Do Snakes or Fireflies Have Longer Tails?

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 — canceled 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.


  1. Have you considered the possibility that Snakes On A Plane could be a hoax/game?

    I won’t be surprised if this turns out to be the case.

    Of course, the other possibility is that THIS buzz could actually produce the funds required for the hoaxer-gamers so they can make an actual movie, when there was none.

    It’s an ARG, I say. Like Perplexity.

  2. You may well be right about the possibilities for the long tail and Firefly. I think it was a matter of timing. 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.

  3. Um…Avner Ronen didn’t write that, although he did comment in that thread. I wrote the quoted text, however.

    You make some excellent points about Whedon’s unfortunate gamble, and I certainly wish he’d followed a scheme more like what you outline above than what he did. What I keep coming back to though, is sitting in the theater waiting for X-Men III to start, and seeing the SoaP teaser trailer come on. As I describe in my review the audience reaction was starkly mixed, with a few (maybe a third, at most) applauding and hooting, and the rest of the audience making sounds of bafflement and general confusion.

    Part of the joy in SoaP pre-fandom is the privelege of the in-joke. We are, in essence, a multi-million populace that is indulging in a little cliquish fun. SoaP is certainly enjoyably absurd on its own merits, and I’m sure some of the baffled in that crowd were intrigued and encouraged by the enthusiasts’ responses around them, but there are many Americans who just don’t seem to appreciate that particular brand of absurdity. To their loss, IMO.

  4. JoDiamonds says:

    It’s an even smaller, more niche market, but some of the ideas of paying for production in advance have been in use by GMT, a board game company, for some years now.

    See here:

    Basically, you collect orders up front with just a sketch of the game, and when there’s 500 orders they actually make & finish the game. You get a discount for ordering early (i.e. before there’s critical mass).

  5. I think Universal just tested out Whedon and his product rather than attempt a blockbuster. Serenity had a mid-range budget and it wasn’t heavily promoted at all. Sure, there was lots of hype on the Internet but not in media outlets at large. There were no toys with Happy meals and the actors didn’t appear with Leno or Letterman. There were a few short TV ads (enough to make the general public go “huh?”) and some pretty crappy movie posters. It also wasn’t released until September, after “blockbuster” season. With international totals + DVD sales and so on, Universal will make their money back. With the meagre effort Universal put into it, they’re getting their meagre money back. Too bad you hint that Whedon’s the greedy one. It was Universal’s job to sell it to the public. Their promotion was kinda average at best. I think they were trying out something new, especially from a marketing standpoint. The earnings fell within their projections. They weren’t trying to “milk it” because they didn’t put much effort into getting the word out, outside of the online buzz.

  6. 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.

    There’s a reason this has been done only with animated features (or board games) thus far: actors. You may be underestimating the logistics involved in getting together working adults who, unlike me, are not waiting around for Whedon to call them up for Firefly II.

    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. Less ambitious projects (like the River Tam Sessions promo shorts) seem totally doable, but I can’t imagine it taking off with an ensemble cast like Firefly’s.

  7. I never understood the SOAP appeal. I won’t be one of the ones standing in line for it, obviously.

    But the other thing I wanted to say is that I think your characterization of Whedon is completely wrong. This man made SERENITY out of love–for the universe he created, for the fans and for the actors. SERENITY is an love letter to FIREFLY and all the stories he never got to tell. When the series was cancelled he went all around Hollywood trying to find someone else to pick it up, in any form. Universal was the entity that decided to do it and that was through a feature film. It just takes time to bring a project together and four years ago, people weren’t thinking the same way about D2DVD and subscription downloads.

    I don’t think anyone thought SERENITY was going to be a huge, breakout hit, but I am sure they would have liked for it to do better at the box office than it eventually did. Universal didn’t seem to put much marketing muscle behind it and they released it at the ass end of summer, a terrible time for a movie like this. They tried to market it on the cheap and it really did hurt the movie’s box office, IMHO.

    By now though, SERENITY has certainly made a profit through DVD sales and other revenue generating streams. I keep hearing that box office is mattering less and less, that DVDs are where the money’s at. It will be interesting to see if anyone comes to the realization that the FIREFLY universe is a really good money making opportunity, if only because of the rabidity of its fans.

    We’re overdue for an intelligent, adult science fiction franchise. FIREFLY/SERENITY interest is at its greatest ever–today! It would be a shame for shortsightedness to let it die.

  8. The biggest differences between Serenity and Snakes on a Plane are Samuel Jackson and the titles.

    Serenity was by no means a marketable title, while SoaP is a marketing team’s dream.

    And the average moviegoer knows Samuel Jackson, unlike the cast of Firefly.

    Everyone and their sister will be talking about SoaP, not just fans of Jackson and bloggers, I think SoaP has the potential to rake in huge amounts at the box office because of that.

