The Blockbuster Scoop Culture: Hollywood’s Grandest Shell Game

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Chris Pratt as Peter Quill

Yesterday was a bit of a banner day for the folks at Heroic Hollywood. Early in the day, site owner Umberto Gonzalez posted an announcement alleging to reveal the true identity of Peter Quill’s father in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, warranting a Facebook response from director James Gunn that many felt proved the validity of Gonzalez’s scoop. Later that night, as the Captain America: Civil War trailer was spreading like wildfire, Gonzalez took to his Twitter account to remind us of a few of his greatest hits as a news reporter and purveyor of Hollywood leaks.

And good for him. Honestly. Only one problem, though: none of it matters.

It makes no difference whatsoever if Gonzalez or Gunn are telling the truth. It really doesn’t. Gonzalez’s alleged sources could include both Stan Lee and a time-traveling Umberto Gonzalez, and there are still a half-dozen things that could change between now and May 2017. The thing about industry rumors is that they can only be shot down with authority by the people who have the most to lose from studio leaks, so even straight-forward denials can be read as suspicious. Conversely, Gunn could be lying through his teeth on his Facebook page and all would be forgiven by the time his movie hit theaters. We’ve been through two recent high-profile misdirection campaigns with Star Trek into Darkness and Spectre, and fans have already moved on from their red herring outrage to the next big thing.

Industry rumors – especially those for AAA titles like Avengers or Star Wars — are Hollywood’s invitation to a high-stakes shell game. We are given a quick glimpse at the future of a particular film franchise and then a series of contradictory and potentially misleading statements are issued, encouraging us to pick which one to believe. We don’t really care which shell the ball is under, and, if we’re being perfectly honest with ourselves, we’re probably not even sure why we’re playing this game at all. Certainly there are better ways for us to spend our time and our money. But for many fans, the process of chasing Hollywood rumors around is more fun than the movies themselves, and that’s something that warrants a serious look.

Any discussion of the scoop economy has to begin with the idea of The Possible, a phrase coined earlier this year by our own Scott Beggs. “The Possible,” Scott wrote, “is unblemished by production realities. The Possible is shiny and chrome. The Possible is a blank slate for us on which to write our fantasies.” I love the idea of The Possible; more specifically, I love that Scott presents The Possible as neither intrinsically good nor bad. Whereas we have spent years trying to change the way we think about The Spoiler in film criticism – a subject regarded as harmful at worst and unnecessary at best – the potential of The Possible to be either positive or negative depends entirely on the person leading the conversation. There are plenty of writers who use upcoming releases as a way to expand their readers’ viewing habits. They offset the people who only care about being part of an insider culture.

Where we fail is when we confuse The Possible with subpar fandom. When we talk about website likes Hollywood Heroic, we tend to treat its audience as comprised of a very specific type of movie fans, people whose only real interest in a movie is arguing about the results while the production is still ongoing. This allows us to feel better about our own more “authentic” approach to cinema; it’s also reductive as hell. The pleasure that people take in looking forward to a purchase or event isn’t exactly a new thing. Studies have suggested that people derive more pleasure in the anticipation of an experience than in the experience itself. Who in their right mind would expect two hours in the movie theater to eclipse two years of conversations, arguments, dreaming, and speculation? Now throw in the idea that the average American only sees about five movies in theaters a year and it’s not hard to understand why fans get so caught up in the allure of The Possible.

And studios aren’t stupid. This is why Disney can announce a release schedule for Marvel and Star Wars films up to five years in advance; not only will the early announcement give fans a date to put in their calendar, it also allows people like Umberto Gonzalez to start the news cycle on their behalf. Rumor mongering does require some of the same skills as investigative journalism, but the results are hardly the same. Unlike evidence of corruption and abuse, scripted moments and casting decisions are not secrets that would remain hidden away from the world-at-large until some brave reporter comes along. The identity of Peter Quill’s father – whoever that may be – is a piece of information that will eventually come to light, and Marvel and James Gunn only hope that it will be presented in the manner that makes for the best possible storytelling. If that means keeping his identity a secret until the final act of Guardians of the Galaxy 2, then that is what they’ll try to do.

But let’s not pretend like this system is broken or that Umberto Gonzalez has fate of film criticism in the palm of his hand. The system is working exactly as intended. Gonzalez gets a little bit of prestige for making a (supposedly) well-sourced scoop, websites like ours get a few extra page views for weighing in on the debate, and James Gunn and Marvel do the impossible and nudge the discussion away from Star Wars: The Force Awakens and towards their own rebellious little superhero franchise. In a few months, if it is revealed that Peter Quill’s dad is Captain Marvel or Black Bolt or Captain Planet or whoever, every party involved can take credit for adding a little bit to the ongoing debate. You don’t need to understand why people voluntarily seek out spoilers to see that it’s a pretty effective little system for everyone involved.

So yeah, production rumors can be incredibly frustrating when taken by themselves, and there’s next to no accountability for anyone involved in the process, and you could make a really compelling argument that all we’re doing is lowering our appreciation for the movies we want to see the most. None of this is changing anytime soon. The only way to reject The Possible and reframe our conversations regarding film is to dig deep and start overhauling the format we use to talk about old films and upcoming releases. And if we are incapable or unwilling to do that, then we’ll just have to accept a few Hollywood Jim Bowdens along the way.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.