July 22, 2005

Whedon flock ready for ‘Firefly’ resurrection

By Anne Thompson

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Now that "Star Wars,"
"Star Trek" and "The Matrix" are fading into the sunset, what
will take their place in the hearts of sci-fi fantasy fans?

TV auteur Joss Whedon and Universal Pictures are hoping
that it's "Serenity," his movie version of 2002's aborted Fox
space Western TV series "Firefly," which opens Sept. 30.

Universal launched its grass-roots awareness campaign for
Whedon's directing debut in April, recruiting Whedon's loyal
fans to help sell "Serenity," which features the original
"Firefly" cast. The studio previewed the rough cut nationwide
in markets where "Firefly" performed best, culminating last
weekend with a rousing screening at the Comic-Con International
confab in San Diego, where Whedon and his cast conducted a
panel for fans.

Back in 2001, when Whedon sat down to write his follow-up
to the two hit Fox series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and
"Angel," he wanted to try his hand at a space Western.

"I thought, 'Wagon Train' in space," he said on the phone
from Cape Cod, where he is conceiving his upcoming "Wonder
Woman" script.

He didn't know that Gene Roddenberry had set out to do the
same thing back in the 1960s, when he created "Star Trek," a
smart TV show that was saved by its fans.

History is repeating itself.

Starting Friday night at 7, the Sci Fi Channel is showing
all 13 episodes of "Firefly" -- in the correct order.

"Fox never got the show," Whedon said. "It was a bad
match." After premiering the series late after a World Series
game and running 11 episodes out of order, Fox dropped it.

"I told the cast the day the show was canceled that I would
not rest until I found another home," Whedon said. "I felt like
I had let them down."

Not wanting to admit failure was part of it, too, Whedon
admits. "I didn't want people thinking that the show didn't
work. Nothing I've ever done has ever emerged so instantly.
Even the pilot was the way it should be. There was never an
awkward growing phase. It felt right. Every actor felt so
right, they worked so well together. I couldn't bear to let the
universe go, or let the actors out of my sight."

When overseas markets demanded a DVD release, Fox Home
Entertainment complied. The "Firefly" DVD sold more than
200,000 copies.

Whedon felt vindicated. Having soldiered in the feature
screenwriting realm on "Toy Story," "Titan A.E." and an
unproduced "X-Men" script, Whedon told Universal executive Mary
Parent that he wanted to make his directing debut on the movie
version of "Firefly." She checked out the DVDs.

"Write it," she told him.

Renamed "Serenity," after the Firefly-class ship that
scours outer space, the $40 million alien-free movie will
register with "Firefly" fans without confusing people, Whedon
says. And the movie retains the show's homemade feel. "It's
like the ship Serenity herself," he said. "Crappy but scrappy."

"Serenity" reunites the original TV cast of nine shipmates
in a dysfunctional family. That was the deal. There was never a
question of upgrading the cast, though Universal did consider
hiring a name villain -- and then dropped it. Added to the
youthful ensemble headed by Canadian actor Nathan Fillion, who
plays a jocular Kirk-like captain on the mercenary freighter,
are archvillain Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Dirty Pretty Things") and
David Krumholtz ("Numbers") as a hacker hermit. At Comic-Con,
dancer-actress Summer Glau's martial arts scene drew thunderous
applause and an Ain't It Cool News rave.

What generates this powerful response? "What captivates the
fans is an entire world they can go to," Whedon said, "that
feels complete, thought-out, genuine, that they can live in for
a long time. From the first show, we made sure every character
had their own patch of ground. Conflicts become the story.
Everybody plays off everybody."

Said Anna Kaufman, arts editor of the Daily Californian in
Berkeley, Calif.: "You feel for the family of nine characters
and their well-being. They all have interesting dynamics, pasts
and secrets. They're thrumming with life." Kaufman checks the
many Web sites devoted to Whedon, "Firefly" and "Serenity"
(including http://www.cantstopthesignal.com) for updates on the
movie. "I'm greedy. I want more," she adds.

In October, when Universal's co-president of marketing,
Eddie Egan, booked a routine rough-cut preview in L.A.'s San
Fernando Valley, he was amazed by the explosive response from
the research-screening recruits who were clearly rabid
"Firefly" fans. He wanted to know just how they had learned
about the screening.

It turned out that one fan had identified the movie and
tipped off her entire "Firefly" community (known as
"browncoats") with one Internet post. Some of them had driven
from Arizona and Seattle, Egan says. Universal, deciding that
it had something bigger than it thought, pushed the action
adventure off of its spring lineup and into the fall.

The studio staged three waves of word-of-mouth sneak
preview screenings (which do not advertise the name of the
film) in 35 cities where "Firefly" had earned the best ratings,
including Toronto and San Francisco. Each time, Whedon posted
fan screenings on his blog: once, with a link to a Fandango
site where they could order tickets. Each time, all the tickets
were sold within five minutes. Fans return for repeat viewings,
Egan says, bringing new people with them.

"As the industry struggles to redefine the paradigm of the
movie business," Egan said, "and what makes people go to movies
or avoid them, a piece of text on a Web page sold out

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter