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Praise the Whedon : Do Snakes or Fireflies Have Longer Tails ?

Avner Ronen

Tuesday 27 June 2006, by Webmaster

Reader Avner Ronen compares the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon with what happened to Serenity. He notes:

I’m looking forward to this movie as much as the next net.geek, but I don’t expect as much of a box-office surprise as many seem to be anticipating, because I’ve seen it before.

What am I referring to? Serenity. It would be hard to beat the online buzz Serenity was getting, and sometimes it seems like it’s difficult to find a blogger who isn’t a fan of the prematurely cancelled series Firefly, but all of that buzz and a good deal of critical acclaim still couldn’t get people into the theaters.

He may well be right - it is very easy living at the hub of digital culture to imagine that all of the buzz we are hearing is generalizable across the population as a whole. But let’s look for a moment at what happened with Firefly/Serenity and then, I will try to explain why I think Snakes on a Plane is in a somewhat different situation.

Praise Be the Whedon

Let’s be clear that I am a big fan of Firefly and of Joss Whedon’s other work in television and in comics. I think he’s one of the smartest and most creative people operating within the media industry today. He has enormous respect for his fans and he has earned our respect in return. He had constructed a television series he really believed in.

He was watching a very dedicated, very resourceful fan community form around a television series which either got canceled because a)the ratings were low and it was not seen as having a broad general appeal or b)the ratings were low because the network had not successfully targeted its most likely audiences and given it a chance to develop the word of mouth needed to expand its core viewership. We may never know which of these explanations is the correct one - I suspect some combination of the two.

Whedon still wanted to produce the content; there was a group of people clammering for the content; but the networks didn’t think there’s a large enough audience to sustain a prime time broadcast series. This is a situation we’ve seen again and again in the history of broadcast media. I think it’s about time we rewrote the rules.

Serenity and the Long Tail We are now in the space which Chris Anderson has documented so well in his discussion of the Long Tail. In Anderson’s account, media properties can succeed by appealing to niche rather than mass audiences if you can lower costs of production, publicity, and distribution, keep the content on the market long enough for consumer interest to grow, and count on the most passionate consumers to help spread the word about your brand. By those criteria, Firefly should be as close to a natural for the Long Tail as anything produced for television so far and the brisk sales and rentals of the dvds of the original episodes illustrated that point pretty well.

But Whedon got greedy - or someone got greedy on his behalf - and Firefly moved the wrong direction up Anderson’s Long Tail - towards a blockbuster Hollywood movie which would have required even more viewers to be seen as successful than would have been required to keep the series on the air on a second tier network. Yes, it was way cool to watch those characters up there on the big screen but Whedon set the bar much too high for the existing market for his property and we all paid a price for his hubris.

To make something that felt like a movie, he had to produce something that didn’t feel like a television episode, creating a story that turned the world of the series upside down. Along the way, he killed off some of the most beloved characters and lost some of the elements which many of us liked about Firefly in the first place. At the same time, he compressed a season’s worth of plot developments into two hours or so of screentime with the result that he produced a work that was confusing to many first time viewers and that lacked the gradual character development that was the hallmark of Firefly. I still liked a lot about the movie but what I didn’t like was the fact that it would seem to have pretty much closed the door to further development in the Firefly franchise — at least in the foreseeable future.

The Road Not Taken Imagine, instead, that he had moved in the other direction down the tail, towards the production of television style episodes directly for dvd. I’ve discussed such a system in relation to Global Frequency (a show that suffered an even more premature death than Firefly — canciled before it even reached the air). CMS graduate student Ivan Askwith has advocated the use of the video ipod as a distribution platform for essentially long tail television. We have seen fan groups advocating such an approach for recently canceled series such as The West Wing and Arrested Development.

From the perspective of a producer like Whedon, who has a strong and existing fan base, this should be a very attractive proposition - make as many episodes as you want in whatever story structure you want with no risk that a network will stand between you and your audience, start making money as soon as the first product ships rather than waiting for syndication to turn a profit.

What would make it even more attractive would be to create a subscription based model so that readers paid in advance for episodes they wanted to see and they knew more or less what the core market was before production started. This would be hard to arrange for a totally new property: easier for a canceled series or for a show by a brand-name creator like Whedon. I’d pay now to guarantee access to original content by Whedon, sight unseen, a year from now. So would most of the other brown coats, I would bet. And if he had gone that route, we would have been able to enjoy many more hours of quality science fiction/western action on television, where it belongs, instead of burning up the whole franchise in two hours of big screen excitement.

Yes, there are risks involved — if for no other reason than because no television show has ever made this transition into direct to dvd production. We can point to the example of a growing number of Disney animated features which have generated direct to DVD sequels with a fair amount of success with their core market. But the risks involved would have been lower — financially at least — than trying to turn a failed television series into a Hollywood blockbuster. Whedon could have done it if anyone could and if he had, a lot of other television producers would have followed his example.

What About Snakes?

Serenity had one of the most committed fan bases in media history and they would have followed Whedon anywhere but they weren’t enough on their own to make a success on the tall end of the Long Tail. They needed to draw in lots of non-fans of the franchise. We might imagine that non-fans were resistant to the film now for many of the same reasons that they were resistant to the original series and we can add one more factor: they were reluctant to jump onto a film they knew was based on a series that they hadn’t seen because they were afraid they were going to be lost. Whedon worked hard to make the film accessible and we were told he was going to do so, but guess what, lots of folks didn’t believe him.

So, if we follow the logic of the Long Tail, success on one end of the tail depends on deep commitments from a relatively narrow fan base (that’s what Firefly had) and on the other end, on superficial commitments from a broader range of viewers (and that’s what Snakes on a Plane has.) I doubt anyone really has the same level of passion for Snakes as they have for Firefly. It’s a fun lark — a one night stand, a vacation movie romance. But it isn’t a once in a lifetime passion.

But that’s okay. What’s bad/good about the concept is something anyone can quickly grasp. You hear the title and you chuckle. You see the preview and you are hooked — or not. You don’t need to have seen another media product to consume this one. There’s a star - Jackson - with some box office reputation - remember, Serenity had no stars except those who were in the television series. It’s got some draw as a straight out peddle to the metal action film with a good leading actor and some appeal as the best example of camp and kitsch to hit the screen in some time. Those are good reasons to think the film will have a broader appeal than Serenity - even if, especially if, it is nowhere near as good a movie.

Whedon bet that his fan followers could tell the public to turn out at the multiplex to see his movie. The producers of Snakes have used the audience to tell them how to market this movie and then have applied the capacity of a major publicity campaign to amplify that approach towards the general audience.