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.

More Movies that were supposed to…


Posted on September 30, 2015, in Movies, movies that were supposed to... and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Once I saw the movie I kind of felt like the story was over. Although I enjoyed it overall, I didn’t feel like I really needed more. More Firefly would have felt like R.E.M. without Bill Berry to me, that is to say- not really Firefly.


    • I appreciate that Whedon and company brought the story to a satisfying conclusion instead of assuming they would have another opportunity to tie up loose plot threads. However, I don’t doubt that they could have spun out more good stories about the crew of the Serenity if the movie had been a hit. It was a great big verse after all.

      I did read that Whedon had a plan to bring back the characters who died in Serenity should the opportunity present itself. Kind of glad that didn’t happen. But I definitely think there was sequel potential there. If we can have umpteen Star Treks, we could have had a handful of Firefly movies.


  2. “It opened in second place behind Flightplan which was in its second week in theaters.”

    Ten years later though it still has a following while Flightplan is pretty much forgotten.

    In some ways, both movie and show were a tad too esoteric to find a large audience right off the bat. They’re one of those things that will develop a cult following over time.


    • It’s always interesting to me to see how time treats movies; both the ones that were initially successful and the ones that weren’t. Over time a lot of movies have a reversal of fortune.

      I have to admit, it took me a bit to warm to Firefly. I was a big fan of Buffy, but the Western elements of Firefly didn’t appeal to me. The opening credits with the twangy theme song really didn’t get me excited about what I was about to watch. I dropped the show pretty quickly and caught up with in on the Sci Fi channel just before Serenity came out.


      • Right. A lot of times, you have stuff that takes a while to catch on because it isn’t in sync with what a large segment of the public wants. Whereas a lot of popular stuff is big for a while. But ultimately proves to have a pretty short shelf-life. It’s true with music as well. There’s stuff that’s too edgy to really blow up the way that say Katy Perry would. But a lot of times, that stuff proves to have real staying power. There are a lot of blockbuster movies that have fallen completely out of relevance, relics of their time. But people still watch Serenity or The Thing.


        • For sure. I just don’t think most people knew what to make of a sci-fi movie where the heroes were thieves who flew around in a space ship but were inclined to ride horses, wear dusters and swear in Chinese. If the show had continued long enough, I think the cult would have slowly grown large enough to support a movie. But it wasn’t there yet in 2005.


  3. I never cared for any of Joss Whedon’s other shows, so I was reluctant to give Firefly a try. Once I did though, I was glad I had. This well after even SERENITY came out though, so I had just discovered this “new thing”, and I watched every episode in rapid succession, followed up by the movie, and just like that, it was all over. It was extremely enjoyable while it lasted. I did hate those deaths in SERENITY though.


    • It was a bit of a bitter pill to realize they only happened because of sequels that were never made. If Universal wasn’t committed to making a Serenity series, those deaths wouldn’t have been written into the script. And then the sequels never happened so the character deaths were unnecessary.


  4. I came to Serenity never having watched any episodes of Firefly on TV (I can’t recall why). I loved the movie–I thought it was a great piece of cinema storytelling, in the old-school tradition (think Howard Hawks, John Ford, etc.). No big names in the cast, but lots of solid, emotionally honest performances and good camaraderie among the core group.

    And of course, plenty of Summer Glau adoreableness, the start of one of my 2 or 3 most durable celebrity crushes. 🙂

    I suspect that one reason that Serenity failed to match the success of the Star Trek films has to do with something that a couple of people hint at in comments above. When Star Trek went off the air, it almost immediately went into syndication. This was around 1969-70, prior to the cable TV age, and so people didn’t have gazillions of channels to choose from. Even in Southern California, where I was growing up at the time, we had, as I recall, maybe 8 or 9 channels (counting the PBS station). Other cities would have had fewer. But almost every good-sized city soon had one station airing Star Trek in syndication, five nights a week. Over the next 10 years, prior to the release of The Motionless Picture, that let the audience for the show grow considerably from its fanbase during the initial run on NBC.

