Vin Diesel, Facebook and the Eighteenth-Century

On how Jane Austen and her predecessors are responsible for Riddick, the sequel to the cult sci-fi horror action movie, Pitch Black.

riddick-international-poster

A few months ago I wrote a post for this blog suggesting, somewhat mischievously, that thanks to Twitter (other social networking sites are available) and the opportunity that the internet offers individuals to publicly and privately write and publish ‘to the moment’ the epistolary novel (a style of fictional account popular in the eighteenth-century, in which the conceit was that the reader is leafing through a collection of private letters) was more believable and more accessible than ever before [to read the post, click here]. That suggestion was a by-product of a broader observation that is being made recurrently in university classrooms and at academic conferences across the world: that the advent of the internet age is beautifully analogous to the explosion of print culture throughout the long eighteenth-century.

Both print and internet offer their respective cultures new means of sharing and disseminating information, of self-representation (and misrepresentation), of record keeping and ultimately of communicating. Each have had incalculable effects also upon the fiction of their times; on both how it is conceived and articulated, and on how it is marketed. I thought a little about this in my first post for this blog, suggesting that the current vogue for ‘discovered footage’ horror films bares more than a slight resemblance to the ‘discovered document’ trope often embedded in the eighteenth-century Gothic novel; each being a fiction released in a medium – be it early print culture or the internet – in which the authenticity of a publication is often worthy of scrutiny [to read the post, click here]. However, something I hadn’t really considered before was the extent to which each medium (both print culture in the eighteenth-century and the internet now) allows the reader to affect the “artistic” output of their time in new and exciting ways – But what, I hear you asking, does any of this have to do with the untold kinship between Jane Austen and Vin Diesel promised in the title of this post?

The answer: subscription lists. During a moment of uncharacteristic procrastination I recently picked up a copy of Total Film magazine only to discover that Vin Diesel has brought the latest instalment of the Riddick franchise to the big screens through an entrepreneurial use of subscription lists.

jane-austen What’s a subscription list? Well, when the idea of extended prose fiction was still a new and fairly novel idea (yeh, I went there) it was a risky proposition for booksellers. They needed assurances that somebody was actually going to buy it. So authors would contact their readers and put together a list of people who were prepared to pledge that they would buy the book, and even pay money in advance (a subscription). Once this list was long enough to cover the cost of the book’s production and the bookseller was happy that everyone involved was guaranteed to make enough of a profit the book would be published and the subscription list would usually be printed somewhere within the text. This is very useful for literary scholars because it tells us who wanted to read that book. It tells us who the intended audience and readership actually were. For example, the subscription list to Frances Burney’s debut novel Evelina reveals that a young Jane Austen had subscribed; which – some might argue – accounts for the similarities in terms of plot and character between Evelina and Austen’s own Pride and Prejudice. She was a fan! So, subscription lists were a method of assuring those investing in the production of the text that there would definitely be a paying audience; and it was a method that was both a product and a perpetrator of the medium it was born into – that of print culture.

The latest Vin Diesel film is the second sequel to the 2000 sleeper hit Pitch Black. This was a film that cost relatively little to make, and if its own press is to be believed, was largely a labour of love. Studio Executives weren’t overly concerned about insuring it had an audience, since they hadn’t invested a lot in it and subsequently didn’t have much to lose. However, a good decent script, some excellent characterisations and a surprisingly effective use of suspense (perhaps in the place of the special effects they couldn’t afford) produced a thrilling sci-fi action horror which (allegedly largely thanks to word of mouth) proved very popular and made a huge (proportionate) profit at the box office (and, if you hadn’t noticed already, found a special place in my own heart). This was followed by the 2004 sequel Chronicles of Riddick, which had won a blockbuster budget as a reward for the success of the first film; a reward which some (not necessarily I) would argue proved a poison chalice. Chronicles was brave in many ways in that it tried something different, moving away from the flavour of a John Carpenter B-Movie and attempting something more on the scale of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It was a gamble which Diesel often takes credit for (its surprising he got the men in suits to go a long with it) but unfortunately it wasn’t a gamble that paid off; at least in box office terms. It sunk – big time – largely because it confused its core audience, hitting Alien fans with a something resembling Lord of the Rings in space, and as a result it seemed for a long time that nobody would touch the idea of a big screen Riddick film with a very long barge pole, let alone invest money in a movie in case it went the same way as Chronicles. So how come there’s a new film out this September?

photo (6)Vin Diesell was effectively able to present the studio with a subscription list, thanks to Facebook. In 2009 Diesell made a page, and quickly raked up 43.5 million likes, enabling him to go to a film studio and show that an audience had already ‘subscribed’ to him and pledged that they would pay to watch the movie. What’s more, this also enabled him to speak to his fans – as he explains in Total Film # 209: ‘When I jumped on that page in April 2009, I started talking to People. In the realest ways. I don’t know if I would have been able to make Riddick if I didn’t have all of that overwhelming support online.’

As I hinted earlier, a by-product of the use of subscription lists in the eighteenth-century was that for the first time the buying public began to effect artistic output. Previous to this it had been the tastes of Kings, Queens and Courts that had determined what artists and authors produced by dispensing patronage to those whose work they approved of. Print culture gave authors access to their readers, and as they needed readers to subscribe they had to been mindful of giving them something they would agree to buy. For the first time artistic taste was dictated not by those in the courts, but by those in the coffee-houses and pleasure gardens: thanks to print. Is this a good thing? Alexander Pope certainly didn’t think so. Print also allowed a forum for this question of quality to be asked and argued about. Now, through the internet, the buying public are seen once again to have a very real impact on what is being produced. Although, as Diesel’s Total Film interview goes on to reveal what else we the public have used this new voice to create I can’t help but wonder what Alexander Pope would have made of it all… ‘As much as I tease Facebook […] it has been extremely useful in getting films made […] I don’t know if Fast and the Furious 6 would have been made without it.’

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on “Vin Diesel, Facebook and the Eighteenth-Century
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  1. Pingback: The School of English | Chaotic Good – A study in Vin Diesel, fast cars and civil destruction

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