Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Serenity
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Joss Whedon’s big-screen Firefly adventure, Serenity. Stop me if you have heard this one before. A beloved science fiction show is prematurely cancelled by the network. Fans demand more and eventually, their favorite characters are reunited on the big screen. It worked for Star Trek. But instead of launching a series of movies about the crew of the Serenity, the Firefly movie turned out to be a one-and-done.
Firefly was the brainchild of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator, Joss Whedon. At the time, Whedon was splitting time among that show, its spin-off Angel and his new show, Firefly. Firefly aired on the Fox network and it’s safe to say that Fox didn’t really *get* the show. Whedon’s vision for Firefly was in many ways the opposite of Star Trek. Instead of being set in a super-clean Utopian society of the future, Firefly was a dusty Western with spaceships. The main characters were less intrepid explorers than they were thieves just trying to keep their ship fueled up long enough to get to the next job. In a typically Fox move, the network asked Whedon to redo the pilot to amp up the action. Not surprisingly, Fox pulled the plug after airing only 11 of the 14 episodes produced.
When the show was canceled, it broke the hearts of Firefly‘s small but devoted following. The fans, who called themselves Browncoats over the show’s term for revolutionaries, held out hope that Firefly might be shopped to another network. Whedon himself tried to keep hope alive. When none of the networks were interested, he tried to get a TV movie off the ground. Eventually, he came to Universal and they were interested in taking Firefly to the big screen. Whedon started working on his screenplay. Meanwhile, Firefly became a strong seller on DVD. The initial orders for the boxed set sold out in 24 hours leading Universal to believe they may have a hit on their hands.
Firefly had been a very personal project for Whedon. He had already worked out some of the details for what would have happened on the show if it hadn’t already been canceled. His plan was that the show’s second season would have ended with the revelation of the origin of the show’s mysterious marauders known as the Reavers. The movie takes the stories that would have made up the show’s second season and condenses them into two hours while also providing a resolution which presumably would have occurred in season three.
Whedon insisted that the entire cast of the show should be brought back for the movie. Universal had no objections. They liked Firefly and were optimistic about the prospect of turning it into a Star Trek-like movie series. Despite the fact that Serenity was Whedon’s first feature film, Universal was so confident that they would be making sequels that they wanted the entire cast contractually committed to return for follow-up films. Two cast members couldn’t commit. If you have seen the movie, you can probably guess who they were.
While not everyone could commit to multiple movies, the cast was glad to be back together continuing the story of Firefly. When it was discovered that the original set had been destroyed after the TV show was canceled, series star Nathan Fillion provided blueprints to have it rebuilt. Fillion was so excited about Firefly back when it started that he had taken pictures of all the preproduction materials he could get his hands on including the blueprints for the set.
Universal realized that Firefly had been a cult show. With that in mind, they tried a grass-roots approach to marketing the movie. Starting in April of 2005, the studio scheduled several screenings of the unfinished movie in areas where the ratings for the TV show had been the highest. This built up to a final screening at Comic-Con International which was followed by a Q&A session with Whedon and the cast. Whedon also released a series of viral videos depicting Summer Glau’s character’s transformation from innocent young girl to lethal weapon.
Adapting a cult TV show for a broader movie audience is a tricky proposition. On the one hand, you have got to give the fans what they want. On the other, you have to make the movie accessible to people who have never seen the show. The Star Trek movies, despite the property’s saturation of pop culture, have always struggled with this balance. For an example of just how treacherous this can be, witness the first X-Files movie. Released at the peak of the show’s popularity, X-Files: Fight the Future disappointed its hardcore fans and confused novices. But Serenity managed to avoid some of these pitfalls. Critics who weren’t familiar with the show were able to catch up quickly and the movie got mostly positive reviews.
Unfortunately, Serenity didn’t deliver where it mattered most… at the box office. It opened in second place behind Flightplan which was in its second week in theaters. It ended up grossing around $25 million on a budget of nearly $40 million. Even with international ticket sales, Serenity still fell short of recouping its production costs.
Browncoats never gave up hope for another revival. But the likelihood of that ever happening has diminished with time. The cast has scattered to other projects. Although Fillion has expressed his desire to reprise his role as Captain Mal, he’s spent the last several years committed to the TV show, Castle. Whedon himself went on to become a major director with the success of the two Avengers movies he made for Marvel. Despite the long odds, fans still hold out hopes that someday the Serenity will fly again.