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A Browncoat talks with Universal about Serenity’s Performance

Friday 15 September 2006, by Webmaster

Greetings, all.

I was intrigued by some of the discussion of Serenity’s marketing in some threads here a few weeks ago, and, as always, interested in the discussions of new paradigms, economic and otherwise, which it demonstrated. I do a lot of work in media theory and reception studies, so I put on my academic hat, waved my credentials, and got Universal on the phone.

You may recall that I promised that if I got any solid information about Serenity’s performance, I’d relate it here. I am following through on that promise. Unfortunately, the one thing I can’t do here is tell you the name of my source. After a brief discussion about how I planned to use the info (mostly in preparing for a new syllabus on media studies, possibly a follow-up article), I offered to cite my source simply as a "senior executive at NBC-Universal." You’re going to have to trust me that by "senior," in this case, I mean extremely senior. I had thought I would get through to some minor flunky in a sub-department somewhere, and instead I landed a very pleasant phone interview with...well, someone who makes a lot more money than probably all of us. Combined. So the information is beyond solid.

We talked about a lot of stuff that means a great deal to my class and my academic work on how humanities disciplines interact with digital media, none of which would interest y’all very much. But I did also promise to let you guys know if I got any solid numbers.

Here are the facts: Serenity’s marketing budget was, in fact, in line with market standards for a film of its budget. That is, somewhat more than $30 million was spent on marketing, and while my source did not give me a more exact figure than that, he implied that it was not much less than $40 million. So any suggestion that this movie was somehow under-marketed is incorrect.

In addition, contrary to some previous interpretations of remarks by another Universal exec., only 10% of that budget was devoted to online marketing. In general, according to my source, even the most forward-thinking studios are only devoting about 5% to 10% of their marketing dollars to online and other digital media. That is certainly partially because online marketing is significantly cheaper than traditional venues, so you get more bang for your buck. It is also, however, because a number of legal issues arise when engaged in online marketing (such as the widely circulated "River Tam Sessions" video clips). Copyright can easily become an issue, particularly when, as in the case of Serenity, you have a large number of different entities with a stake in the material. Universal is one of many studios interested in, for example, providing online space for consumers to make their own video "mash-ups," or music video re-mixes, of popular movies and music, but they are having trouble negotiating all the necessary copyright releases.

Even with such limitations, Serenity’s built in and net-savvy fanbase dictated that a higher-than-normal percentage of the budget would be spent on non-traditional and online marketing. However, that still constituted only about 10% of the total.

How did Universal feel about Serenity’s box-office performance? Given the wide circulation of the "River Tam" videos, and significant online buzz generated for initial screenings, they were happy with the success of the initial launch. They felt that the online marketing worked well enough, and will pursue such methods in future releases, particularly those in genres (like sci-fi) which have a high percentage of net-conscious potential consumers. However, they were not particularly happy with the failure of that buzz to translate into wider numbers. I know some of the previously circulated articles already mentioned this, but I did get it confirmed. Net marketing is still seen as a very new, unpredictable field. Everyone is looking for the next "Blair Witch Project" effect, and nobody has figured out quite how to generate it yet.

So, has Serenity made a profit? Unfortunately, no. My source was quite clear about this. Counting all the costs and revenues to date, Serenity has not made back its investment. HOWEVER Universal has not, by any means "given up" on the property. All costs, other than additional printings of the DVD, and fractional marketing and distribution costs, have now been paid. Any additional sales translate into revenue, which may well propel the series not only into profitability, but into sequel-generating-territory.

I asked for clarification on this point, confessing that I was both a fan myself and asking on behalf of many other fans of the franchise. My source made it explicit: if we would like to see a sequel, we need to see to it in practical terms, by seeing that Serenity generates box-office revenue. Letter-writing campaigns, petitions, and similar "stunts" will have no effect. Universal would love to do a sequel of a succesful movie. They will not consider it if the initial movie does not generate more money than it already has. They like the movie. They’re happy with it, even though it has not yet proven itself economically. They would be happy to consider a sequel, even one on the same scale: if the price is right.

I will try to answer any additional questions.

— Your humble servant.

1 Message

  • It really doesn’t matter how they spin it, the "real world" marketing in terms of the posters etc was fairly abysmal. I’m a die hard fan. The first time I saw the UK trailer, *I* was left puzzled by it. NOBODY heard of the movie. NOBODY remembers seeing it advertised. Very few people ever knew the name, and those that did had no idea what it was about or why it was worth the time and money. If the fans are telling you the ads and marketing are terrible - the people who *know* what they’re seeing - then what chance do the regular public have?