What does it mean to be a casual fan?

Before this year’s Oscars, producer Will Packer seemed fond of one particular word: casual. The ceremony had to “connect with the casual moviegoer and the casual movie fan”. Amid an “oversaturation of content” and “too much competition for eyeballs”, there was no choice but to “walk and chew gum at the same time”.

People running media and creative businesses everywhere will have nodded their heads in sympathetic agreement and stocked up on gum for their next hike.

But what does it mean to be a casual movie fan, or indeed a casual fan of anything? And why are casual eyeballs so important anyway?

Even if the etymology of fan wasn’t a shortened version of fanatic, the phrase “casual fan” would still seem like one of those glorious contradictions in terms that only the entertainment industries could produce.

What Packer meant, it seems, was that he wanted “fans of movies that may not be nominated” to watch the Oscars. It’s possible Zack Snyder fans did exactly that after propelling the director’s Army of the Dead and Justice League to the top of two social media polls – a “favorite fan” award for 2021 and an all-time “cheer moment” – revealed on the night to zero applause in the room and eye-rolling derision elsewhere.

And yet no one would call these voters “casual” about their fandom. On the contrary, they were proving how diehard it is.

The Urban Dictionary declares casual fans to be people who enjoy their fandom, “know some trivia” and “have some stuff”, but are too laid back to be “proper fans” and are distinguishable, too, from fickle, fad-chasing “ pseudo fans”.

On a per-head basis, proper fans are clearly the most lucrative kind in this hierarchy, and media properties lucky enough to possess an abundance of them have an advantage that others don’t. Proper fans don’t just buy “stuff”, they pre-order it with bells.

But as much as internet culture can skew the picture – making it seem like every fan can recite complex back stories, reel off statistics and adapt quotes into memes – most media consumption isn’t like this.

‘Passive’ playlists

The endorsement of the “casual” audience can help swell the coffers of the most-marketed, highest-profile, heaviest-pushed intellectual property – the Disney brands of this world. But sometimes its attention flows in a much less celebrated direction.

At Spotify, Amazon Music and other music streaming platforms, the race is on to cash in from the rising volume of users who have few or zero affinities to specific artists and little desire to cultivate them. Instead, these “passive” listeners seek out pre-curated playlists of mostly instrumental mood music, often discovering them using terms like “meditation” or “baby sleep”. They might tell Alexa, for instance, to “play something chill”.

As reported by trade publication Music Business Worldwide (MBW), this has sparked a flurry of both label-created and platform-created playlists populated by “fake” artists hired for one-off fees, their output distributed under multiple pseudonyms.

Literally generic “mood” or “lifestyle” playlists are one of the fastest growth segments in the music industry, an anonymous insider recently told MBW, “because an increasing share of the hundreds of millions of people who pay for these streaming services are not really music fans”.

They don’t fire up their app because they’re “actively looking for and listening to Thom Yorke’s recent single”. They just want to hear something that will help them relax after work.

Responding to the urges of the “non-fan” like this is, in a sense, just another path to cementing a habit. Whether the audience is deeply invested in the IP or there is barely any IP there to register might not matter if the outcome in both cases is monetisable loyalty.

Which of the groups – the hardcore fans or the casual consumers – tends to be the more discerning when it comes to quality is also debatable.

I don’t imagine it is always fun for people who pour blood, sweat and mortgage applications into getting their television passion project made to later see it classified by Netflix under the dismissive-sounding category “casual viewing”.

Still, Netflix knows what it’s doing here. It knows that the craving to be entertained for the length of time it takes to eat dinner on the sofa is a use case that can be overtly catered for by lining up light comedies that rarely exceed 25 minutes per episode and won’t feature plots that put viewers off their food.

Where “casual” has the most surged in use, however, is in the context of “casual gaming” and “hypercasual gaming”. Here it refers less to a take-it-or-leave-it mood state and more to an advertising-dependent business model.

Casual gamers are the massive chunk of people who, with varying levels of addiction, play easy-by-design games for free, or almost free, on their phones. They don’t shell out for gaming hardware. They already have some in their hand.

Aging technologies

This gets to the nub of the difficulty that certain forms of media eventually have in attracting sufficient “casual fans”. Casual gaming, casual viewing and casual listening all imply activities that do not require much forethought. Technology strips away the need for it. There is no waiting for anything to load. Accessibility is automatic, and so are the decisions.

But as media technologies age, their products – from physical music formats to printed newspapers – become just that slightly bit less accessible. They must rely to a greater extent on a smaller pool of “proper fans” who will make the effort. That effort might be no more than walking to a more distant corner of the shop to pick up the daily that used to be stacked next to the till, but it is still an effort.

At the peak of cinema-going, masses of people went to cheap local picturehouses multiple times a week, often for double bills elongated by B-movies. Now, as Netflix has pointed out, many people don’t live near a cinema. And, since the pandemic, some people who once worked near the few that remain in city centers no longer do.

Whatever about the “casual movie fan”, when the producer of the Oscars says he wants to “connect with the casual moviegoer”, there’s nothing to say except good luck finding them. Even without virus hesitancy, the act of going to the cinema has become a big, special trip that demands planning.

The trick is to milk this change, not deny it.

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