  9. How many people would actually pay the 2 bucks for a firefly episode, you think? Taking into consideration that there’s no big splash on TV.

    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. Apple takes some of it, but lets be even nicer and say Joss and co keep it all.

    Firefly, season 1, cost over a million/ep all told. 300k is not nearly enough. Imagine it flops.

    There will not be an independent firefly. Firefly, while easily the best show in recorded history of time, is very expensive, and without mainstream appeal it cannot work in its current perfectionistic format.

    I don’t know of any viable alternatives except for the world at large to become less dense. Trying to reduce firefly eps to a budget of about 300k a piece tops is going to make a show that just won’t be as good.

  10. Roboslug says:

    Your smoking crack if you think there are 50,000 firefly fans…maybe hard core ones…sure.

    The DVD series and movie were both big hits on Amazon & while I don’t know where the numbers settled on the Serenity film, it was around 25 million I think.

    50,000 * $10 a head does not equal the $25+ million sold tickets and I doubt that more than 30% of the audience had never seen firefly (most probably saw it on DVD I imagine).

    Anyway, the point being is that I would pay $80 for a DVD of another season, and I am not even a BIG fan, just a starving sci-fi fan who liked the show a bunch.

    I imagine most fan would, and many would probably even pre-order. Heck, they could have the first half of the seasons budget on pre-orders if it was a serious venture.

  11. Three problems with an otherwise insightful post. First, I disagree that Serenity was the result of Whedon’s hubris or greed. Rather, it was the only option open to him at the time. He did try shopping Firefly to all the other networks, with no luck. Universal approached him, and he jumped on that as a chance to return to the ‘verse.

    Second, while he may have “killed the franchise,” from his viewpoint this may have been the only chance he had to give the series a satisfying ending. He has said on numerous occasions that he had to write this as if there would be no more movies, no more shows. And it’s not like he hasn’t killed off popular characters before; his fans know that and want to see what he comes up with afterwards.

    I agree that the lack of character development hurt the movie, as well as the forced exposition (masterfully done, but still forced), but to my mind the biggest problem with getting people to see Serenity in the first place was Universal’s decision to solely base their promotions on viral marketing. Were any of the cast on a single talk show before the movie? Did any of them pop up on MTV or The Daily Show or Leno? Instead the cast was rushed to every science fiction and comic book conventions all summer. A great way to get the attention and love of the fans who were probably already going, but not very helpful to the audience they needed to reach, which was everybody else. Aside from some confusing-to-the-newcomer trailers there was nothing out there that would catch the eye of the casual movie fan. As you said, Serenity didn’t have star power. But any of the cast members — bright, funny, attractive — would stand out on a talk show. Just picture Nathan hosting Saturday Night Live. And hey, maybe someone would have noticed.

    I applaud Universal for their brilliant viral marketing. I blame them for not trying anything else.

  12. There’s another reason people forget when talking about Serenity’s low performance at the box office: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

    As a nation, we’re already forgetting the impact of those storms, but Serenity was released just after they ripped through the Gulf states. My friends and family who live in that area (Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas) were only slightly affected by those storms, but they were all without power for more than two weeks and all sustained damage to their homes.

    Even here in New England we had refugees from those storms, as well as rescue and relief operations pouring into the South to help victims. My friend in Louisiana and my cousins in New York are still sharing their homes with evacuees, 10 months later.

    I’ve seen a conservative estimate that Katrina and Rita affected more than 50 million people, either directly or because of rescue and relief efforts.

    It’s no wonder people didn’t get to the theatres to watch movies.

  13. tallgrrl says:

    “…Serenity didn’t have star power. But any of the cast members — bright, funny, attractive — would stand out on a talk show.”

    But you have to understand that you’re not even going to GET on a talk show unless you’re an A-list actor anymore.

    None of the wonderful stars of Serenity/Firefly is on the A-List. The bookers on Letterman, Leno, are in the business of getting big names on their shows. Names that the most amount of people recognize.

    Serenity got picked on a lot of critics’ Best Of lists. But here we are in the days of celebrity-driven box office, and “no one” knows who the stars of Serenity are.

    People have gottent to the point where they pretty much won’t even go to a movie if they don’t know anyone who’s in it.’

    Sad, sad, sad state of affairs.

  14. Silverstar says:

    There is some merit in viral/internet marketing to a specific. On the one hand tt worked with Dave Chapelle and his TV show. Clips with available for download for fans and curious newcomers and because of that his TV show DVD were sold for close to 2 million copies. But on the other hand if a fan base becomes too concentrated, cliqueish or inclusive it unintentionally shuts out anyone else to be curious and join in.

