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July 14 2006

Why do you think Serenity failed at the box office? Alex Epstein attempts to answer that reader question on his popular screenwriting blog, Complications Ensue.

The real complication in his opening is this: Anecdotally, the vast majority of non-Browncoats who did actually see Serenity enjoyed it and understood it. So the things he pegs in his opening two paragraphs don't actually stand up to the only evidence we have, which is the anecdotal evidence of reports on non-Browncoat filmgoers.

The issue, as many of us have repeated ad nauseum, wasn't whether people would enjoy it. It was whether they would walk into the theater in the first place.
Um, here's the thing. I'm a scientist, and I have done survey research, and when someone, like say theonetruebix citing the writer, says that anecodtally the vast majority of non-browncoats enjoyed the movie, on what basis can that statement be made. Is there an anecdote that covers all of those non-browncoat viewers, of which there had to be millions? Or what? This is not a supportable statement by any meaningful standard- and I should note that I certainly believe that the vast majority of people who saw the film enjoyed- I just have no way to prove it.

But people did not turn out in droves for it.

So here we go again. The same arguments made before will be made again. It was poor marketing; it was that people did not know the characters, it was that it really did do well, it was lack of big-name stars, it was whatever it was. It just was. Who knows in these days of focus groups why a Blair Witch hits and Serenity does not. If we did, Serenity would have hit.
I believe the way Serenity was marketed was the main reason it failed to do better at the box office. As soon as they said "from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer" they lost a lot of the hardcore sci-fi viewers. Everyone here knows how great Joss' shows are, but many others in this world don't and so it became a Buffy/Angel/Firefly "geek" thing to see. Hopefully the rest will discover it on DVD.
Notice on the links on the left Jane Espenson's writing/lunch extravaganza is the first website. The man is clearly cool.
The new thing for me in Alex's post is his criticism that the script is episodic; I hadn't really thought to consider it that way. To me, the script felt like it had a pretty natural build (the exception being Mr. Universe, who kind of "came from nowhere" for me), but I wonder if that's because we're getting answers to riddles that go all the way back to the series and so the continuity threads are much longer for fans of Firefly. Makes me want to dig out the Serenity companion and start looking at where the act breaks might be... anyway I should have been clearer in my description that the aesthetic food for thought was what I found interesting about Alex's comments, not the box office analysis per se.
Oh, and re Jona's comments - I enjoy the heck out of Alex's blog for many of the same reasons I like Jane's blog. They are both very down to earth, practical guides to aspects of screenwriting. Alex's book on writing for TV is excellent.
Dana, that's precisely why I issued as many caveats in my post as I could, in that all we have is anecdotal evidence. The point was that it we're even going to attempt to draw conclusions, it has to be based on evidence. All we have is anecdotal evidence. It's up to you or anyone else to determine whether or not that evidence is enough to actually draw any conclusions.

But the point was that the author of the linked piece used no evidence at all, not even the incomplete anecdotal evidence.
Oh, it was a horrible ad campaign, no doubt about it. I seem to recall a glib-sounding narrator grinning his way through some lines about "there's something weird on the spaceship Serenity!" and a jumble of River action shots and a couple out of context Mal one-liners, so your average joe sixpack would assume the thing was...well...joe really was left out in the cold as far as figuring out what he was supposed to be excited about. It almost came off as some sci-fi comedy. Not saying I'd have the perfect edit, but I could've done better than the Universal cats did. They also made little to no use of many, many great critical quotes; by the time those quotes hit papers nation/worldwide, they'd pretty much stopped pumping money into the campaign at all and were focused on that fine DVD cover. Mm hm.

I also think pushing the release date back may have hurt it. Sith was a downer (I won't go into its relative lack of merits otherwise) and seemed to cast a pall over the whole summer slate of action flicks, so by the time Serenity hit I don't believe anyone who wasn't already interested wanted to go see more stuff blow up. If it had done its initial run in April, maybe even March, I think it could have cashed in on geek nation gearing up for the Star Wars thing. Anyhoo, just a theory--one that's been worked over countless times around here already, I'm sure. Movie still rocks, that's all that's important to me.
Dana5140, I suspect that the anecdotal evidence on Serenity is more meaningful than it would be in the case of most movies because the movie didn't reach a wide audience, and a significant number of those non-Firefly fans who attended got the word from fans, or were physically dragged to the theater by fans, who subsequently solicited their responses in almost every case. That's unprovable too, of course, and doesn't effect the validity of your main point.
Dana5140, what has science ever done for us?

The Blair Witch Project had a big hook. I remember when it first came out my friend's older sister asked me if it was actual found footage. I told her that if it was, it wouldn't be made into a movie. But it got people talking, even if they didn't know what they were talking about.

Did Serenity have a hook? Sure, it was based on a cancelled TV show. That doesn't happen and that makes Joss mighty. But a BDM based on a TV show most people never saw isn't exactly a good hook.
I think betwixt hits the nail on the head, to be honest: movies nowadays (and, you know, in the past) have done well where there's been a big hook. Serenity had a huge amount of genres, a hot cast and all that joy - but it didn't scream "I need to see this to talk about it", or have an A lister, or that kind of joy. Brokeback, Pirates, The Matrix - some people were surprised about the success of those films. I wasn't.

Nowadays, the box office on average is underperforming, but big hook movies (sequels etc) are making up for that because those movies are drawing people away from their home cinemas to THE cinema.

Ultimately, the reason Serenity didn't do as well as I'd have pinned is this - people didn't go to see it. It's that simple. I believe Universal tried the best with the knowledge they had (which is vastly more than ours) of marketing, but when you have an incredibly well made and diverse film, you are going to struggle to find points of mass interest.

