v vdIt’s been interesting, this past week, to watch the Browncoats go through all the stages of grieving as laid out by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. First there was denial, where they claimed that, hey, ten million dollars and coming in second to a shitty movie that had already been released the week before was OK. Next came anger. I found myself at the receiving end of this stage of grief after I had what they (and Joss Whedon) took to be the incredible gall to call it as I saw it – ie, that Serenity’s opening weekend tagged the film as one that would not make back its money at the box office. (And this weekend’s performance – staggering into the top ten at 9, indicates that I was right. Look for Serenity to make 25 million domestically.)

The bargaining stage was, for me, the most disturbing stage. This is when the Browncoats began buying tickets to the movie to give to complete strangers, or even worse, seeing the film seven, eight or nine times in a weekend. It just seems that no one should ever see a movie that many times in that short a time frame. A movie isn’t a song – it isn’t built for such repetition.

Depression was next. The official Serenity Browncoats boards and sites like Whedonesque and FireflyFans were filled with people saying they felt like they were kicked in the chest, or were at the end of their tether. Some people – probably the ones who had previously posted such disturbing things as that the death of a character in the film made them cry for a week – reported what sounded like serious depression.

By the time Friday’s numbers (which I would say were dismal, but I don’t want to have one of my favorite artists jumping down my throat again) came in, most of the Browncoats had come to the acceptance stage. They finally understood that this was going to be the end of the road for this property, that Serenity would more or less be the swan song for these characters.

Like I said, it’s been fascinating to watch. I don’t think there’s ever been a fanbase like the Browncoats (and at this point I feel like I should try to have some sort of definition. Not everyone who bought the Firefly DVDs – people like me, for instance – is a Browncoat. The Browncoats are mostly self-identified, and the Browncoats I’m talking about here are the sort of rabid fans who call it “our” movie, as if they made it), and in the last week it’s taken the kind of hit that I don’t think any fanbase has taken since Star Trek first got cancelled. But even that is no comparison, since there was no Internet then, which means that most of Star Trek’s fans were sort of doing their nerd thing in a vacuum.

There are still some Browncoats in the denial phase. There’s a very vocal contingent, some of whom e-mail me a bunch, who claim that Serenity will get a sequel because the film will do well on DVD. Now, I don’t disagree that the film will do well on DVD. Serenity will, I think, be one of the better selling DVDs of the holiday season, and it won’t even be a bells and whistles edition. The problem here is that these folks have a serious disconnect when it comes to understanding how all this stuff works. It’s true that movies now make most of their profit on DVD. In fact, almost every single movie makes money when it comes to DVD, TV sales and foreign box office.

You need to take a minute and think about that. With the new math of big ancillary dollars, almost every movie released ends up making some sort of money. That’s even beyond the studio’s voodoo accounting (for those not in the know, many studios cook the hell out of the books to show that their films DON’T turn a profit so they don’t have to share that profit – do a Google search for Art Buchwald and lawsuit for some eye-opening info). So why doesn’t every single movie get a sequel? Why am I not right now reporting on the filming of the next Riddick chronicle?

Here’s what you have to understand about Hollywood, here’s the essential paradox that makes it all come together – it’s a business about art. The people who run Hollywood are, at heart business people. They want to make money, and they want to do it with the least risk. That’s why you see so many shitty movies that fall into so many shitty formulas. If it worked once, they hope, it’ll work again.

But if they just wanted to make money, there are other industries that don’t have the kind of risk the movie industry does. The people in Hollywood aren’t just drawn by the money – the suits come for the glamour and the art. The glamour is self-explanatory (how often does the owner of a paper company get profiled by major magazines?). The art is how they convince themselves that they’re doing something different than the guy who owns a paper company. What all this adds up to is that the Hollywood executive type isn’t just looking at a spreadsheet covered in numbers – there’s a complex series of neuroses and delusions that inform their decisions.

These neuroses and delusions work two ways. They’ll make a movie that can never earn money because it’ll be a possible Oscar contender or otherwise a “prestige” picture (and I do know that there are still other, more complex reasons for this – the desire for art is one, but there’s also the idea that cultivating the image of being a studio who is “good to the talent,” ie is willing to throw 30 million down the toilet for a prestige project, will pay off by attracting other, more money earning, talent). But it also means that appearances are everything. And while the foreign box office may account for up to half a film’s total take, the appearance remains, as it has for a hundred years, mostly about the domestic box office.

There are still more calculations to work into the profit of a movie. Sometimes companies split the foreign distribution, so that other companies take a bit from the totals (look at Lord of the Rings, for example). But I still believe that at the end of the day it’s all about the domestic box office. Sure, DVDs are a big profit machine. But why hasn’t there been a blockbuster film starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg that has been released straight to DVD? That stigma may yet change, but it hasn’t. And it’s not going to be changing in the next few years. And Universal, the studio that released Serenity isn’t helping. They have begun releasing extremely cheap and shitty direct to video sequels and prequels, like Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power and American Pie: Band Camp, which won’t make DTV look any classier. Might they release a Serenity sequel DTV, though? Maybe, but judging by their current DTV slate, it’ll cost 10 million dollars, and I don’t think you can make a sequel for that amount of money.