    Firefly, with a mere 14 episodes, was never a candidate for syndication to begin with, and in the modern age, it probably couldn’t have build its core audience in the same way as Star Trek did anyways.


    • I think that’s it exactly. But today, after having run those 14 episodes on cable channels and Netflix for years, I think the fanbase may actually be large enough that a Firefly movie could work. Unlikely to happen though.

      How impressive is it that Serenity worked for someone who had never seen the show? I think Joss Whedon deserves a slow clap for that one.


  5. I saw the movie but I just couldn’t bring myself to watch the series. Mostly because I hate getting into a show like that knowing it was cancelled after just 14 episodes. It was hard enough losing the Sarah Connor Chronicles after one and a half seasons. Half a season just isn’t enough!


  6. Definitely still holding out hope. My favorite series ❤


  7. 10 Franchises That Killed Off The Wrong Person

    Wash And Book In Serenity

    Why they shouldn’t have died: It’s a miracle that Serenity even exists. Joss Whedon’s cowboys-in-space TV series Firefly managed to accrue a cult audience, but that was long after it had gone off the air, with Fox cancelling it after the first season. Somehow Whedon convinced Universal to make a movie spin-off, despite the relative unpopularity of it on the small screen. There was even talk of it becoming a franchise.

    Which is why Alan Tudyk’s Wash – the titular ship’s pilot – and Ron Glass as Shepherd Book were killed off. They didn’t wanna appear in any sequels. So one beloved character gets killed off brutally, and the other barely appears before being dispatched off-screen.

    Who should’ve died: Ideally nobody. Firefly and Serenity had one of Whedon’s most balanced and interesting ensembles since Buffy, but if somebody had to die, it probably should’ve been Adam Baldwin’s Jayne. His was the only character who consistently resisted any sort of development, and also maybe then people wouldn’t take the actor’s opinions so seriously.


  8. The real reasons why Firefly was cancelled

    Joss Whedon’s Firefly was supposed to be the next huge sci-fi series to change television. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed after one incomplete season. Despite the popularity the show had on the DVD and Blu-ray formats and the successes of the series’ sequel film Serenity, Whedon and the Firefly crew were doomed from the start. We aim to misbehave by looking back at the reasons why Firefly got canned.

    Fox was expecting another Buffy or Angel

    By 2002, Joss Whedon had become television’s golden boy with his two bonafide hit shows running at the same time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel. Unfortunately, Whedon’s third show, which unified outer space trading/smuggling and the Wild West, didn’t particularly resonate with viewers on Fox or the bigwigs running the company.

    A unique premise

    Fairly original for its time, Firefly mashed-up the sci-fi and western genres to create a backdrop for what Whedon really wanted to explore. According to Whedon on the show’s DVD commentary, Firefly is “about nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” Unfortunately, Fox was the channel to first air the show, which has an iffy-at-best track record when it comes to its programming. (Fans of Family Guy, Keen Eddie, Undeclared, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and at least a dozen other shows can attest.) Despite being on Fox, Firefly had a couple things going for it…

    Critical praise

    Critics loved the show, for the most part. No matter how well-loved, every show has its detractors, and Firefly was no different. Some critics found the sci-fi and western mix forced and redundant. The show even went on to win numerous awards, including an Emmy and two Saturns, not long after cancellation. Along with its critical praise, the show attracted a solid following.

    A loyal fan base, but not large enough

    Like Buffy and Angel before it, Firefly developed a strong, dedicated fan base. While there’s no official tally as to how many Browncoats exist, it’s a pretty large number, and it probably continues to grow. Unfortunately, the fan base wasn’t large enough to halt cancellation, despite a concerted attempt to get the show picked up by another network and other series-saving tactics, according to CNN. Still, this great show’s abrupt ending should come as no surprise, considering what happened before the show even began production.
    Almost cancelled before it began

    In true executive producer fashion, the higher-ups at Fox almost ruined the show before production even began. According to Business Insider, Fox’s bigwigs had a problem with second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres) and pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) being happily married characters. Fox told Whedon to nix their marriage, or they’d nix the deal. Sticking to his guns, Whedon told them (also revealed in Firefly’s DVD commentary), “Then don’t pick up the show, because in my show, these people are married.” Ultimately, the execs weren’t as tenacious as Reavers, and the show eventually made it to the airwaves, but that didn’t mean the troubles ended.