Out of all the bitching I've seen done online about Serenity's marketing campaign -- and I've read a lot -- I've never seen a single idea posted which would have massively changed the odds. Fan made trailers, posters - many have been great, but I don't think they would have altered things.

If a company appears which could launch something like Serenity into something huge, that company is going to make a lot of money -- and so they should.

That said, Serenity could have done much worse. One of the estimates I saw for opening weekend was $5m in the US. At the end of the day, Universal will make their money back, I doubt anybody involved is crying into their beer (Nathan does that anyway, yo) -- it's a (big) shame it didn't launch into a sequel franchise.

The hook thing isn't a slate of Joss. He could have written a blantantly anti-government film where Miranda is right at the beginning, and it would have lead to some fantastic adverts, but at the end of the day the movie is what it is, and I wouldn't change it for the world. Mainly because I suck.

[ edited by gossi on 2006-07-14 20:07 ]
Out of all the bitching I've seen done online about Serenity's marketing campaign -- and I've read a lot -- I've never seen a single idea posted which would have massively changed the odds.

Well, my own bitching wasn't so much about the nature of the marketing as the extent of it. To take television advertising as the example, I continue to maintain, and believe, that placing a scattered smattering of very brief (in most cases only 15-second) ads the week after opening was the equivalent to not placing any ads the week after opening at all, because 15 seconds is barely enough time for anyone to notice an ad has just aired, let alone register what it was for, or provide enough time to barrage the viewer with the overwhelmingly positive review quotes. And the relatively few number of even these too-short ads was not enough for any viewer to make the important mental connection of, "Oh, THIS is that thing I was seeing ads for EVERYWHERE two weeks ago. Wow, it's getting GREAT reviews."

So, for me, I didn't have a problem with the nature or content of Versal's marketing so much as the amount of it.
I think Universal Pictures did a disservice to TWO well-reviewed and well-made films by releasing them on dates that was meant for the other.

The two films are Serenity (Sept. 30) and Land of the Dead (June 24). How much sense would it have been to just switch the two? An action-adventure in the summer? A horror film a month away from Halloween? It was almost like a no brainer.

Granted Serenity probably would've had more pressure in terms of raking in more money and also for the quicker completion of the movie. But at least for me, it would have been much easier to convince my friends to see the movie if it was the dead of summer and not a month after school starts.

Then there's Land of the Dead which was a good movie and was the highest rated horror movie in Rottentomatoes.com (74%!) for 2005. None of the other horror films even reached 55%. Now, remember last year when everyone and their mother were all about the horror films and how they're almost guaranteed box office success stories? Well it's sad that apparently that only applies to HORRIBLE horror films.

Sure hindsight is 20/20 but I do wonder how both of these movies would have been affected if their release dates were switched. What do you all think?
As soon as they said "from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer" they lost a lot of the hardcore sci-fi viewers.

I think even more than that, what that statement did was not GAIN viewers. Most people that I talked to gave me a flat out BLANK stare when they heard those words. We all love Joss, but we're just a small slice of the whole movie going public. The majority simply haven't heard or don't care who Joss is. I think that's slowly changing as his rep builds, but like betwixt said, it's not a good hook at this point for anyone not already in the Joss universe.

[ edited by Grace on 2006-07-14 20:35 ]
Science has given us green fizzies, betwixt. And what could be better than that? It's also helped to eradicate diseases, lengthen lives, and so on, but that pales before the import of a good green fizzie. :-)

theonetruebix- yes, I was, or thought I was, being careful to note that you were citing the author, not that you were citing your own beliefs- sorry if that was not clearer. And BTW, here in Davenport, IA, you cannot be theonetruebix, as Bix is ours, heart and soul- Bix Beiderbecke, that is, who was born here and is buried here (just a mile from my home) and for whom we have a major running race called The Bix- 7 miles, brings in some of the world's best. Just had to say.

Anyway, my own feeling, which I have stated before, is that a combination of less then the best marketing, coupled with the challenge of writing a film to appeal to the fan and the non-fan, coupled with a tougher market for space flics, coupled with no big name stars, coupled with the fact that the TV show had arcs that needed closure that some would get and others not, coupled with the fact that some of the most interesting characters were relegated to small roles, coupled with a few deaths of said characters, all combined to limit intierest.

There was one good choice, though- and that was to use that iconic image of River up in the sky well during her escape- that was a good piece of promotional work there.
You know, they only ever used the reference to Joss being the creator of Buffy once, in the original teaser trailer. To my recollection, in the US, they never used it again when promoting the movie.

Meanwhile, technically I can get away with The One True without offending the jazz world because what follows is b!X not Bix -- it's just that when creating usernames and logins I usually can't use the ! so I've just standardized them all into letters. ;)
With regards to the Buffy thing - the only location (as far as I know) they extensively used the 'creator of Buffy' thing (including in the TV spots and all paid magazine and posters) was the UK. And the UK performed best with the movie.

So, make of that what you will. That said, Buffy was averaging, what, about 4 or 5 million viewers a week in the UK, which is pretty good - that's bigger than the amount of viewers it had in the entire of the United States.

In the UK, Joss got the chance to do MTV, UK teens TV in the morning, adult TV in the evening, loads of radio interviews - and they all mentioned Buffy. It was the hook here.

[ edited by gossi on 2006-07-14 21:43 ]
As I'm sure most of you already know, Alex Epstein's book on screenwriting is rife with Joss, Buffy, Angel, and Firefly references. It's also a fun read.

