It’s 1973. Martin Scorsese’s iconic Taxi Driver is three years away from coming out. But a lesser-known Scorsese film has just been released, one that will become a cult classic over the next 50 years. Well, not exactly.
One year ago, the reemergence of a 2020 Tumblr post sparked a weeklong exercise in collaborative storytelling surrounding the non-existent film Goncharov: a Martin Scorsese spy thriller, featuring Russians, set in Italy. Told through fake analysis, fanart, gifsets, and staged photos of vintage promotional material, Goncharov quickly gained traction, soaring past a Tumblr audience familiar with these kinds of gags and right into the mainstream.
The story of Goncharov begins with a pair of shoes. One very long post explains the origin and full timeline of the meme as it developed, but the short(ish) version is this: an optical character recognition software misread the poster of the real film Gomorrah while a retailer was trying to source English-language text for a tag on a pair of knockoff boots. This mistranslation read: “The Greatest Mafia Movie Ever Made: Martin Scorsese Presents GONCHAROV.” A photo of the boots posted by their perplexed owner went viral after one Tumblr user added the sarcastic comment, “this idiot hasn’t seen goncharov.”
Popular both on Tumblr and as a screenshot on other sites from its origin, the meme skyrocketed in popularity when artist beelzeebub took inspiration from the title’s Russian etymology to design a movie poster. A basic plot quickly emerged, cementing the central characters of Goncharov, Andrey, and Katya (played by Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Cybill Shepherd, respectively). The full lore was collected in a Google Doc, detailing the many contributions across thousands of posts. Goncharov is more a collection of evocative scenery and vague descriptions than a well-connected storyline, the most popular elements being “the bridge scene,” “the clock tower scene,” and a man with an ice pick. There’s also a love triangle and multiple betrayals, and the titular Goncharov ultimately dies in the end. A fascinating kind of shared story was being told here, even if no one could really tell you exactly what that story was about.
Collaborative fiction has been commonplace in the SF/F space for many years in more traditional formats. In the 2019 epistolary novel This is How You Lose the Time War, Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar write alternating letters for the two main characters’ perspectives. The iconic Good Omens is a joint effort between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, who worked together so closely that Gaiman said: “By the end of it, neither of us was entirely certain who had written what.” The Mongoliad, a multimedia secret history series set during the Mongol conquests, is the creation of Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. The many stories comprising The Mongoliad were published between 2010 and 2012 through multiple iOS and Android apps. But it wasn’t just a few professional authors who contributed—fans could submit stories to Kindle Worlds, Amazon’s now-defunct fanfiction imprint. Most of these fans were previously published writers, however, and their works were specifically selected by the imprint, so not everyone could take part.
Other collective works are fully open to public contribution. One in particular has been dubbed the largest piece of collaborative fiction on the internet: the SCP Foundation. An abbreviation for “Secure, Contain, Protect,” the SCP wiki is a collaborative database of fictional paranormal occurrences. Despite thousands of submissions, the universe remains mostly cohesive. Even so, it’s become so large that the site admins put out a reading guide recommending how to approach the wiki, given that it goes back fifteen years and has no central storyline. The general content of the SCP Foundation is reminiscent of serialized paranormal fiction podcasts such as Welcome to Night Vale and The Magnus Archives. Reported phenomena are referred to as anomalies or “SCPs” themselves, and articles give in-depth descriptions of the phenomena, how they appear, how to approach them, and fake testimonies of people who have witnessed them. The site also hosts articles and blog entries about recent experiences and historical interactions with the anomalies for contributors who prefer a slightly more traditional fiction-writing approach. Being a piece of collaborative fiction definitely enhances the wiki’s subject matter—reported paranormal phenomena can occur anywhere in the world and be documented by anyone, adding to the plausibility of a far-reaching fictional organization.
Compared to the works previously mentioned, Goncharov is closest in format to an SCP Foundation speedrun. Within a week, a collection of many individual posts had laid out the main characters, the actors that played them, and certain key story elements, even if they weren’t always consistent and the overall plot remained ambiguous. While the storyline of the fictional movie does not follow the theme of secret societies so popular in other collaborative fiction, the phenomenon does fall into the related genre of alternate history. Goncharov posts are frequently tagged as “unreality.” A key feature of the meme is the collective lie that the film really does exist and was simply lost to time. At its inception, it seemed like everyone wanted to join in: “#goncharov” was trending on multiple sites for days, and Tumblr’s official Twitter account cooperated from the start. Actress Lynda Carter joked that she was at the premiere. The film was added to the review platform Letterboxd but quickly removed. As the phenomenon grew, Goncharov made its way to Tiktok, where Martin Scorcese’s daughter Francesca asked him about it. He acknowledged seeing the meme and played along himself, saying that he “made that film years ago,” bringing it all to a satisfying full-circle finale.
These interactions show that the point of Goncharov is not to create a perfect fictional universe. It is first and foremost a satire on media analysis and cultural critique. Fake discourse dominates Goncharov posts, in a style reminiscent of pretentious film critique as well as the numerous fan debates regularly found on Tumblr. Arguments center around the same subjects they frequently do for real media on the site, such as female characters being mischaracterized in favour of slash pairings between men. In this way, the real story of Goncharov is not a homoerotic spy thriller with motifs of clocks, bridges, and betrayal but a commentary on the desire to, ironically, create commentary.
Though most of Tumblr moved on after that whirlwind week in November 2022, some people came back to Goncharov for its one-year anniversary. While recent posts are mostly breaking the illusion to reminisce or discuss the phenomenon, a few continue to expand the lore. A peek into the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own reveals 700 works set in the Goncharov universe posted consistently throughout the past year (while the previously mentioned and critically acclaimed This Is How You Lose The Time War only has 88). The fake story clearly generated real fans, and the fake discourse, in turn, generated real discourse, as others noted that the meme’s popularity shows how Tumblr’s user base would latch on to white characters in a fake movie over characters of colour in a real one. At its core, Goncharov is collaborative storytelling in its rawest form: born from the desire to have fun, accessible to any and everyone who chooses to join in, and a revelatory amalgamation of the individual perspectives of its participants.