Serenity will, without a doubt, at some point in its history, make back the money Universal spent. It may even make an actual profit on top of that. But that’s not going to make things any different for the franchise.

This is mostly math and a basic understanding of the movie business, which you can get from just watching it for a while. So why does this make people angry? Part of it is that some of the Browncoats, like the rest of the American population, believe that box office success is some barometer of a film’s quality. When I said that the film was dead out the gate, they weren’t mad that I sold it short, but rather they thought I was passing judgement on the content of the film (and it’s interesting how many e-mails I received and how many anti-me message board postings I read incorrectly referred to my original article as a “review”). Many of us have long ago come to the conclusion that there may in fact be an inverse relationship between a film’s quality and its box office take, but everyone needs to lose their innocence at some point.

What these folks should have been focusing on from the first day is that they were lucky to get a pretty good film when they really had no right to expect one. Firefly isn’t the first TV show that failed and got a movie and it’s not even the most extreme – Police Squad lasted 6 episodes and spawned three Naked Gun films. And let’s not forget Star Trek and Twin Peaks, which ended up in Fire Walk With Me. You got a wrap up, people, which is a lot more than most cancelled shows ever get (including far superior shows like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared).

So what now? I wouldn’t worry too much about Joss Whedon, beyond any inevitable emotional scarring he may experience. The film underperformed in a big way, but it was well received by critics. The perception is going to be that the film didn’t open, but it probably won’t be laid at his feet. He’s considered talented and executives will remain impressed by his loyal fanbase. He may find himself in a Kevin Smith scenario – his films will be considered to have a profit ceiling and thus will have a budget ceiling – but he has two major chances in his near future to make films that earn plenty of dough.

Earlier I talked about what made the Browncoats unique as a fanbase. There’s one thing I left out, that I left for the end, that I think makes the Browncoats very different from other fanbases in the past. I don’t remember ever having seen a fanbase that was so completely co-opted by the marketing forces before this.

I know, you’re going to yell at me here. I am not writing this to get more attention, I swear. This is something that you may well disagree with, but it’s something I have given lots of thought to. Essentially I am concerned that the wall between marketing and the fans has disappeared.

Let’s be honest, CHUD.com was one of the first steps in that happening. CHUD, and Aint It Cool and other internet movie sites all began as fan sites. When these sites first opened, there wasn’t a relationship between the webmasters and the publicity people at the studios. It’s taken years to get to the point where CHUD is regularly a part of the massive press junkets studios hold, I’m not fully certain that it’s a good thing that it has happened, but it has.

So the publicists have been trying to get in bed with the fans for some time, and the Browncoats aren’t the first street team, but I do think it’s the first street team that has been so seamlessly grafted onto the body of an existing fanbase. Street teams are cheap for the publicists – you make the fans do the work; they promote your movie all over the place and you just send them some cheap t-shirts and other materials, which are in and of themselves promo materials anyway. But I have seen Browncoats taking up the marketing without even being a part of the official site street team. I have read about Browncoats literally spending hundreds of their own dollars promoting this film by printing flyers, by taking out ads and by buying tickets for strangers. That, frankly, isn’t right. Your duty, as a fan, is to enjoy the film. Maybe bring in a friend. But that should be it, and you should never feel that you’re letting a film or a filmmaker down because you only recruited fifteen people.

And that’s where the whole thing takes on the feel of a religion. People were proselytizing at movie theaters, accosting patrons who seemed to not have made up their minds about what to see. There doesn’t seem to be a very huge amount of difference between that and the Scientologists who man tables in Times Square every day and night, offering you a “free stress test.” The religion comparison really crystallizes when you see how the Browncoats talk about – or yell at – the non-believers and heretics who dare to not like the film. Guys, chill out and remember that it’s a movie.

There’s an impression out there that I hate the Browncoats (maybe scared of would be a better way to put it) or that I didn’t like the movie (it’s not making my top ten of the year by any stretch, but I gave it a solid 8 out of 10). The honest truth is that this is a film that I was looking forward to, and I found myself fascinated with its box office, and eventually with its fans. This movie has presented, to me, a microcosm of what is good and bad about the state of fandom and the internet, and there’s more I could have written about. Just the way that Joss interacts with the fans could give me a slew of future editorial – is the elimination of the wall between author and audience a good or bad thing? Should an artist heed the fans (and bicker with them, as Kevin Smith has embarrassingly done at Aint It Cool) or should he ignore them and follow his artistic vision? And should the fans be encouraged to become this invested in any franchise?

Maybe I’ll get to that stuff some other day. In the meantime, I look forward to your feedback – positive or otherwise. The real purpose of me spending this much time writing isn’t just to get attention, it’s to create discussion. Believe me, if I wanted to make more controversy I could have done it in a quarter of the words.

Contact me at devin@chud.com.