I appreciated his reverence for Joss, but found some of his analyses (especially of The Body) somewhat cursory and, well, just plain wrong.
He definitely has a brisk style in the book, which I could see being interpreted as cursory. But nothing struck me as wrong... what did you disagree with re The Body?
"Science has given us green fizzies, betwixt. And what could be better than that? It's also helped to eradicate diseases, lengthen lives, and so on, but that pales before the import of a good green fizzie. :-)"

I stand corrected. You're not biased though, are you? As a scientist, I mean.
Me? Oh, sure I am! check it out: w3.palmer.edu/lawrence

REally- I do science for a living. :-) But get depressed a lot, but won't go there- since it bashes things like governmental administrations. :-)

Anyway, onetruebix, cool- we likes our Bix here. But not our B!x...

And what is the reference for that screenwriting book and what did he say about The Body- I ask because I think that was the best hour ever put on TV.
The book is called Crafty TV Writing and as the commenter above mentions, there are liberal uses of Whedonverse episodes as examples. My copy is loaned out or I would dig up that reference re The Body myself, 'cuz I don't seem to recall any issues with any of his examples.
Well, I dont know, I found Firefly from Serenity and they were both really good. The thing you gotta understand is that in our society the hook really is more important than anyone realizes. As said above, I wouldnt have bothered to pay attention unless a friend told me about how good Serenity was, so in that sense, it had no hook. And I think the big thing was that it had no stand out star. Its just like popular music, it needs that chorus line or beat that gets people interested for it to be a huge hit, and with something like Serenity, you really did need a big star. For instance, this may be controversial but the writing wasnt what made Buffy a success (the writing is what made it so wonderful) but what made it a success was the star power behind the show--that was the shows hook--SMG. People tuned in to see her, and they stuck around because the show was so well written and the stories were excellent (because really, very few 14 year old girls are going to tune in for good writing--they are going to tune in for SMG or the hook of other things). Unfortunately, people dont tune in for good writing (becuase if they did, Firefly, Sports Night, Ed, and Scrubs would all be super hits) they tune in for the musical hook in the form of a star. Serenity's big failing, IMO, wasnt the ad campaign, it was that it didnt have that hook that brought the casual fan into the theatre, whether that be star power or a built in fan base like Superman or Batman. See, you can do movies with unknown actors if the concept is the hook--think Brandon Routh and Superman--but you cant do movies with unknown actors if the concept isnt the hook. To me, that was the biggest problem.
This is very odd, jerryst3161, but I actually disagree- I honestly think people stuck around to watch Buffy not because of SMG- and I think she did a wonderful job as Buffy- but because of Willow. I think people admired Buffy, but empathized and identified with Willow- Willow was the secret weapon of Buffy. Not that this diminishes the point you are making.
I would have to disagree. Buffy's story was the whole point of the show. From beginning to end. Every emotion was run through her life. Willow was a good sidekick, but that's about it. I never identified or even really cared much about her story. And in the end actually had a huge dislike. Not like Buffy. And Smg is Buffy. She was the reason why so many people even noticed Buffy to begin with in it's first season.

Jerry I agree with the points you made on why the movie was not a hit.
When it comes to the fandom of Buffy, I think it's the most diverse and interesting (although admittedly sometimes scary and frustrating) fandoms Ive seen in a while. You not only have the dichotomy between seasons 1-5 and seasons 6-7 but you also have differences like Bangel v Spuffy, hard-core v simple fan, and fans from the beginning and fans from the final seasons. There are others of course, and there are some fans that cannot be placed into one of those categories, but the majority can be categorized into some form of that division I think. One of those divisions is between those who see Buffy as an ensemble cast and those who see Buffy as SMG plus some other actors, and thats an important distinction to make. I think everyone on here would say that BTVS was clearly an ensemble show where everyone was great in their respective parts but there are many others (and I would argue more) who will say that SMG was fantastic as Buffy, that the show revolved around her, and that the other actors were window-dressing (like it or not). What does that mean? Well it means two things: one, I dont think it was Willow that kept people there because no matter how hot or good the hook is (SMG) people dont stick around if the story isnt there, and two, Serenity severly lacked this idea.

To the first argument, the best example I have is Dark Angel: its my belief that many people tuned in because of Jessica Alba (Sad to say that I was one of them) but that show failed after two seasons because the story wasnt there, and no matter how hot or talented she was at some point that hook isnt going to keep people there. In that sense, it cant be Willow that kept people watching because if that was simply the case the show would have gone the way of Dark Angel. It had to be good story and well thought out writing that gave the actors something incredible to work with, and when you consider that SMG became the star from the show, I think its more about Buffy and the writing than any of the support characters. Of course, without those characters there is the analogy that Buffy wouldnt have survived as long as she did without Willow, Xander, and Giles, and I think you can say the same about the show--without great supporting characters and writing that made them so great that the show itself wouldnt have lasted as long (think about that comparison and it does make sense).

For the second part, Serenity severly lacked that main character where all the supporting characters could be discovered, where fans could discover the writing, and where the hook can draw in the casual fan. Serenity had plenty of Willows but it did not have a Buffy--and thats the big problem.

ETA: Think about the advertising for Serenity, River is featured in alot of it, and I think thats all about the studio trying to make a Buffy within Serenity itself. But at that point in the story, whether River can truly kill that many reavers and fight like that, she isnt the Buffy of Firefly and Serenity. At its best, Serenity is an ensemble show, but if you want to make a Buffy out of that, then I think Mal is the one you have to do that too. And not to sound crass, but Nathon Fillion isnt going to do that--no matter how good an actor he may be.

