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."
"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.
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."
"As Joss has always said, it's about world domination," Buchanan laughs. "You gotta pick your shot. We're like: 'Lucas? Done.'"
NONE OF WHICH MATTERS to the Browncoats who started standing in line 5:00 p.m. for the 10:00 p.m. screening. Publisher's Weekly dubbed this sort of gathering a "Nerd Prom," but the Serenity queue feels more like a Nerd High-School Reunion. The overwhelming suggestion is that this is where Star Wars fans go when they grow up. It's an older crowd, courtly and even genteel, many of them killing time in line with their PDAs. They make and sell their own bootleg merchandise with Universal's tacit, look-the-other-way approval. They use words like "menfolk."
So pleasant are the Browncoats that at the screening Sarah McKinlay--a woman wearing a floor-length dress and a vest inscribed with quotes from various Whedon shows--gives handwritten thank-you cards to the studio publicist and theater personnel. Handwritten thank-you cards. The studio flack, acclimated to the more, shall we say, adolescent behavior of other sci-fi fans, looked as though he might cry.
I later learn that Rick Bilyeu--a local courier and quite possibly the biggest Firefly fan in the whole wide world--stopped by the theater earlier in his white delivery van, which is plastered with two magnetic Serenity signs. (I made Rick, age 51, the star of a comic I drew for the Oregonian about the May 5 screening.)
Rick skipped the May 26 screening, telling me he wanted to "give another Browncoat a chance." Instead, he dropped by to show off his memorabilia collection, which includes a chunk of the Firefly set, a replica of Malcolm Reynolds' pistol, and a Firefly press kit re-assembled through multiple auctions.
Another member of the Serenity audience is Ted Hurliman, who works for the Northwest Film Center, which puts on the Portland International Film Festival. "I think there's something significantly wrong with Star Wars--not with the story, but with what it's done to the pop culture at large," Hurliman says. "Everyone I talk to who's loved [Revenge of the Sith] has said, 'Sure, the acting is bad. Sure, the whole Darth Vader screaming "NOOO!" was bad. But there were three good things.' So basically now, to make a good movie, you can have bad acting, you can have terrible sets--as long as you get one or two good things in there."
"Then I went, 'Wait. There's this new thing that's about to happen,'" he says. "I mean, Firefly didn't even have aliens. It had people making a living."
As Hurliman is talking, a fellow in an awkwardly made knit cap--a nod to a tuke worn by Jayne, one of the Firefly characters--takes the stage. He starts leading the auditorium in a halting sing-along of a folk ditty heard in an episode of the show:
He robbed from the rich and he gave to the poor!
Stood up to the Man and he gave him what for!
Our love for him now ain't hard to explain!
The Hero of Canton--the man they call Jayne!
Hurliman smiles as more and more fans join in on the song, mumbling like parishioners who can't find their hymnal page. As I wander around the auditorium, Browncoats--some of them suspecting I'm a studio flunky--walk up and offer me messages to pass along to Hollywood executives:
"All of us here are delighted that Universal had the wherewithal to move forward with this project."
"We're gonna take [Firefly] from the very bottom all the way to the very top."
"Fox made the most monumental mistake in its history by not taking advantage of this franchise."
That last one is debatable. Fox still controls Firefly's TV-broadcast rights--for which the Sci-Fi Channel just paid $450,000--and an enormous chunk of Serenity's success rests on Universal moving as many Fox DVDs as it can between now and September 30.
You see, even if Serenity bombs, Fox will have reaped some very tidy aftermarket revenue for a show they aired only 11 times. Without even lifting a finger.
SO HOW'S THE MOVIE? Well, despite a title that makes it sound like a Buddhist art film (and a logo that looks like a sign for a boutique candle store), Serenity is a harrowing, slightly dented Firefly series finale.
The film more or less wraps up the TV show's story arc about the psychic sister, River Tam--a crazy girl rescued by her brother Simon from a lab where government spooks poked needles in her brain. The crew is pursued by an eerily calm, sword-carrying assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Vast conspiracies are uncovered. Captain Reynolds takes a number of Harrison Ford-style beatings. There's a joke about "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Adam Baldwin turns in a hilarious, star-making performance as Jayne, a man so tough and stupid he cracks wise with a spear through his leg. The story is grim and quippy and should make sense, more or less, to non-fans.
But if the preview-screening audiences are any indication, anyone who has seen Firefly or cares about its characters will be knocked on his or her fanny by the final third, during which Whedon basically directs the movie like it's his last--heaping world-changing, Kobayashi Maru levels of abuse on his characters. It's a nervy, almost sadistic way to reward the long-suffering Browncoats--who were literally gasping and crying during the screening--but it also immediately removes the sense of fluffy-pillow safety that episodic television provides.
This strong cup of coffee is mitigated by the fact that, on a structural level, Serenity is also a self-referential valentine to its fans. By film's end, Reynolds and his crew are circumventing vast bureaucracies to broadcast a long-lost message, aided by a dork named "Mr. Universe" who basically surfs the Web from his own hidden planet. The metaphor for Firefly's own struggle--and its possible salvation, thanks to fans surfing the Web from their basements and office cubicles--is too blatant to be accidental. (The film's current tag line is the equally unsubtle "You Can't Stop the Signal.")
This love-letter quality--combined with the laughs, scares, and human moments missing from another notable science-fiction franchise--is probably enough to paper over the film's problems, some of which may be addressed in the editing room over the next few months anyway. A few characters get short shrift. Mr. Universe is deeply silly. A couple of post-traumatic emotional beats could be handled better. And our heroes fight cannibals driven mad at the edge of space who seem just a little too crazy to aim straight, much less pilot spaceships.
At any rate, it's a pretty bold, take-no-prisoners story to be throwing in front of your fans four months early. Whedon's got brass. As he says toward the end of his opening message: "If this movie matters to you, let somebody know. Let everybody know. Make yourselves heard.
"If you don't like the movie, this is a time for quiet, silent contemplation."
M.E. Russell is a writer and cartoonist in Portland, Oregon.