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The Browncoats Rise Again

The best sci-fi TV series you've never seen has gone from cancellation to the big screen. Will a never-tried marketing strategy work for "Serenity"?

12:00 AM, Jun 24, 2005 • By M.E. RUSSELL
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Portland, May 26, 10:00 p.m.
"HI, MY NAME IS JOSS WHEDON. Before we begin the special screening, I have a little story I want to tell you. It's about a TV show called Firefly."

I'm sitting in a movie theater in Portland and along with 200 other fans, I'm staring at a 20-foot-tall projection of the bleary, peanut-shaped head of Joss Whedon--creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; he's snarkily introducing Serenity--the partially-completed film we're about to watch. We're paying to see this unfinished movie four months before its release date. It's the second of three rounds of sold-out sneak-preview screenings, scheduled for May 5 and 26 and June 23 in major cities.

It's an unprecedented way to market a movie. But then, Serenity itself is unusual: It's a big-screen sequel to a canceled TV show named Firefly--a space-Western that was the biggest bomb of Whedon's producing career.

"Firefly went on the air two years ago," the giant Whedon continues, "and was immediately hailed by critics as one of the most canceled shows of the year."

Everyone laughs.

"It was ignored and abandoned, and the story should end there--but it doesn't. Because the people who made the show and the people who saw the show--which is, roughly, the same number of people--fell in love with it a little bit. Too much to let it go. . . . In Hollywood, people like that are called unrealistic, quixotic, obsessive. In my world, they're called 'Browncoats.'" (Firefly fans call themselves "Browncoats," for reasons I'll explain in a minute.)

"This movie should not exist," he continues. "Failed TV shows don't get made into major motion pictures--unless the creator, the cast, and the fans believe beyond reason. . . . It is, in an unprecedented sense, your movie.

"Which means, if it sucks, it's your fault."

WHEDON IS RIGHT: Serenity really does belong to its fans, who are now willing pawns in one of the stranger movie marketing campaigns ever devised.

You can read a tidy summation of the movie's TV incarnation, Firefly, here. Think of it as Star Wars, if Han Solo were the main character, and he still shot Greedo first.

In Firefly's case, the "galaxy far, far away" is a solar system humanity is colonizing after the Earth's demise. East and West have mingled to the degree that people dress like cowboys and curse in Chinese. The Han Solo character is Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion)--a smuggler who led a group of soldiers (called "Browncoats") on the losing side of a galactic civil war. And Reynolds' Millennium Falcon is the Serenity--a cargo ship that's home to nine bickering outlaws.

Of course, this premise could be loosely applied to any number of horrible rogues-on-a-spaceship entertainments--from Space Rangers to Andromeda to Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone to the pirate-crew supporting cast of Alien Resurrection (written, incidentally, by Whedon).

What made Firefly stand out was its odd, romantic characters and gutsy, strange writing. The dialogue tended to be a bizarre puree of wisecracks, old-timey Western-paperback patois, and snatches of Chinese. The stories were mostly simple genre exercises: train heists, double-crosses, duels at dawn, running from the law. And they allowed the crew--which included a fugitive doctor (Sean Maher), his psychic sister (Summer Glau), a missionary (Ron Glass), a cute mechanic (Jewel Staite), and a courtesan (Morena Baccarin)--to bump and occasionally grind against each other in amusing ways. The chemistry was irresistible.

And so, of course, the Fox network pulled the plug in 2002 after showing 11 of the 14 filmed episodes. The network even decided, in its infinite wisdom, to air the episodes out of order, so that the final broadcast was the two-hour pilot, which was, unfortunately, the episode which spelled out Firefly's rather elaborate concept.

As an afterthought, Fox released the 14 episodes on DVD and something surprising happened: The expensive boxed set sold somewhere north of 200,000 copies. On the strength of the DVD sales, Universal green-lit a small-budget movie, to be written and directed by Whedon.

MAKE NO MISTAKE: Budgeted at a mere $40 million, Serenity will almost certainly break even once box office, home-video, and other aftermarket revenues are counted--which means Universal can afford to use the film to beta-test a new way of selling movies.