[ edited by jerryst3161 on 2006-07-15 03:51 ]
I thought it was just a dumb action flick, I didn't like it - but then never called myself a Browncoat.
you dont need a hook to market a movie.

****cough snakesonaplane cough****
The hook of snakes on a plane is snakes on a plane. End of that story.

I like the description of our fandom, and I do not mean to imply that Buffy could have survived without good writing; good writing is what made Buffy what it was- in part. Without good actors, the show would have floundered. I believe, quite firmly, that we identified far more with Willow than any other character; this is what made her story arcs so compelling. We cared for Buffy, but because she was a superhero, we could not identify with her-= no matter how clear the metaphors that were in play. Buffy, in academic Buffyland, is often a means to an end- a means to discuss many issues, but often, Willow is the end.

In passing, I count myself as a person who liked S1-5 much more than 6-7, felt the ensemble was important, and really didn't much care for ranking Spuffy or Bangel, since Willow and Tara were the prime directive for me. :-)
I'm coming in a bit late, but I wanted to say that I disagreed with Mr. Epstein when he said that the reason the film did poorly was that it was like 4 TV eps, and that " Joss's cast of TV actors didn't exactly ignite the screen. They just didn't feel larger than life." First of all, obviously I disagree with his opinion of the acting -- our BDHs kicked a**! But I would offer as "evidence" (here you go, Dana5140) the dozens and dozens of positive reviews. Since the reviews praised the performances, and the word of mouth was good, too, I don't think it could be true to say that "people stayed away because they heard the acting 'didn't exactly ignite the screen.'" I also disagree that any perception that it was "4 eps" kept people away, because, again, that wasn't the buzz at the time!

I think theonetrueb!X (got your back, Dana, b!X and Davenport ;-)) and betwixt got it right, rather than Mr. Epstein.
Scotto & Dana:

Epstein does a nice job of analyzing the frustration Buffy encounters when Joyce's death is not supernatural, but he later says "Buffy duking it out with a vampire in the hopsital morgue seems an afterthought."

The purpose of the vampire in the morgue with Joyce's corpse was juxtaposition: viewers (and Buffy) had been so used to seeing enemies crumble to dust, that when somebody they loved left a body behind, the gang felt a sharp contrast... especially Anya who wondered why "she couldn't just get back in it.

It's my opinion that Mr. Epstein trivialized an important element of the best hour of television. Ever.

But that's just one small mistake; the book is still excellent.
I've not read Mr Epstein's book but I have always found the vampire fight at the end of "The Body" an unnecessary element that does not add anything to the episode. I found the reality of Joyce's mother's death and the lack of the supernatural around it well contrasted to the normal events of the show without throwing in meaningless vampire attack at the end.

Getting back to the issue of "Serenity" and it's commercial failure. For those of us who tried "Firefly" when it was on TV and didn't really like it there was no reason to want to see it as a movie. I think the fact that every review harked back to the series did put some people off too even when reviews said it was easy to pick up. That and the lack of a big star name or an easily summed up plot I think certainly hurt its chances at the box office.
I'm coming in late to the conversation as well, but since we were talking about the shoddy marketing, in my own view, of Serenity, what STILL irks me (besides that god-awful DVD cover) is the lack of our BDHs on any of the late night shows. I think an appearance or two could have made a difference.
Agreeing that appearances of some of Serenity's actors on late night American TV shows would have helped the movie generate buzz and gather momentum. I check in with Jay and Conan almost every night (chronic insomniac, me) to see the guests, especially if it's someone connected with an upcoming project/album/
movie I've either read about or seen mentioned online somewhere. In the course of watching for what drew me to the show in the first place, I also find out about a lot of stuff that I might otherwise have missed. I'm sure a lot of night owls out there would have stumbled upon Serenity in the same way I found out about Bill Hicks and Solomon Burke, if they'd had the opportunity.

And I can't accept that it's because the actors of Serenity simply weren't well known enough. Many of the people on these late night programs aren't high profile in any real sense of the word -- they're 60-year-old female wrestlers, or they wrangle strange critters ... and sometimes they're total non-celebrities who are known only for appearing in a 20 second viral video before disappearing back into obscurity.

If someone can make it onto national television for filming themselves playing a guitar version of the show's opening theme (which happened on Conan about a month ago), I have to wonder why on earth Nathan Fillion's agent (for example) couldn't get him a 10 minute slot before the movie came out? Did his representa-
tion just not even try? Or did they make the offer for him to appear and get rebuffed? In the weeks leading up to Serenity's release, I fully expected to see several of Joss's people out there talking up the movie, and when it didn't happen I was in complete disbelief.

Interviews on US late night broadcast TV tend to be more interesting because the hosts aren't as constrained by FCC issues and they let the guests cut loose. Weirdness can and therefore often does ensue, which makes it even more egregious that Joss's smart, pretty, witty actors were overlooked.

