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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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Rough-draft versions of films--with temporary music, editing and "placeholder" special effects that look like Nintendo 64 screenshots--usually have a carefully controlled release only to tightly-monitored focus-group screenings. They're never shown repeatedly to their core audiences (paying core audiences, mind you) four months in advance of their official release dates. Nor do actors and producers attend these screenings with barnstorming vigor: But in Serenity's case, all the major cast members have made surprise appearances during the screenings--signing autographs and holding lengthy Q&A sessions afterwards.

At the May 26 showing in Portland, some significant studio brass were on hand. Universal Pictures marketing bigwig Julie Brantley and Serenity executive producer Chris Buchanan introduced the film and watched it from café chairs on the side of the auditorium. (Buchanan is so courtly towards the show's base that he still posts at the old Propsero Firefly Forum under the name "AffableChap".)

Buchanan explains the altruistic fan-screening strategy: After the film's release date was pushed from April to September--officially to make room for The Interpreter--Whedon asked Universal to set up screenings to reward Firefly fans. "We wanted to reach out to you guys, because you're why we're here," Buchanan says.

But it's altruism with side benefits. The screenings preempt the sort of negative buzz that can erupt in the wake of a scheduling change, since multiple showings of a work-in-progress prove that Whedon isn't hiding Serenity because of quality issues. And then there's word of mouth. As Buchanan says at one point, "Who's gonna tell their friends [about Serenity] more than the Browncoats?" After the screening, one fan asks Buchanan point-blank if he's worried about the previews cannibalizing an audience that now might not turn up in September. His answer is telling:

"We know you guys are gonna go September 30 to see the finished movie," he replies. "[Tonight's preview] was on 20 screens with--what, 250, 300 people per theater? So you're talking about maybe 5,000 people. But on an opening weekend of a movie, you're talking about 3,000 screens. We're not worried."

And even if the producers are worried, it's a calculated gamble. The June 23 wave of previews has been expanded to 35 cities--including a couple in Canada--but the movie has still only been seen by a small percentage of hard-core fans. So the screenings create the illusion of scarcity and keep the fan message boards alive by relieving pre-release suspense in little kettle-steam puffs. It creates all-new sub-hierarchies of fans with "I saw it before you did" bragging rights. It inspires free advertising in the form of entertainment-press stories (including, well, this one) about the "Browncoat phenomenon." And, best of all for Team Whedon, revenue from these screenings will very likely be applied to Serenity's opening-weekend gross.

The marketing plan rises to evil-genius levels when you realize all the ways the move from April to September pried open six months' worth of free-publicity for the entire Firefly/Serenity franchise. Since the fan screenings began, Firefly DVD sales have shot up the genre charts at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. In July, a Dark Horse Serenity comic book, written by Whedon, will hit shelves, and the Sci-Fi Channel will soon start broadcasting the 14 Firefly episodes--all of them, in order.

None of which cost Universal a dime.

There could be another hidden benefit of the September release: By the fall, some key competitors will be lying in their cinematic tombs. As Ain'tItCoolNews.com put it recently, "Most of the major geek franchises are rolling flaming across their finish lines. Star Trek just lolled off the air. Star Wars is migrating to TV. The Wachowskis reduced the Matrix audience to--what?--the Venn-diagram intersection of philosophy undergrads, S&M aficionados, wuxia geeks, and wankers in denial? And the rights to The Hobbit are currently being pried apart by the jackals of finance."