Copyright-free blue hedgehog. Image courtesy of amayaeguizabal via pixabay.

How Sonic the Hedgehog changed the film industry

Let one think back to early May of 2019, when the internet was ablaze with radical reactions to the Sonic the Hedgehog movie trailer that bordered on mob mentality. While I did and still do not believe the famous, sarcastic character’s design to be all that disturbing (in terms of attempting a realistic tone by fusing the animated style of the original games and the physical anatomy of an actual hedgehog, I think the animators did as well as they could), the committed fans of the franchise reserve every right to voice their concerns over any detail they believe to work against the source material. Usually, backlash of this sort only results in a few changes in marketing and an eventual underperformance at the box office. This time, studio Paramount Pictures, in the boldest decision the filmmaking industry has seen in years, not only listened to the fans and allowed for a redesign, but they also provided more money and more time to the animators to do so. Sonic the Hedgehog may have just changed the way the film industry interacts with consumers.

Any standard adaptation often interprets any number of elements from its source material incorrectly, and video game movies are no exception; one might even call them the gold standard of poor adaptations. Movies such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Doom, and Super Mario Bros. are not only considered awful video game movies, but also some of the worst films ever made. All of this evidence highlights how much of a gamble producing a Sonic the Hedgehog film was going to be, especially with such a–let one put it as a “turbulent” fanbase. Instead of cowering in the shadows to minimize the potential backlash for creative or financial decisions regarding the endeavor, Paramount Pictures presented their adaptation to the world and proclaimed it to be all for the fans. This could have worked out from the beginning, given that any Sonic fan were consulted on the protagonist’s character design before continuing to the VFX stage of production. Still, one had to give credit where credit was due, since the effort undeniably existed.

The reaction by the internet then acted as the catalyst to solidify Paramount Pictures’ commitment to the fans: a total redesign and release delay. Typically, with larger studio films, changes only ever occur to pander to the largest audiences possible. Statistics have proven appeals to the lowest common denominator of audiences to be profitable due to the immense success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though other studios still struggle to follow suit because they do not possess the patience to build a reputation. After the disastrous release of Batman v. Superman, Warner Bros. has tried time and time again to make their films fun by completely interfering with the creative teams’ process through reshoots, rewrites, and even re-edits where half of the story material is disposed of directly into the garbage. Recalling the immense criticisms of Suicide Squad, Justice League, and the most recent Birds of Prey, one must see that reforming a movie takes more than some extra colors and a bad joke.

Although changes occur more and more rapidly with each new attempt at a franchise, the real problem lies in the general disregard of potential target demographics. In 2016, the fallout of the controversial Ghostbusters remake could have easily been avoided if Sony Pictures did not attack their target demographic, science-fiction nerds such as myself, after negative responses to the initial trailer’s tone and lack of distinct style. Would the film have become the blockbuster the studio hoped for, otherwise? Possibly, though slapping the label of a beloved 1980’s franchise on a modern studio comedy with almost no connection to the original story was not going to draw in much money, regardless of the quality. The main point 2016’s Ghostbusters unfortunately makes is that the customer is always right. Getting this message to the studios was another endeavor entirely, but Twitter, in a redeeming moment of triumph, provided the platform to do so. Whenever the internet mob decides its newest victim, rarely does one ever see actual, uniform complaints that stand out amongst the emotional, unfaltering chaos. Whether by some miracle or by pure chance (even a broken clock is right twice a day), Twitter finally came together to give two structured recommendations after the release of the first trailer: to change the de-
sign, as well as to not torture the animators in doing so. To follow suit, Paramount actually listened by delaying the film three months and adding an estimated five million dollars to the budget. When has such direct communication ever occurred between an audience and the company providing the entertainment? Not in recent decades, at the very least.

Regardless of whether the change came about by more direct communication, Paramount playing it safe as a smaller studio, or even just the care of director Jeff Fowler to make a faithful adaptation of the Sonic video games, the film’s substantial opening weekend of fifty-eight million dollars–with the potential to reach as high as a two-hundred million dollar total gross in North America–has proven that paying consumers care when studios actually listen to them. In a few years, Sonic the Hedgehog may be famous for more than just running fast and fueling meme content. He may be the symbolic leader of a permanent change in how the film industry treats its customers, and that is certainly worth a Twitter mob rising up every now and then.

Disclaimer: While the VFX studio responsible for the computer animation of Sonic the Hedgehog, Moving Picture Company, has closed down their Vancouver branch that produced a majority of the shots for the film, Paramount Pictures is not involved. The issue lies more in the treatment of VFX teams by their parent companies based on tax incentives and perceived expendability. The issues of the animation industry’s working conditions shall be discussed in a future article.

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