Firefly, Serenity and Exploitation
I would like to discuss a few case studies on exploitation, outside of crowdfunding with fandoms. The first will be about the movie Serenity created and directed by Joss Whedon in 2005. The movie was a sequel to the popular cult show Firefly (2002) also created and directed by Whedon
The television show aired on the FOX network in 2002. The show only aired for one season, but it was enough to garner a strong fan following. The space western, science fiction drama consisted of an ensemble cast with the main character, played by Nathan Fillion, as a spaceship captain by the name of Malcolm (Mal) Reynolds who was a shell-shocked soldier and a reluctant hero. He and his crew of rag-tag individuals, which consisted of a thief, a harlot, a preacher, a pilot, a fellow soldier, and siblings with a mysterious past, go traipsing around the universe to find black market cargo to haul, and they usually find themselves in some sort of danger at every turn along the way.
The show had an unusual premise and never quite found its footing due to the multiple themes of the show. The ratings were low for a better part of the series, which didn’t do themselves any favors with the network. After 14 episodes, Fox decided to cancel the show. After the cancellation, the series found new life at the advent of their video sales, which sky rocketed and brought them a strong cult following. The fans of Firefly began calling themselves, “Browncoats” (Barton, K., & Lampley, J.M., 2013). The name “Browncoats” was used for the brown coat the star, Nathan Fillion, and other soldiers wore on the show.
Browncoats wanted more and asked, nay demanded, a movie version. Creator Joss Whedon was able to convince Universal Pictures, thanks to the hefty video sales and strong fan-base, to back the film version of the TV series. In 2005 Whedon and the Browncoats got their wish: the movie Serenity (the name of the ship from the series) was brought to life and showed in movie theaters all over the country and overseas. It ranked #2 in the box office their opening weekend, which is not bad for a series that was cancelled after one season (Wikipedia, 2015).
The Browncoats are a very die-hard fan base. They love the lead actors and its creator Joss Whedon. They were willing to do anything to get Serenity off the ground and back up in the sky, and the studios played on that devotion. It’s what Professor Bertha Chin calls the gift economy (Chin, 2014). The gift economy is one of giving, receiving, and reciprocation. When all these are met, there is a complete and social relationship between giver and receiver. The gift economy in fandom appears in the form of fan art, fan fiction, web sites, wikis, forums, blogs, social media sites like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, dedicated to a specific fandom. As I mentioned in a previous blog, the fans become a fandom, and they in turn become a participatory culture.
Chin shares the gift the Browncoats offered in her Transformative Works article, “Sherlockology and Galactica TV: Fan sites as gifts or exploited labor?” Universal Pictures capitalized on the passion of the fandom of Firefly (2002). In the months leading up to the premiere of the movie Serenity, Universal created a members only online community where fans were encouraged to promote the movie, its products, and recruitment of more fans for points. Fans were also encouraged to create products and items themselves to accompany the DVD release of Firefly the television show to coincide with the movie (Chin, 2014). The fans were happy to accommodate the studio.
However, after the release of the DVD, fans were presented with another gift, that of a cease-and-desist order to the whole Firefly fan community. Fans were given letters from Universal to stop any production or creations and demanding retroactive licensing fees for fans that used any copyrighted materials and licensed products and images. This left the fans who participated in all the marketing, making it go viral by the way, feeling exploited by Universal. The fans were first courted by the studio to market for them and then in turn paid the cost of legalities and demands for fees. Chin says this is a worrisome trend – the commercial culture invading onto fan culture (Chin, 2014).
It is important to take into account fan agency. In the case of Firefly, fans were happy and more than willing to do what was asked of them, even going above and beyond what was asked of them, but I am sure they were expecting more of a thank you, not legal troubles. I will discuss further about fan agency, and the fan affect of being happy to serve, when I give my final discourse.
I must share an update about Firefly, which brings us full circle in some ways to crowdfunding and fandom. A few weeks ago, Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk, stars of Firefly/Serenity, started an Indigogo (another crowdfunding platform) campaign for a new project. The project is very meta to say the least. The campaign is for a series of webisodes starring these two actors as the main characters. Both stars will basically be portraying an alter ego of themselves, as two stars that were in a sleeper hit TV show that was cancelled all too soon, sound familiar? It is reminiscent of the plot in the movie Galaxy Quest (1999), where they are spoofing their Firefly/Serenity personas, much like the Galaxy Quest actors were spoofing Star Trek. The characters in the webisode series were on a Sci-Fi show called “Spectrum,” and after it’s cancellation, Nathan Fillion’s character goes on to stardom and celebrity, while Alan Tudyk’s character is stuck doing small roles and attending many fan conventions, much to his chagrin. The name of the webseries will be called, “ConMan.” To date, the campaign has reached over 2 million and hasn’t even hit their deadline of April 10, 2015 yet; their original goal was $425,000.00. The two actors and their producer are even doing live stream feeds and talking to fans in real time on an app called, “Hang w/” so that the fans can feel closer to them as they make more episodes.
Now are these two celebrities and the people they asked to help them with this project (producers, writers, director, actors, staff, etc.) taking advantage of their fan base? I would say yes. They aren’t foolish, and they know with the established fan-base they will probably succeed. Are the fans now being exploited once again from the same people who asked for help with their first project? What do you think?
Watch the promo video for their Indigogo campaign…
******UPDATE–Oct. 2, 2015******
So Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion have done it, they’ve created their web series, and have begun airing them on their own website, with the help of Vimeo. “ConMan” looks funny, meta, and very clever…but here’s the catch – even though they earned more than they needed on their Indiegogo campaign for crowdfunding, they are still charging $14.99 to watch the streaming videos on their site. They have three episodes up right now with ten more on the way through October and November, the $14.99 is only good for 3 months. *Sigh* so you fans who gave money to the crowdfunding campaign, guess you have to give money again if you actually want to watch the show! See the link below for their new web series site–
Barton, K., & Lampley, J.M., (2013). “Fan CULTure: Essays on Participatory Fandom in the 21st Century.” McFarland. Kindle Edition.
Chin, Bertha. 2014. “Sherlockology and Galactica.tv: Fan Sites as Gifts or Exploited Labor?” In “Fandom and/as Labor,” edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0513.
Wikipedia, (2015). Firefly. Television Series. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firefly_%28TV_series%29
Wikipedia, (2015). Serenity. Motion Picture. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_%28film%29