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Firefly & Serenity : Wanted, Dead or Alive

Thursday 19 June 2008, by Webmaster

How Portlanders Resurrected a TV Show, Got Their Favorite Movie

What a clusterfuck. In 2002, Firefly—the latest TV show from Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel—was supposed to be the Next Big Thing. It wasn’t.

Quickly and brutally cancelled, Firefly wasn’t heard from again until a few years later—when a feature film, Serenity, promised to resurrect Firefly’s abandoned characters and story. It didn’t.

That should have been the end of things. But it wasn’t. Instead, fans of Firefly and Serenity rallied—getting Serenity back onto movie screens all over the world, and donating over $160,000 to charity in the process. All of this started in Portland, and this weekend, it’ll happen all over again.

The Tragedy of Serenity

"Serenity’s really unique in a lot of ways, but the tragedy of Serenity is particularly unique," says Dark Horse Comics’ Scott Allie, who edits the comic books based on Serenity and Firefly. "You have this TV producer, Joss, who has a huge fanbase [and has] created two really successful shows that people care deeply and passionately about. And then he goes on and he launches another show, [and] it’s hugely anticipated. And then the network totally screws it up—buries it, kills it dead."

The short version: Fox bought Whedon’s Firefly thinking they were getting another Buffy. When they saw what he’d created instead—a witty ensemble drama that mashed up the western and sci-fi genres, and followed a crew of outlaws aboard a junky spaceship—they panicked. (And really, can you blame them? But Firefly’s a billion times better than its synopsis, I swear: Smart and heartfelt and original and scary and funny, it’s one of the best shows in recent memory.) Fox refused to show Firefly’s pilot episode, aired other episodes out of order, and constantly changed the show’s timeslot—in other words, they beat the thing to a quick, bloody death.

But they hadn’t counted on Whedon’s infamously obsessive fans—who bought so many Firefly DVDs that Universal greenlit a feature film. Written and directed by Whedon, Serenity—despite being one of the best films of 2005, and despite being great in all the ways that the show was great—had a meager box office haul. A sequel? Unlikely. So Serenity’s fans—calling themselves the Browncoats, after a group of noble but defeated soldiers in the Firefly/Serenity universe—got creative.

"Late in 2005, a group of Browncoats were leaving one of the last big screen showings of Serenity," says local Browncoat Anna Snyder. "And [Portland Browncoat and blogger] the One True b!X [AKA Christopher Frankonis] was thinking, ’Hey, maybe there’s a way we could get the movie on the big screen again, just for fun.’ And that morphed into, ’Well, if we could do it to raise some money, that would be great.’ Which then became, ’Hey, let’s organize a charity screening and let’s see if we can get other cities involved.’"

The result: An annual fan-run event, bearing the stubborn title Can’t Stop the Serenity. This year, Snyder is helping to organize the event, where Serenity will be shown on the big screen, with the proceeds going to charity. In 2006, Portland led the charge with a screening of Serenity at Cinema 21; over 40 other cities joined in. Last year, the event moved to the Hollywood Theatre and grew, with cities in places as far away as England and New Zealand jumping onboard. This year? Even bigger.

The screenings (timed to coincide with Whedon’s birthday—told you his fans are obsessive) benefit Whedon’s favorite charity, Equality Now. Since 1992, Equality Now has worked to "to end violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world," tackling issues as diverse as political involvement, domestic violence, reproductive rights, and female genital mutilation. Portland Browncoats alone have so far raised over $21,000 for Equality Now; this weekend, they’ll take over the Hollywood again, aiming to push that total even higher.

The Cult of Whedon

The reason they’ll succeed is thanks, in large part, to their tenacity: Firefly and Serenity fans are so passionate about the property that they make those who wouldn’t shut up about Sex and the City and The Sopranos look like halfhearted poseurs.

"Man, you’d think it was Star Wars," says Allie, who will be one of several guest speakers at Portland’s Can’t Stop the Serenity screenings. "You’d think it had been around for 20 years and changed the culture, the way some of these guys react to it." I ask Allie if he ever gets weirded out in his dealings with some of the more fanatical Browncoats. "They don’t freak me out because they don’t do anything real weird, the way some fanbases do," he says. "They have a simply positive effect on the world. The only time you see Browncoats doing anything, they’re raising money for a charity."

"They’re just really a good group of people," Snyder says of her peers in the PDX Browncoats. "They come from such a wide spectrum, and they’re very passionate about what they get involved in." She adds, "One of the underlying missions of the PDX Browncoats is that it’s not only about the show. It’s about taking the values Joss Whedon expresses through his writing, and through his personal life, and going forth."

"It was just amazing to see the Hollywood Theatre fill up for this movie, two nights in a row, with this huge amount of energy and this huge amount of enthusiasm," Allie says, remembering last year’s screenings. "It’s amazing that you take this love of this semi-obscure sci-fi program, and turn it into a nationwide fundraiser for a cause that happens to be near and dear to the creator of the show. Plus it’s in Portland, and originated in Portland—it’s got it all going on."

No, Really... You Literally Cannot Stop It

I’m probably risking a Browncoat beating by writing this, but maybe it’s a good thing Firefly and Serenity weren’t instant hits. Had Firefly succeeded, by now it’d likely just be one more thing for geeks to get boners over at comic book conventions. But thanks to the rough road Serenity and Firefly have traveled—not to mention the fans’ persistence—Serenity has ended up not only as a great movie, but also as something that’s inspired a lot of people to do a lot of good.

As with all cult phenomena, now it’s just a question of how long it’ll last. When I ask Allie if he thinks the Browncoats might burn out, he’s quick to answer. "It won’t die out," he says. "Look at how long [fans] burn candles for all these other things! And I do think that’s where the quality of Joss’ stuff holds up—if people can get passionate about, like, Stargate for years and years and years, I think passion for what Joss does can last forever."

Likewise, Snyder doesn’t see Can’t Stop the Serenity ending anytime soon. "It’s been years since the show went off the air, and three years since the movie was out," she says. "This is gonna be around for a while."

Serenity screens at the Hollywood Theatre (4122 NE Sandy) on Friday, June 20 and Saturday, June 21. Guest speakers include Equality Now’s Amanda Sullivan (Friday night) and Dark Horse Editor Scott Allie and Associate Editor Sierra Hahn (Saturday night). Admission is $15 in advance, and $18.50 day of show, with all of the proceeds benefiting Equality Now. More info: Movie Times on Found It!, equalitynow.org, and serenitynow.pdxbrowncoats.com.