At the time of writing, I have just seen somebody posting a picture of a Nick Wilde (the fox from Zootopia) plush they have bought. This is not an uncommon sight in the fandom, at least for those following the furry side of social media. It's a curious purchase, because the plush was sold based only on marketing.
The Nick Wilde plush exists only in relationship to what is, currently, a promised other product. To me, merchandise comes after the fact, not before. What I mean by this is the following: Merchandise is something you buy having already read the book, watched the film, played the game, etc. Merchandise is, in theory, meant to be a form of memorabilia, and supports the creation of something you've enjoyed. Note the past tense of enjoyed. It's not something bought on the idea of going to enjoy it. And that going to enjoy as opposed to have already enjoyed is my concern with Zootopia (known as Zootropolis in some countries).
People are already buying merchandise for a film they have never seen, and spending money on representations of things they have not yet experienced.
You may ask, “Well, what's the problem with this? People are free to spend their money on what they wish? Why does it matter?”
That question deserves an answer.
To begin, let me define what I am referring to when I say “hype-culture”. It is important to distinguish “hype,” from “excitement”. For the purpose of this article, hype is the state of mind in which a person is willing to invest in a franchise or product before having direct experience of it, excluding, of course, any investment that may be required to gain aforementioned experience. For example, hype, would refer to buying anything related to a film prior to having seen said film, excluding the cost of the ticket required to see it. To a lesser extent, time can also be considered an investment. If a significant amount of time is spent in relation to a product before direct experience, this could be considered hype. An example of this would be creating fan-art for a film before having seen it.
Hype, can also be distinguished in mind-set. The difference between “being hyped,” and “excited about” is the surety of the quality. Somebody who is excited will be of the mind-set of “I think that this is going to be good, but I readily accept that it may not.” A person who is hyped will be of the mind-set: “This will be good.” The difference is that an excited person is fully aware that the product may not meet expectations, whilst somebody who is hyped will not seriously entertain such a notion.
A note on these two qualifiers (investment—financial and temporal—and surety of quality): Only one of these conditions needs to be met for something to be considered “hype-culture.” If somebody has met the surety criterion, but not invested, this still ought to be considered hype. The same is true in reverse; one can invest without absolute surety, and this to, ought to be thought of as hype.
“Hype-Culture,” a Marketing Department’s Dream
The first issue around hype is the message it sends to companies. It embodies the mind-set of “our marketing is more important than our product.” So long as bums are in seats and toys are off shelves, the quality of the film becomes irrelevant.
People may be joking or serious when they say “the creators care for the fandom,” (or something to that effect) but this is an unhealthy mind-set. The creators want money. Whatever they think of furries does not matter. If they like us, great, but never forget that their eyes are aimed at the cash.
Zootopia is, above all else, a commercial endeavour. There's nothing wrong with that, commercial endeavours can have artistic merit and/or become beloved cultural works. But as a consumer, you owe it to yourself to remember why the film exists, what the producers want out of you, and to cast a critical eye when you part with your cash. At the end of the day, we want good products, not good marketing campaigns. A consumer's money should reflect that. My advice would be to wait until you've seen the film, and decide whether you enjoy it, before you buy anything other than the admission ticket.
The temporal investment of fan-art is a similar, since it's essentially doing the job of marketing departments for free. It shows that all that needs to be done is sweep people away with a good marketing campaign, the final product mattering less. If you follow enough furries on social- media, you will see a great many fan-made advertisements for a film which they have not seen. This is an endorsement for something that has not yet been directly experienced. If, after having seen it, somebody decides they wish to promote it in this way, then there's nothing wrong with that, and it's good that somebody enjoyed something so much.
This may come across as a cynical view, dampening hopeful spirits, but I would say the reverse is true. It argues that people are smart enough to be active, thinking, consumers, not being taken in by a wave of hype, able to look at a company and say “I'll give you my money when you show me you deserve it.”
Furthermore, ask yourself this: “How does generating hype help consumers?” The answer is that it doesn't. Hype exists purely for corporate benefit.
Zootopia in relation to the fandom
My second point is more focussed around the fandom. The furry fandom is bursting with creative minds; artists, writers, fursuit makers, etc. The community would not exist as it does without this creativity. However, the hype around Zootopia feels to me like people are turning their backs on what built the fandom, focussing their attention and giving their money to a large corporate venture. There's nothing wrong with liking products that exist at the corporate scale of Zootopia, many of those are important to the fandom (Robin Hood, The Lion King, etc.). My issue is that I feel, for a community with humble, home-grown roots, suddenly jumping onto a purely commercial product feels wrong.
The premise of Zootopia isn't unique (furries have imagined what a society of anthropomorphic animals would be like countless times before Zootopia). It probably won't be a revolutionary, insightful, cultural classic. Yet furries seem to be holding it up, not because of its quality, but because it’s mainstream. Within the community, more interesting and creative products can be found. In fact, the non-mainstream aspect of furry allows for these more interesting products to flourish.
My concern is that people are pushing aside art and stories created by others within the fandom, based on a belief that Zootopia the first “furry-targeted” film aimed at the mainstream. Liking Zootopia is fine, and it's likely it will be a decent film; nothing revolutionary, but enjoyable whilst it lasts. However I feel it is important that it doesn't take too much attention away from the individuals in the fandom.
As companies become better at manipulating social media, and generating a culture of hype around their products, it is the responsible consumer’s duty to look through a critical eye. There is nothing wrong with being excited for Zootopia, or whatever else Disney or other companies produce, but it is important to temper that excitement with the behaviours and spending tendencies that lead to a better, more consumer-friendly environment.