When it comes to building buzz, Hollywood is typically a big tease. Wanna get people talking about War of the Worlds? Flash a little leg and keep ’em wondering what the rest of the slimy beast looks like. Yet faithful fans of geek guru Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) and his short-lived Fox TV series Firefly have recently been treated to a rare exception to the rule. Since April 22, Universal Pictures has held more than 60 screenings of Serenity, a big-screen revitalization of the small-screen flop about smugglers in space, due Sept. 30. Promoted exclusively through the Internet — home to a multitude of websites devoted to both Whedon and Firefly — Serenity‘s early exposures (which fans paid to see) have been part of an unconventional strategy designed to promote an unconventional movie at a time when Hollywood is struggling to get moviegoers to actually go to the movies. ”There are very few safe bets anymore,” says Adam Fogelson, Universal’s president of marketing. ”To simply practice the ‘tried and true’ seems like as big or bigger a risk.”
Set on a ramshackle spaceship named Serenity and featuring a motley crew of quippy characters just trying to make a buck in an Earth-colonized galaxy more Wild Wild West than Star Trek, Firefly lasted only 11 episodes, averaging just 4.4 million viewers. But those 4.4 million viewers really loved the well-reviewed show, and proved it when they made Firefly a DVD smash in December 2003. Universal had already optioned a Firefly movie, but Whedon credits the DVD with helping to get a green light for Serenity: ”If we had heard crickets when it went on sale, things might have gone different.” Instead, Serenity joins Family Guy, the animated series revived by Fox, as a striking testament to the power of disc sales and Internet-based fan involvement.
Firefly loyalists (or ”Browncoats,” named after the show’s ill-fated freedom-fighting rebels) influenced Serenity‘s course again when they hijacked the first test screening in December 2004. The ”rock concert vibe” of the experience, says Fogelson, tainted the research, but inspired an idea: mobilizing Firefly groupies to flog the film. The studio bet that a summertime screening program would inspire Browncoats to spread good news about Serenity on the Web — which they did. Moreover, fans were encouraged to bring nonfans to the screenings (look for that request to be made again during Serenity‘s fall release). Currently, Browncoats are being offered prizes for exposing newbies to Firefly, now airing on the Sci Fi Channel. Fogelson says these tactics — in advance of a traditional ad push, which has been informed by Browncoat feedback gathered from the screenings — have ”put the film on people’s radar.”
Better yet, many in Hollywood believe Universal has put Serenity in position to be a hit. ”I think they have a shot,” says Bob Berney, Picturehouse president and former head of Newmarket Films, which released the 2004 grassroots sensation The Passion of the Christ. While he believes word of mouth works best for ”populist” films, Berney thinks such a strategy can benefit genre pictures like Serenity, too. In either case, he says, ”the movie itself better really deliver.” Whedon’s good friend Tim Minear, an exec producer of Firefly, couldn’t agree more: ”I just hope he didn’t f— it up,” he deadpans. ”I want to direct the next movie.”