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More on Firefly and the Long Tail

Thursday 6 July 2006, by Webmaster

With apologies to Steven Colbert, let’s take this out of the realm of faith-based reasoning and resort to facts.

Reader Reinier Zwitserloot estimates:

There are about 50,000 or so fans, and I’m being generous. Let’s be very amicable and say each ep sells 150,000 times. That’s 300,000 income.

I was skeptical that this estimate was accurate or gave a full picture of what we know about the Firefly audience, so I e-mailed a friend in the television industry to see whether he had access to more reliable numbers. So here’s what he had on the dvd sales:

The Hollywood Reporter reported last July ("Wheedon flock ready for ’Firefly’ resurrection" by Anne Thompson, 22 July) that the DVD set of all 13 episodes had sold more than 200,000 copies. There is an unconfirmed number posted at WHEDONesque.com ("Firefly listed in top 1 DVD sets on FOX.com," thread started by Chris Bridges, 31 March 2006) from someone named "The Hey" that put the sales at 2.5 million on 1 April 2006 — but that seems really high. I’d guess it’s somewhere in the middle, with an uptick last summer/early fall ignited by SERENTITY’s release.

So let’s assume that the 2.5 million number is over the top (unless someone can show otherwise) but we can see that there were at least 200,000 copies of the DVD set sold prior to the films release.

Let’s Do the Math If we assume 200,000 purchasers as the bare minimum, then the episodes would have to go for $5 to recoup Reiner’s estimated budget per episode, which seems steep for impulse purchases, but perhaps not that far off what you ended up paying per episode if you bought the boxed set for roughly $60.

That said, this is probably the most conservative possible reading of the numbers. Keep a few things in mind: these are the number of the copies of the entire set sold at a bulk price. We do not know what percentage of people rented those dvds from Netflix or a similar service. We don’t know how many would have paid a smaller price to sample just one episode. We don’t know what the impact of the film’s release was on the sales or rentals of the dvds (we can bet that it did draw a number of people to the dvds who had not seen the episodes when they were aired. I’d bet most of us know people who followed that route). All of this could boast the numbers over the 200,000 number cited above and start to make what I am proposing look more like a winning proposition.

Now as we turn to statistics about the television audience, the potential market looks even larger. Here’s what Nielsen says:

On average, across 11 weeks that the show aired on FOX, there were 2.7 million people 18-49 and 3.1 million heads of households that tuned in.

Of course, these folks were watching for free and we don’t know how many of them would pay to access the episodes. These numbers are low in terms of ratings for a broadcast show — but if you could turn them into paying customers, they would be very strong numbers for direct to dvd or download sales. A big IF, I know.

Now, Compare the Feature Film

Here’s what we know about the feature film:

Budget for Serenity was $40 million (not including marketing costs). Domestic box office totaled $25.5 million after a $10 million opening weekend (30 September 2005). Foreign take was an additional $13.3 million.

We learn two things from this:

1) if we are right at estimating a per episode cost of 1 million, then the producers could have made 40 episodes, in theory, for what was spent on the feature film.

2) while these numbers are considered poor return on a feature film, getting that many people to spend a good deal less money to download an episode would be considered a major success.

In the course of researching this, I stumbled onto another author, Adam Sternbergh, at New York magazine, who has made a similar case for why Firefly might be a good candidate for direct to consumer production:

Let’s say that Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly, wanted to bring the series back to air. (Though "back to air" is a TV phrase now as anachronistically quaint as "switching the dial.") Let’s say he found a million Firefly fans online—and, trust me, they’re not hiding—who were willing to pay, say, $39.99 each for a sixteen-episode season of Firefly. (Not an unreasonable price, given how many people pay about that amount for full seasons on DVD.) Suddenly, Joss Whedon’s got roughly $40 million to play with—and he doesn’t need a network. Or a time slot. Or advertisers. He can beam the damn shows right to your computer if he wants to.

None of this makes the production of a direct to dvd season of Firefly a sure thing but at this rate, you could have made a number of television episodes for the budget of the feature film.

Predictible Returns: What Disney Teaches Us I introduced the idea of an advanced subscription from fans because this would allow the production company to move forward with confidence that there was at least a minimal market for what they were making. Keep in mind most media production decisions don’t have anywhere near that level of guarantee of market success. They bet on their best guesses of what the audience is going to be.

That’s why the Disney analogy is interesting. Disney doesn’t have to sell subscriptions for its direct to the consumer sequels to The Lion King or The Jungle Book. These videos have a reliable consumer base which regularly pushes them into the top dvd sales or rentals upon release and keeps them there, more or less, until the new titles hit the market. These are in effect presold. They may not make as much money per pop as a theatrical release - but then they also don’t cost anywhere near as much money. They are, however, far less hit or miss than the theatrical films which depend on generating interest around new and untested properties (and Disney’s track record there has been pretty grim).

Pay Check to Pay Check Liza raises a question about whether a show with Firefly’s ensemble cast might work under this model. She writes:

I think the pre-pay, direct-to-DVD/ipod idea has merit, but could not be applied to the task of assembling nearly a dozen actors (rebuilding all the sets!) and ask them to work, essentially, paycheck to paycheck.

My first response was to ask whether Liza has any sense how many television actors right now are living paycheck to paycheck. By this logic, television shows would never get produced at all. Many recurring character actors - anyone who is not a series regular - probably gets hired on a check by check basis and is grateful for the relative stability a gig on a television series represents. While it is true that a long-standing series offers a decent degree of security for a performer, the reality is that any television show can be canceled on the whim of a top network executive. It’s not like tv actors get tenure. That said, she is probably right that it might be hard to hold together an ensemble as large as Firefly had.

I would argue that from the point of view of the production company, my direct to consumer television idea might make more sense (especially when you add my ideas about selling subscriptions in advance to the most hardcore fans): the production company can make a reasonable decision about how many episodes it wants to produce based on iestimates of its likely audience and return on investment. Under the current system, the production company is essentially producing on spec and really only returns its costs once it goes into syndication or DVD packaging. Under this model, the production company starts to get returns from the moment the first product ships.

Is it a risk to go this way? No doubt - all the more so because no other television show has ever done this before. I suspect this option was never considered when Whedon was thinking about the fate of the series. Clearly, the decision would have rested with the studios involved — not with Whedon. (Sorry to have personalized this discussion around Whedon in my first post. I didn’t mean for this to come across as an attack on the guy.) I am sure Whedon wasn’t offered any options forward other than the movie and I am certain under those circumstances, he was better off going with the movie. What I am suggesting here is a way to rewrite the rules of American television. It hasn’t happened yet. It may happen some day.

What The Video iPod Adds Catana notes, speaking about video iPod, that:

We forget how quickly new technologies change things that didn’t seem feasible a very short time before. It was just a bit too early for any choice but Serenity. Alas.

He’s certainly right that using the iPod as the distribution channel wasn’t even a hypothetical option at the point Serenity was made but direct to dvd would in theory have been a model. Video iPod adds two factors to the mix: a stable infrastructure which allows per episode sales to consumers (my assumption is that hardcore fans would buy dvds and that this system will appeal most to casual consumers who want to taste the series) and a global distribution channel which allows you to quickly enter a world-wide market without carrying some of the costs of physically shipping your product. Both are significant advantages but direct to dvd production was possible when the decision was made to go with the feature film.

The Bottom Line In some ways, Firefly would have been the best test case for this model - because of Whedon’s reputation and hardcore fan base. In other ways, it would have been a bad test case for reasons readers have identified - the costs of an ensemble cast and of the special effects budget required for this particular series.

Would it have worked? We will never know.