I guess now I'm waiting for the day when Conan turns to Joss and says, "Now, set this clip up for us, Joss. What are we about to see?" and Joss says, "A woman kicking ass." Story of his life. ;)
Dana5140 - I lived in Davenport in the early 90s and my father did a portrait of the infamous Bix for the historical society whilst the whole family resided there. I lived on Locust, most of the way to Bettendorf.
I don't know. Someone who uses the word "ignite" twice within five lines in a to-be-published text doesn't exactly, er, ignite my trust in his writing skills. Nor the attention he puts into reviewing something, wheather created by himself or by someone else. (Which may say bad things about my ability to be patient, but there you are ...)
Clearly for the movie to be a box office success it should have focused on the crew of Serenity as funny space pirates with a big jolly roger painted on the side of the ship, they should have had to dig up the secret on Miranda in a buried treasure chest and the operative should have had a face full of tentacles, cause you know thats what people want to see.
I believe, quite firmly, that we identified far more with Willow than any other character; this is what made her story arcs so compelling. We cared for Buffy, but because she was a superhero, we could not identify with her - no matter how clear the metaphors that were in play. Buffy, in academic Buffyland, is often a means to an end- a means to discuss many issues, but often, Willow is the end.


This might be true and it does sound very plausible, but for myself I'd have to say I always identified most strongly with Buffy... and it was as 'Buffy' not as the 'Slayer', from S1 onwards.

jerryst33161, I like the points you make about Buffy / Dark Angel / Serenity. I suspect this does have something to do with it. I must admit, I'm coming to this from a slightly different angle because I never really took to 'Serenity'. I watched it three times in the end (once on DVD) but it never clicked with me for some reason. Am I speaking words of treason if I admit to not liking the Mal character very much, something that probably affected my opinion of the TV show and film?

In terms of its box office "failure", this is primarily a comparison to the production budget. Had it been possible to make the film for $15 million (the estimated budget of Richard Kelly's possibly over-ambitious 'Southland Tales') it would have been a very different story. The actual box office gross itself was certainly no disgrace. I tend to think the size of the audience for the film was grossly over-estimated in the first place.

As to the advertising, I can only comment about what happened here in Britain. The TV ads and cinema trailers I saw would never have convinced me to see the film had I not already known what it was. In truth, it just isn't my kind of thing, but I thought the TV ads were somewhat counter-productive. I never came across any of the giant advertising posters displayed in the London Underground stations.

I don't think the myriad of postive reviews in newspapers and magazines made much difference. If anything, they might have put some general cinemagoers off with their occasionally slightly condescending "intelligent Star Wars" tone.
I'll just chip something back in:

I think Serenity is a really great movie.

There were some obvious things they could have done to make it more commericially successful: lowered the age rating, removed the backstory, recast some of the actors as named stars, cut the amount of characters to limit backstory (take Inara out, make it less confusing), put Densel Washington on every talk show and on Big Macs... Add a nice CGI character for kids, too.

And, yep, it would have taken more money.

But. They would have increased the production and marketing costs, which means it has to take more, and you know - it wouldn't have been Serenity. It would have been a commericial space franchise, the McFilm for the family. I'm okay with McFilm's, but I think the point of Firefly all along was it wasn't Fast Lane - it wasn't junk - so the film should have resembled that idea. And it did.

Of course, I am still bitter that there isn't an easier way to make a movie a hit, as I wanted more of that story. And I think I'm still very bitter about the TV show thing. Please give me more lines like this, world;

BOOK
I think we'll get her on the ground safely enough

MAL
God tell you that? 'Cause he's a terrible one for lies.
(to Kaylee)
My ship don't crash. If she crashes, you crashed her.

KAYLEE
Well, you could help me out, captain...

MAL
What. How.

KAYLEE
The cord wrench over there?

MAL
Yeah?

KAYLEE
Do this --

She mimes hitting herself in the head repeatedly --

KAYLEE
(continuing)
-- a few times? Maybe four?

MAL
(grins)
You're my peach, Kaylee. Don't make us die.
I so agree with Wiseblood about not seeing our BDH on the TV talk show circuit. At a convention I saw Nathan Fillion - I know that if I saw him on a talk show talking about Serenity, I would have been interested in seeing that movie because of him. He is so charming, has such great energy, and pride in the movie and his role - he would have sold many tickets.

I can only talk for me, but if someone makes an impression on a talk show (TV or radio) I remember them and their project, and make an effort to see their work. There must be many more like me in this respect.

I feel the rest of the cast would also sell seats - if they were actually on these shows.

I never understood not seeing the actors doing talk and radio shows to promote the movies.
Just a bit of anecdotal, so not a real weigh-in on the subject. I loved "Serenity" and after seeing it, then went back and bought & watched all the "Firefly" episodes -- this after being a "Buffy" fan for the whole run of the show. Somehow I didn't initially take to "Firefly" -- although now, after watching them in the order Joss intended them to be seen, I better understand why that was.

But the coolest experience I had was seeing "Serenity" with my partner of 14 years. He never really got on board the "Buffy" train, didn't cotton to Angel, didn't care if we watched "Firefly." We went to see "Serenity" together because I insisted, and it was, at that point, because I wanted to support a Joss venture, and not because I was all that gung-ho.

I loved it -- couldn't take my eyes off it -- and couldn't believe those characters hadn't really interested me before. But the best part was my partner, towards the end of the movie, up on his feet, hollering and whistling and stompin that was surely a sight to behold. I had never seen (this somewhat shy man) act like that ever, much less in a public theatre. It was truly the coolest.

The influence of his beloved partner couldn't get him interested in the Buffy-world. But the movie "Serenity" itself had him off his seat & cheering. This leads me to believe that there may have been numerous others like him out there, could they just have been enticed into the theatre.

And, of course, I'm with gossi -- I need more of the rich dialogue that is Joss's trademark. Once you've gone into the black, you can never go back.

"THE OPERATIVE [to Mal]: You cannot make me angry.
INARA: Please, spend an hour with him!"

OT, Zeitgeist- I live right near the corner of Jersey Ridge and Locust, just a mile or so from Bettendorf- cool!

