I find myself in a weird position this morning. It seems that my editorial from last night about the box office take of Serenity (and I think it’s important to stress here that it’s an editorial, an opinion piece) has attracted the attention of no less a luminary than Joss Whedon himself. This is sort of a weird position because I’m actually a pretty big fan of Whedon’s work – I have a “Once More With Feeling” poster framed in my living room and I made sure I got out to Los Angeles for the Serenity junket (Universal wouldn’t pay my way) because the opportunity to meet and interview the man was too much to miss out on.
Now that I’ve established something of my geek bona fides in this matter, I want to address some of the brouhaha that has arisen from the piece, and the points that Joss makes (for the text of his remarks, visit this site, or check out this thread on our message board).
I’m not a box office expert, and Joss has access to Universal’s best number crunchers and executives, but from where I’m sitting this thing looks like it’s essentially over. Going by the standard situation, Serenity is in for a 40% drop next weekend (and that’s really generous, as films – especially genre films – have tended to drop more than that in the second weekend this past year or so), which means it’ll likely take in 6-7 million. Joss is right in that this was a soft weekend – per screen averages were weak across the board, it seems – but I don’t know if that’s due to some exterior force or just people didn’t see anything they wanted to go to the movies for this weekend. The month of September certainly wasn’t that soft a month, even with a couple of hurricanes being a major outside force that could have affected box office.
Again, I’m no expert, but it looks like 30 million is where this thing might come to a rest. If I’m right that’s too bad, as I said in the original editorial. The film deserves to be a success. I have nit-picky issues with it, but I gave it an 8 out of 10 in my review, and I stand by the fact that it’s as good a sci-fi adventure film as we’ve seen in a long while.
The thing that really stuck in Joss’ craw, though, was my dismissal of the Browncoats. He doesn’t cotton to me laying the blame for the film’s weak take at their feet. I wouldn’t cotton to that either, if I had done that. I do wonder why the film couldn’t bring out a genre core audience (the people who probably helped the just as hard to market Hellboy to a 23 million dollar opening weekend – now some of that may have been release date, to be fair. I am becoming a believer lately in the idea that the traditional “time of year” ghettoes don’t apply anymore – look at how strong January and February have suddenly become – but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an aspect of that at play in Hellboy’s modest success), and the thing I kept returning to in my head is that the “Browncoats” are seen, by many other genre fans, as overzealous.
There’s no way to quantify that. It’s a purely speculative thing on my part, based on talking to people and visiting other internet forums. And I base it partially on the fact that nobody likes an evangelizer. Nobody wants to invite the Jehova’s Witnesses in to bullshit when they come a-knockin’. You want those people off your doorstep, and ASAP.
And further, I can tell you as a passionate Buffy and Angel fan and defender that there is a sizeable portion of the fandom that just reacts incredibly negatively to Joss and his works. I have taken a tremendous amount of guff for my unabashed love of those two shows (including lots of homophobic emails, weirdly), and it’s often from people who have never seen the programs. Hey, it happens, and fandom’s a weird place at best.
Again, it’s not the scientific method, but those are the factors that came into my opinion that the Browncoats kept the core genre audience from seeing the film this weekend. (And in fairness, someone asked me just how big that core genre audience is, and I have to admit I don’t know. I do feel like it’s bigger than 10 million dollars, though) That has nothing to do with the mainstream’s reception of the film, and that’s important to note. And it’s important to note that I don’t necessarily think there was some angry “To hell with the Browncoats!” revolt in the wider fandom. I think there may very well have just been a fatigue. After the preview screenings months ago, and the interim attention from those fans, Serenity felt like a movie that had already happened.
As for the idea that I don’t like the very concept of the Browncoats – guilty as charged! I don’t like any self-identifying pop-cultural group. I find it bizarre and troubling. Trekkies make me feel creeped out, and that was before seeing the excellent documentary about the phenomenon. I am a fan of Buffy and Angel, but I wouldn’t include myself in a fan group. I love Lost and watch it religiously, but I wouldn’t consider myself a Lostie. I don’t like to categorize myself by my musical tastes or my reading material or the sneakers I wear. The desire to be included in a group, the desire to become part of a big pop cultural movement like that – I don’t get it. And I sort of feel like it’s something Mal Reynolds would look upon with a raised eyebrow as well, but then I didn’t create the guy.
Finally, Joss worries that the Browncoats will take to heart the few sentences in my editorial that ask them to look into the mirror and ask if they helped or hurt this film in the genre audience. Do the Browncoats need this pat on the head? We’re all grown ups, more or less – does the opinion of one guy (the poorly written and barely properly spelled opinion of one guy, no less) have the ability to wound that badly? Looking at my inbox, and reading over the replies at Whedonesque, and seeing Joss’ response, I guess the answer is yes. My intention wasn’t to wound but to call attention to how marginalizing rabid fanbases can be.
Joss, thanks for the concession that I’m not a dumb guy, and I’m sorry that the big damn movie didn’t open to the numbers it deserved. You seem trapped in this place where your fans are loyal to the frightening extreme and the media loves you, but the mainstream hasn’t figured it out quite yet. I do hope they wake up, and I do hope that next week I’m writing an editorial eating every single one of these words, as Serenity’s word of mouth causes the film to buck all normal box office trends. I like a happy ending as much as the next guy, and I think this property and its creator deserve it.