Two of my favorite films this year from the Film festival are documentaries with many parallels. The first, We Are Wizards, takes a look at the subculture of hardcore fans of the enormously popular Harry Potter book series, mainly the ones who create their own new content in the form of themed bands or blogs. The other film, Second Skin, follows the stories of a group of people obsessed with Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft and Everquest.
I’m not as much interested in writing reviews of these films, although both were excellently made and produced. I do find it interesting that the people in We Are Wizards were shown to be highly creative, working within the world that author J.K. Rowling created. The people in Second Skin, on the other hand, were shown to have more of a true addiction, where isolation, weight gain and loss of family and friends were all symptoms.
But what intrigued me the most, and why I think these films have an interesting connection to corporate branding, is a little vignette from We Are Wizards. Heather Lawver, a 16-year-old, created a fan website called The Daily Prophet. She then received a letter from Warner Bros, who owns the rights to the Harry Potter franchise, making it quite clear that it was doing what it could to shut her site down because it infringed on its intellectual property. So Heather became part of Potterwar.org (the site is now gone, but the manifesto still exists) calling on a ban of all things Harry Potter, save for the original books. Heather was one of many people, many of them children, who all had Harry Potter fan sites that were served legal papers. Potterwar garned enough signatures over time to force Warner to drop most of the challenges. But the fact still remains that Warner Bros is very, very protective of all aspects of the Harry Potter brand.
Contrast that with a company like Blizzard, makers of World of Warcraft. They arguably have just as rabid (if not more rabid) fans and all the similar fan extensions you find with Harry Potter – the blogs, the conventions, the forums. But you never hear a peep from Blizzard in any way, fighting to protect their intellectual property.
Obviously, part of it might have to do with money. Advertising Age estimates the Harry Potter brand to be worth about 15 billion dollars. Blizzard made 1.1 billion dollars last year, largely from sales of WOW. But I think the main fundamental difference is what Brian Oberkirch alluded to in our Advertising Anarchy interview about companies of the web as opposed to those merely on it. Warner Bros., despite their web presences, is still a traditional media company. Blizzard’s entire income almost comes exclusively from a made-for-web game. Blizzard’s intellectual property is more of the framework, rather than the meat– that’s because it’s the users of the game who create their characters, names and adventures.
There are plenty of arguments (some successful, some not) about the healthiness of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. But no one can argue that companies like Blizzard don’t understand, and respect, their most rabid fans.