On topic- the one thing here I really strongly agree with is the lack of putting the actors out there for promotion. Nathan Fillion can be funnier than hell; all the women are terribly attractive, Ron Glass has lots of cred, Adam Baldwin is loved by many, etc. That would have helped buidl some big mo'.
Why do you think SERENITY failed at the box office?


Not enough people went to see it. But I can see this debate going on for the rest of time.
Well, here's something I have not heard many people talk about. I was soooo looking forward to this movie. I was going to see it so many times and take all my friends. But then Katrina came. How many theaters were out of comission? I had to wait a month to see it, and I had to drive almost 50 miles. A large percentage of the gulf coast had no power, water, etc. (we brought water bottles to the movie). I would have seen it ten times, but for Katrina. That, I'm sure, contributed.
Not enough people went to see it.


Ha, that's certainly to the point, Simon! Elegant logic. :)

Regarding Katrina: that was horrible beyond words, but I would have to guess that all film revenues would have been equally affected by fewer screenings throughout the Gulf Coast. I don't think that it would have had a particular effect on "Serenity," as opposed to other films.

On the subject of talk show bookings: It's very hard to figure out what gets you on a talk show. You can't compare the Serenity cast to the "weirdos" who get booked on so that the host can look clever making fun of them for 3-5 minutes. You would also not expect the BDHs to be the lead guest, as none of them have that kind of notoriety yet. So, they'd be consigned to the second slot. Since Serenity came out in September (and I have no idea who actually was on talk shows that week), I'd imagine that the second slot on Jay/Conan and Dave/Craig was pretty full of people coming on to plug new or returning shows on the NBC or CBS schedules, respectively. I do remember that Serenity came out right after the Emmys, so there were probably a lot of slots saved for appearances by new Emmy winners. So, out of 20 possible "second" slots for that week out of those 4 shows, there were probably a lot that were already "reserved" for TV stars.

Another question I don't know the answer to: were any of the talk shows in rerun that week? That would have killed potential guest slots.

So, generally speaking, who might have gotten booked? Adam Baldwin, maybe. I don't know how he is on a talk show, but he probably is the best-known cast member, and he seems an interesting guy. Alan Tudyk, maybe. Been in a lot of films, funny and smart. Gina Torres, maybe. She's beautiful, funny and smart, she has a longer resume than the other female BDHs, and she's married to a big famous movie star (although I don't know if she'd be willing to chat about that on a talk show). Nathan Fillion, maybe. Not well-known, but funny and smart. (This paragraph would be so empty without the phrase "funny and smart"...) And to paraphrase Joss, all of them bring the pretty. And speaking of Joss...a long shot as a talk show guest. Writer-producers don't often get booked onto the big 4 talk shows unless they are well-established in film and/or also actors, like Kevin Smith, Jon Favreau, Spike Lee, etc.

Unless the BDHs were in New York, Dave, Conan, Jon Stewart and the morning chat shows would have been out. (Of course, question: why weren't they flown to NY for publicity? Or, were they sent there, and I am just woefully unaware?)

So why weren't they on Jay? I couldn't tell you. I would be willing to bet, though, that the most likely guess is that Jay's booker might have turned them down, since it is really hard to get on Jay if you aren't a "name." (But with Universal owning NBC...it's puzzling why they didn't pop for airfare to NY to get them on Conan/Today Show. It's beyond me, unless the talent bookers had turned them down flat, regardless of Universal connection.)

Why weren't they on Craig? I can't figure that out, unless Paramount was having some kind of spat with Universal (Paramount being in the megacorporation that includes CBS). They could have talked about the big screenings in Edinburgh and everything.

Here's what I would like to have seen: Nathan would have been great on Conan. Adam would have been great on Jay. Gina would have been great on Craig or maybe Conan (who, being a giant, might have enjoyed talking about her height). Summer would likely have gotten along with Dave (he likes cute younger actresses), but she probably would not have been well-known enough to get the booking. Ron Glass on Tavis Smiley. And Joss on The Daily Show or Charlie Rose, or both. Why didn't these things happen? Because I don't rule the world. :(

[ edited by swanland on 2006-07-15 16:45 ]
I love a good spin on the merry-go-round; it's like always looking backwards and forwards at the same time.

After a while, though, one needs to get off the ride lest regurgitations ensue.
I don't really agree with the writer, as it seems few people here do. In my opinion, the fact that the film didn't become a runaway success was not down in any part to the film itself. I think Joss made the film as accessible as possible to a mass audience as he could. The actors all did a fine job, the story was intriguing, there was a nice balance of humour, action and drama.

I don't feel the need to speculate on what did go wrong. There are so many factors which can affect a film's performance and it would be impossible to analyse them all. Perhaps the marketing didn't aim for the right type of people or present the film the correct way (personally I think marketing it as a silly action film comprised solely of explosions and fights was an attempt to attract an unappreciative younger audience whereas I would have tried to target a slightly older, less fickle, more intelligent audience, even though that might not have been as potentially lucrative).

Of course there could have been changes made in order to make Serenity more palatable to a mass audience. Recasting the characters. Simplifying the story. Focusing less on the well structured plot and emotions of the characters, and more on the action. Choosing to stick to one specific and easily defined genre rather than seemlessly mesh several. However I think any of these changes would have been a betrayal, not only to the fans and cast but to Joss' vision.

"Also, Joss's cast of TV actors didn't exactly ignite the screen. They just didn't feel larger than life."

