.g., YouTube, Comixology).

    >network head stating publically that we have "too much scripted television"

    I always take a statement like that with a grain of salt because I can't help but wonder if it's code for "I don't know how to market my network's scripted television in more profitable ways" or "I don't know how to compete with Netflix."

    >there is just too much out there for viewers to absorb

    I disagree with this assessment because there's almost always been "too much" content for consumers to absorb, first and foremost because of basic schedule conflicts. Even before the Internet we really didn't lack for books or films/TV (at least once home video became a thing).

    Many choices for consumers is awesome (and we'll prioritize as needed), BUT it does create marketing challenges of epic proportions for creators. Much of this comes down to who has the most marketing resources or the most innovative marketing ideas. The content isn't the issue--getting it visible is.

    So to amend my answer above, perhaps technology that can help authors effectively market without adding to the noise could help with the visibility issue. I sure never saw the Internet coming when I was a youth, so to me it's plausible other innovations will surface that will help organize the content chaos in ways we never anticipated.

    >that audience is shrinking daily

    If the goal is to make millions as a bestselling author like E.L. James I can see how there'd be shrinkage. On the other hand, I bet many authors would be happy making 80k a year from ebook sales (and probably sans the national fame) if they were able to devote 40 hours a week to both the creative and business sides of writing. So if an author can do that, does it mean the audience is shrinking, or is it actually growing for that kind of author? I guess it would help to define the parameters of success.


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