    A mid-season replacement

    Being a mid-season replacement doesn’t necessarily doom a show to failure. Plenty of them enjoy long, successful runs, like The Office and The Simpsons. However, it does signify a network’s lack of confidence in a show, as they replace the shows the execs really hoped would prosper. It means struggling against audiences’ entrenched television viewing habits—not everyone who liked the previous show would like the one that replaced it in its timeslot.

    Airing on Friday nights

    In addition to airing mid-season, Firefly was scheduled for Friday nights, during the infamous death slot. Like mid-season replacements, airing Friday nights doesn’t predestine shows for cancellation, unless that show airs on Fox. At over 30 television series, Fox has cancelled more Friday night programs than any other network. Firefly had a death sentence right out of the gate.

    The episodes aired out of order

    When Whedon conceived Firefly, he conceived it as an episodic-yet-continuous story divided into hour-long chunks. This means the episodes needed to air in a specific order to make sense to viewers. Somehow, this nugget of info went over Fox execs’ heads, and each chapter of Firefly aired out of order on Fox. The pilot—which introduces the characters and plot of the entire venture—didn’t air until the end of the show’s run, making it more mixed up than the inside of River Tam’s head. Maybe Fox’s programming was going for something avant garde, but it didn’t sit too well with viewers.
    The promos didn’t capture the spirit of the show

    Fox’s ads, promos, and commercials for Firefly failed at trying to properly convey what the show was about or what it was in spirit. As producer Chris Buchanan said on the DVD commentary, the campaign “suggested [Firefly] was a wacky genre comedy,” when it wasn’t. That’s not to say it lacked humor, but the ads didn’t fully encapsulate the show. As Amy Pascale stated in Joss Whedon: the Biography, viewers who would’ve loved the show were too alienated to watch it, and those who tuned in because of the promos were disappointed.
    Low ratings

    With everything going against it, Firefly having abysmal ratings is unsurprising. On average, it attracted about 4.7 million viewers. While that’s a huge number in and of itself, it’s puny by network television standards. According to E! Online, Firefly finished at 98th place in the Nielsen ratings. The show itself was excellent, but Fox only cared about numbers.
    Fox only gave it one season

    When Fox greenlit Firefly, they only gave it one season to make its mark on the masses. Most shows develop a buzz with the first season, which in turn attracts the much larger audience for the second season. For comparison, Game of Thrones only had an average of 2.5 million viewers per episode its first season, according to Slate. It didn’t make significant jumps until the following four seasons. It’s as though they knew it wasn’t going to last. Hmm, we wonder what gave them that impression.
    An executive defense

    Despite all the hindrances they placed before the show’s success, the fine folks at Fox essentially played dumb when it comes to Firefly’s cancellation. Former Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “having to cancel it was very difficult.” Of course it was, considering she was part of the decision-making process that led to the series’ episodes airing out of order. Firefly’s cancellation wasn’t all bad, because of Serenity, the big motion picture followup to the series.


  9. Since we’re on the topic of the TV series “Firefly”, it makes me wonder if Rebecca Gayheart would make a possible WTHHT candidate?

    “Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. ”

    However, yes, she was s***canned from Dead Like Me because its poor taste to have a woman who killed a child play a grim reaper. lol But Fuller had permission to bring her back in season 2 🙂

    I don’t think her career was affected by that accident other than that specific decision. She still continued acting. Ratner dumping her was really the most significant outcome.
    Just saying, its by no means a “killed their career”


  10. Nathan Fillion doesn’t want Firefly to continue – and neither should we. It’s time for us to move on!topic/


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