Serenity – An exercise in modern marketing

In 2002, a TV show called Firefly made an unassuming half-season run on Fox.

Created by Joss Whedon, the mind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Firefly was based on an interesting premise – Science Fiction meets The Old West, with starships and cowboys, horses and laser pistols, cattle rustling and high-tech heists.

The show told the tale of the crew of the Firefly class transport ship, ‘Serenity’, named after the Valley where the last, worst, most bloody battle of a civil war had taken place a few years previously. The captain of the ship, Mal Reynolds, was present at that battle, and was on the losing side. His crew, a rag-tag group of misfits with their own secrets and motivations, were colorful, interesting, and not always the best of friends.

Grittier than Star Trek, better written than Star Wars, Firefly worked. The dialog was witty, the language was old world meets new. Even the swearing was in Chinese.

Episodes were built around a developing story arc. A young girl, rescued from a mysterious government experiment by her older brother, found protection on board Serenity, under the wing of the captain, and were being chased by the government, bounty hunters and sinister agents wielding horrifying weapons. Along the way, there was honest crime to be done, and even at his worst moments, the Captain was still a Robin Hood type, moral, honorable, and even heroic at times.

The Fire Goes Out
After 11 episodes, the show was cancelled. There are many reasons why this occurred. The show had low ratings. It was aired at 8pm on Friday nights, a traditionally bad spot. Fox showed the episodes out of order, not even airing the pilot until after they cancelled the show. Sporting events pre-empted Firefly time and again, making it even more difficult to follow the story line. Realistically, it hadn’t a chance.

It was pretty clear that the show was in trouble fairly early on. Fans mobilized quickly, forming websites to promote Firefly, and creating online communities dedicated to its support. These fans, calling themselves ‘Browncoats’ after the freedom-loving independents who lost the war in the show, worked hard to promote the show long before it was cancelled. And, long after, too.

A New Hope
A year or so later, in December 2003, the series was released on DVD. This included 3 episodes that were never aired. Since its release, the DVD has sold over half a million copies, and has been an outstanding commercial success in that format. This did not go unnoticed by Hollywood. Browncoats unwaveringly promoted the DVDs upon release, coining the term ‘conversion set’, where many would buy two copies of the DVD boxed set – one for themselves, and one that would be on perma-loan, circulating amongst friends, family and co-workers, in an ongoing attempt to bring others into the fold.

Despite the cancellation of Firefly, Whedon worked hard to shop the show concept around to other TV studios, without any success. Universal Studios, however, was very interested in reviving the concept as a movie, and in March 2004, the studio announced that production on ‘Serenity’ would begin.

Originally slated for an April release in 2005, the movie was pushed back to Fall, in order not to compete with the big blockbusters such as Star Wars. Instead, more time was taken refining the movie, and a number of exclusive pre-screenings were held across the country.

Tickets for these pre-screenings were only available via the official movie website, and were sold within minutes. Scalpers sold some tickets on eBay for hundreds of dollars. People would offer similar amounts of money to those attending the pre-screenings, while in line, to get a ticket.

Released on September 30th 2005, Serenity is the movie that Firefly fans always hoped they’d see. Set six months after the events in the TV show, the show picks up and carries on at a breakneck speed. Beloved characters are put through hell during the two hours of the movie, and on the other side of this rollercoaster ride are answers, some closure, and the feeling that ‘if the show was this good, why did it get cancelled?’

Online Marketing
To get from cancelled TV show to successful Hollywood movie is a strange and unlikely path. It involved both the fan-base and the studio interacting in what could be considered a new way.

Joss Whedon and the actors of Serenity are active participants in the online fan communities. It’s not uncommon to see threads on message boards started by Whedon, and his connection to his fan base is clear. Everyone involved in the movie knows how hard the fans have worked to get the word out, and they are genuinely appreciative.

Shortly after the release of Serenity, in an attempt to open up the market, Universal made the first 9 minutes of the movie available online, for free. This unprecedented move was yet another example of how Universal is taking chances and breaking new ground in marketing.

Did it work?
It’s difficult to rate success. Critically, Serenity has been well received, with many comparing it favorably to the original Star Wars movies. Many see it as a fresh look at Science Fiction.

Financially, the movie has not made the money that many Browncoats were expecting. There are many factors for this, all of which are being deeply analyzed on discussion forums. Never has a fan base been so well informed, so well educated about box-office economics. Daily ticket sales have been reported, and carefully considered. The fans have discussed how to market the movie at every stage, producing home-made promotional materials, and paying for multiple tickets at each showing, often giving spare tickets away to people waiting in line for another movie. Eventually, with DVD sales, the movie will make a profit, but it remains to be seen if a sequel will follow.

Fans have been happy to be part of the marketing force for Universal, saving them unknown dollars as they circulate DVDs, developed endless unofficial websites and generally hyped the movie and the show in ways that, frankly, marketing dollars couldn’t buy.

Regardless of its financial success, the movie Serenity has been a critical hit, and salved the aching wounds left by Firefly’s departure for many fans. Of course, Browncoats are seldom happy with what they’ve got, always wanting more.

But the one thing that must come from this experience is the knowledge that fans can often get what they truly want. The power of the individual is one thing – but en mass, the Browncoats made their mark, and were both heard and utilized by a major film studio. Getting a cancelled TV show made into a movie is no small achievement, after all.

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