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Mark Beall’s Geek Beat : Universal Sues Serenity Fans

Mark Beall

Thursday 2 November 2006, by Webmaster

Regular readers of Geek Beat are very familiar with my opinion of Joss Whedon. Essentially, it boils down to the following two points.

1. I don’t really dig Whedon’s work. This is in no way a shot at Whedon’s creative ability, or a shot at those of you who really like his stuff. It’s just a statement of personal taste. You know, like "I don’t like broccoli." It may mean my personal taste in the realm of modern sci-fi is very poor, but so be it.

2. I have a deep and profound respect/admiration for the man, which probably borders on hero worship.

Yeah, I don’t really understand it either.

Here’s the deal: Like him or hate him, fanboy or critic, I don’t think you have any choice but to admire what Joss Whedon has accomplished. And I’m not really referring to his body of work, because frankly, I don’t admire that so very much. Again, Browncoats, I’m talking personal taste here, so please don’t take offense. What I’m referring to, of course, is the relationship Whedon has crafted with his fans. In many ways, it is easy to gain the fickle love of the American public — create something they like, and they are yours for a season. What you don’t see as often is the same love reciprocated back upon the public audience. With Whedon, I get the feeling he honestly, earnestly cares about his fan base, and not just because they are the people who pay his bills.

Perhaps I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. For all I know, Whedon is nothing more than an exceptionally calculating man who simply knows how to play a crowd. If he is, he’s a masterful performer. But I just can’t see that being the case, so we’re going to continue operating under the assumption near certainty that we’re all correct about the man and he really does care the people who watch his work.

Now why you ask — and rightfully so — why are we rehashing all this Joss Whedon junk when the man hasn’t really been up to much lately except his continuing efforts to write a script for a Wonder Woman movie? (A movie about which I have very profound worries regarding box office potential and what it could mean for the man’s career, but that is another Geek Beat for another time.) We are rehashing all of this Whedon junk because his relationship with his fans is a key element in this very interesting little tidbit of news which crossed my desk courtesy of our very own Chris Campbell, who sent me this link from iFMagazine. The contents of the story are rather important to this article, so you’ll either need to read it (it is only a paragraph, so it isn’t a long read) or allow me to sum it up for you.

For those of you who want the summary version, the essential story is this: Universal at one point begged, begged Whedon’s famously loyal fans to do grassroots promotion of the Serenity film. Even shortly after the film debuted, Universal apparently continued to support such fan activity. Unfortunately for the studio (and the fans) the promotional attempts went for naught, and the movie performed below expectations. Now it looks like the studio is attempting to recoup some of their losses on the film by nailing fansites with cease and desist orders and monetary fines for posting fan-created images. One case cited by the mag claims to have been nailed for upwards of nine thousand dollars.

So this is what Whedon fans get for their dedication — a television series canned unfortunately early, a box office disappointment which virtually assures there will never be sequels, and now — lawsuits. That’s a tough sequence of pills to swallow for the Wedon faithful. This seems to be a tragically ridiculous path for Universal to pursue, so if any of you out there have real, hard knowledge of facts which either contradict or support the stated version of the story, I would appreciate your contributions. Fansites with fan images exist for practically every television show and movie ever created, so it seems illogical to start nailing folks for thousands of bucks for ... well ... being fans of your movies.

As always, there are two ways to view every story, and it should be pointed out that if Universal is in fact doing this, they are probably entirely within their legal and professional rights to do so. I’m not questioning the legality of their actions — just their wisdom. If you start coming down hard on fans for being crazed fans, aren’t you cutting out the strongest pillars of your fanbase? And not only are you directly offending the few dozen or so hardcore fans whose websites you target, you’re indirectly offending thousands of others who hear the story. Reputation means a lot in this business, particularly when you are talking about genre films.

Granted, Serenity fans are not a big loss for Universal. As previously stated, Serenity was not a financial success for the studio, and they aren’t going to be dipping back into that well any time soon. So weigh in, Whedonites: Is it okay for the studio to cut losses and bring down the heavy end of the hammer on fans they once called upon for help? Is it perhaps even a wise legal move for a movie studio to keep clear property rights on their own characters? Or is this simply a case of sour grapes?