It's almost difficult to respond to this. I agree, the characters weren't ridiculous, over-the-top, one-dimensional or clichéd. Perhaps they should have been in order to attract more attention. But I infinitely preferred their more developed and subtle portrayals, each character being multi-layered and complex. But at the same time I didn't think it was a case of the cast fading into the background.

Mal was a fantastic, strong protagonist, leading the audience through his story, burning with a slow intensity that concealed so many layers- his inherent decency tempered with his survival instincts, his loyalty to his crew versus his stubbornness, his unspoken love for Inara, his sense of justice and cynicism. But alongside this was his brilliant sense of humour and frequent one-liners. I don't think you could ask for a more interesting, realistic and entertaining character. I think Nathan Fillion did an astounding job.

And that's not to say that the rest of the cast didn't do an excellent job. River was of course the other character the film focused on and although I could write even more about Summer's performance I simply don't have the time. And even though the rest of the cast were in more supporting roles I think they made a lot out of them. In almost every review you'll read of the film you'll find a different cast member singled out for praise, whether it's Jewel's heart-warming portrayal of Kaylee or the convincing and natural relationship between Zoe and Wash, or even just the hilariously primitive Jayne.

I'm going to say: because it was episodic. There were something like four self-contained episodes in the story. Each resolved almost completely, leaving just enough plot to ignite the next episode. So the movie didn't feel like a coherent story. It felt like a bunch of television episodes rammed together.

Not really feeling this either. There were a few main strands of the story but they were really woven throughout the film- River's instability, the Reavers and Mal's emotional journey, not to mention the subplots involving the relationships between Mal/Inara and Simon/Kaylee or Shepard Book.

I do think maybe the film could be divided up roughly into segments which kind of summarise what's happening- the heist on Lilac, River's freak out on Beaumonde, sheltering at Haven, the companion house, the investigation of Miranda, and the finale on Mr Universe's Moon. However even the first ten minutes completely disproves this basic dissection, first we have a voiceover revealed to be part of River's lesson, which is then revealed to be her hallucination in the Alliance "school", which is then shown to be a holo-recording viewed by The Operative.

The structure, in my opinion, is anything but predictable, with many important developments running throughout the film. The use of flashbacks and such was also quite effective in disorienting the audience when appropriate. It wasn't like the film was divided into four, with the first part resolving the cause of River's mental problem, the second seeing The Operative foiled, the third a final confrontation with the Reavers and the forth the discovery and resolution of Miranda. Instead these different elements all came to a conlusion at the end of the film, as they should have.
One other thing- I think the lack of Inara actually hurt- this was not a love story about Mal and River, it was a story about how Mal and River worked to get the signal out. Inara's lack of presence in the movie took away from Mal- I think it owuld have been better had she had a larger role.
Ok people seem to be posting about nighttime talk shows only - I am not in show business and I guess it would be hard to get on with Jay Leno - I'm on board with that - what about "other" shows? Tony Danza, The View, Opprah, radio even, The Howard Stern show was around then and whether you like him or not, he reached many listeners. I agree the cast should have been flown to NYC for publicity. Do I feel that cast appearances is the single action that would have made the movie a blockbuster? No - but I think it would have increased ticket sales, whenever I see these people (or hear them interviewed) they are very likable.

Yes - there most likely were many contributing factors to the movie not doing as well as we all feel it should have. I will say I rarely go to the movies. Why? I can't hear the dialog because most of the time they have the volume so loud everything is distorted, the theaters around me are not that great - I remember when the big screen really was a big screen, now there are 2 or 3 theaters in space one used to exist in. The refreshments are expensive (as is the ticket), and home systems are so good now. I'd much rather sit at home and watch a movie.

I only saw a few movies in the theaters in the two years - Serenity (to support Joss and cast) and Slither (to support Nathan) where in the list of the few I saw.

Edited to fix some of my bad typing errors.

[ edited by Passion on 2006-07-15 22:34 ]
"We cared for Buffy, but because she was a superhero, we could not identify with her-= no matter how clear the metaphors that were in play. Buffy, in academic Buffyland, is often a means to an end- a means to discuss many issues, but often, Willow is the end."

This is a little off topic, but Dana, I wrote a paper that I presented at the Slayage Conference this year (BTW, great fun, and you should all try to go if for no other reason than to meet Palehorse--she is quite awesome) and part of the paper was all about how we could relate to Buffy. The Prom, I think, is the perfect example of that, but really, one of the things I had to prove in order for my thesis to proceed was that Buffy was relatable and that we could identify with her. And I think thats right, but you also have to admit that some people dont relate to her either. Same goes with Willow, and while some did relate to Willow, it was Buffy's story and she was the one many related too. In that sense, Buffy was the end in my paper and I always think she was in BTVS. I think Willow was the means to explore Buffy, just like Spike was a means to explore Buffy's depression, and other arcs in the show. She became a hero to millions of young girls for a reason...

[ edited by jerryst3161 on 2006-07-16 00:14 ]
Jerryst3161- I'd be grateful for a copy of your presentation, if you don't mind sending it- Dana5140@aol.com- and I'd take this conversation off board as well- I'd LOVE to go to Slayage, let me tell you.
One other thing- I think the lack of Inara actually hurt- this was not a love story about Mal and River, it was a story about how Mal and River worked to get the signal out. Inara's lack of presence in the movie took away from Mal- I think it owuld have been better had she had a larger role.

The early version of the Serenity script which leaked a few weeks ago does include a much bigger part for Inara. The Companion training location is shown more in depth, and suffers from men abusing the underage companions in training, and contrasts Inara's way of tackling this situation with Mal's methods of working. They're not dissimilar. I thought it gave Inara a much better role and explored her character, but at the same tied her less to Mal (and how that works I don't know, but that's how my head read it).

Unfortunately, I think Inara and Mal's relationship is something I think which would have taken time to develop, which is exactly what TV is for. Did I mention bitter? Old and bitter. Well, 24 and bitter.

[ edited by gossi on 2006-07-16 01:02 ]
In my country, Russia, there was a different problem. At first people who love "quality" movies didn't consider Serenity worth watching. And by the time the film got positive buzz on Internet forums it was practically out of movie theaters.

I remember reading many posts on Russian LJs that "the movie turned out much much better than expected" or "we went just because we had nothing to do - and occasionally discovered a gem" (I'm paraphrasing, of course).
I'm late. Here is the short version of my comments about the article and Serenity discussion.
1. Didn't agree with the author.
2. Thought movie worked.
3. Thought marketing did not.
4. Marketing for movie varied between forgettable and nonexistent. Reason: Because marketing people did not understand potential audience and could not find a hook for that audience. Tried to go with young psycho-killer girl movie instead of actual movie. Did not use good reviews at all after they came out.
5. I do not know what the hook should have been. Do believe a hook could have been found without a major star. Do not know why they ignored the excellent reviews in the marketing campaign.

" I think people admired Buffy, but empathized and identified with Willow- Willow was the secret weapon of Buffy."

Sure people sometimes identified with Willow. And I am sure some people identified with Willow all the time. But the range of characters was there so that different people had different characters to identify with, as well as illuminating Buffy's character and what she was going through. Personally, I identified with all the characters at one time or another and when things were written so they really spoke to me, I identified with more than one at the same time.

I have read the theory that Buffy is the point of identification at all times, but I do not think that is the case any more than I think that Willow was. It shifted constantly for me while it seems to me that my brother identified with Xander most of the time, and my ex identified with Spike much of the time...certainly in the latter part of S2. (It was fun. He actually cheered when Spike started beating Angel and went off with Drucilla. He has certain "big guy stealing smaller guy's girl" issues. ;-) )

Bottom line: People are different and have different issues and concerns. That is why there was a range of characters dealing in different ways with a range of issues. No one of them will be identified with by everyone all the time.
Of course, but, newcj, I think that the program benefited more from Willow's presence than any other person- there is a reason she was in every episode over 7 seasons. Xander served, all too often, as comic relief; Willow served as a reminder about who was not cool (all of us, in high school) and who could grow once out (some of us, post high school). I could go on, but cool.

And in my other love, CSI, we have much the same- there is gsr, grillows, snickers, yobling- all named for various character groupings, and some peopel read the sow through Sara Sidle, while others do it through Nick Stokes or Warrick Brown or whomever. BUt I think the one essential to the story, beyond Gil Grisson (and the corollary to Buffy) is Sara Sidle- like I think the one essential to Buffy beyond Buffy is Willow, a point I know many will not agree with. But think of what the lack of Willow's presence meant to S7.... :-)
My two cents:
It had nothing to do with 'no name actors'. There have been loads and loads of movies the past few years with plenty of 'name actors' that fell flat on their faces. I would actually say there hardly are any 'name actors' right now, not the way there used to be, except maybe Johnny Depp.

I still say the main thing was pure and simple: space ship SF is pretty much dead as a genre in the movie theaters this particular decade. There was only Star Wars in recent memory and Star Wars is Star Wars. There has been nothing else in years.

Genres that have been hot are fantasy and horror. And to the average person, 'Serenity' trailers looked like 'more people in a spaceship having adventures'. The fact that they were wearing older type clothes rather than futuristic probably didn't help either. The types of SF movies that deal in dystopian futures where people actually seem to have become more primitive (Mad Max, Salute of the Jugger, Waterworld, etc) have not been popular for a very long time.

And no I know Serenity wasn't really like that. But I have a feeling in trailers, for new viewers, it did look like that. In terms of genre popularity, it was just a really, really bad time for this movie to come out.

But hey, who knows... Blade Runner was a flop at the box office too at the time.
I love Simon's answer. It's really the only one there is.

Whenever the question of why Serenity failed at the big BO comes up, I always wonder why people thought it would succeed. No Stars. Failed TV Show. Difficult Premise to Mass Market. Mediocre (at best) Marketing. Questionable Release Date. That's a pretty tough mountian to climb. I loved the movie (saw it three time in theatres. Heck flew from LA to SF to see one of the sneaks) but it had so many things going against it.
Unitas, it was always possible it would break out to be a big movie, but it would have had to have retained a bigger audience. Ultimately, it never really broke out of the Internet & geek culture (well, not very much) in theatres.
Gossi - It could have worked out. Universal's logic would seem to be to make the movie for cost so that it would at worst break even or turn a small profit on DVD but hope that the movie could catch fire and become a nice franchise for them. I was just saying that the odds were against Serenity becoming hit (and I don't think Universal's marketing helped those odds). Doesn't make it a bad movie artistically just not a great one financially.

Actually, the most interesting thing about the article was some of the comments below especially one that points out how tenuous Joss's next projects are. Goners was bought by the old regime at Universal which hangs a cloud over it. Wonder Woman has no start date plus the mediocre numbers on Superman Returns (following up the succesful but not as big as hoped for Batman Begins) could be scaring Warners away from super hero flicks for a while.
Gossi, are the dialogues you wrote here completely made up, or from the "First Draft" (with the capital letters and the accompanying thunder sound) of Serenity?

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