    I think both Serenity and SoaP have merit but the problem can directed to another metaphor of the fishing net. Most films, even genre niche films will try to attempt to toss their net across a wide general audience and then whatever they pull in will be the fanbase that will definitely continue to support the film. The problem with Whedon/Universal (I think both) is that they went the opposite direction, they went out to the fanbase and expected to spread out into a general audience. So basically a smaller specific net was thrown out that only reached out and pulled in a smaller more concentrated base that is already hooked into the product. The problem with marketing the movie as a lead off from the TV show is that not a lot watched it and it was cancelled in less than a season which makes people more suspicious. It should have been marketed as its own film without any baggage or history carried with it, and to say it’s a phenomenon without letting it prove itself to the movie audience in the long run was a bit of hubris because that creates an expectation that no one realistically attain.

    And it didn’t help that they had pre-screenings of Serenity in Apr/May because by the time the September release came in most audience would probably feel like that the film has been released since April and the momentum will die down for such a long drawn out wait. It should have been pre-screened within a month of release to exploit box office buzz.

    And I agree that Whedon should have taken his film and make the effort to appear for TV appearances with cast and crew. Because even with the positive buzz built by audience and internet it’s no good if it’s kept within the fan clique and not exposed to a general audience and built on it. It felt like he relied on the fans and only the fans to support and watch this film and not reaching out to strangers to see this film.

  15. D Isbell says:

    I have to disagree a little with C.A. Bridges. I had only remotely heard of Firefly before Serenity came out. I went to the theatre out of curiousity based on a trailer I saw. I loved the movie! I have now watched every Firefly episode and am seeking out the prequel comic book. True, the franchise is probably dead to film unless a financial/marketing person within the industry grows a brain (not likely to happen.) However, I think comics are a terrific format for this series. The medium kept Star Wars alive for alot of years between episode 6 and episode 1. The same could happen for Firefly/Serenity. Maybe two decades will be long enough for a bean counter in the industry to realize that this is a piece of art that deserves to be continued, and will be profitable if they just share it with the public, and keep their greedy hands off of it (lest they spoil the art.)

  16. Just a quick logistical note. That quote wasn’t by Avner Ronen, but by Skwid. The name of the author of the comment is listed below the comment. This comment, for example, was posted by Greg London.



  17. I am a fan that came about maybe 2 months ago. I was referred to FireFly by a work mate who loved the show, and Serenity. I found the series on sale, bought it and watched it. Right after that I ran out and purchased Serenity. Since then (2 months ago) I have lent FireFly/Serenity to numerous friends at work to watch, and they have become fans.

    My point being, I think the problem with me when Serenity came out, I had never ever HEARD of FireFly, and did not go and see Serenity, even though it had great reviews, because I just knew nothing about it. Everyone I have met that are FireFly fans, including the guy who turned me on to it, became fans AFTER Serenity had already left the big screen.

    I look online everyday for word that FireFly will someday come back in whatever medium we can get it back in. So, I think that the biggest base of fans have come after the fact, or will continue to grow as word of mouth continues and new fans are created. I believe there is still hope out there for Serenity. Family Guy is a perfect example and now with the return of Futurama, FireFly I believe does stand a chance of a new life on another station. Executives are really missing a cash cow by not bringing this show back to the air. And yes, I would pay $5 an episode to get it online if it would mean bringing this show back.

  18. scdetroit says:

    I have seen BOTH movies now, and they were GREATTTTT!

    i had never seen the series and didnt see the movie when it came, now to my deepest regret. terrific entertainment. Wheldon needs to to know on g lucas’s door and say, you produce and i will write/direct and we will make a mint. he did it will spielburg, no reason he cant do it with weldon. rented serenity on dvd and just had a lovely time, except when the sister’s man dies, unfair!

    Snakes on a plane was terrific fun, scary, dumb, lots of action, corney lines….there is even a

    plot curve stolen from “flight of the Phoenix” thats just hilarious. unfortunely, the show i went too was rush hour, not a lot of people. the forums are saying this is the kind of movie to be seen in a crowded show and participate by yelling at the screen at various times, and i will have to agree, its rare, “not since the rocky horror show have folks felt the freedom to do that. it;s going to be a huge hit, blockbuster, maybe. by the end of all, it only cost 35 million to make, so there no way it can fail with so low a mark to hit. i want to see again with a big crowd.

  19. I’d seen a part of one of the Firefly episodes before seeing Serenity but I was a Whedon-head for years before that due to Buffy. I bought the Firefly DVD set after seeing Serenity, and after borrowing it from a friend! I think the commenters underestimate the fan base that crossed over from Buffy, with or without buzz. Has anyone actually looked for sales data for the Firefly DVD set? I bet Whedon or someone’s posted it somewhere. There’s such a dearth of authentic SF in theaters today (i.e., not monsters, or superheroes, or anime) that something like Serenity couldn’t help but stand out in the marketplace. The marketing may have been viral, but the market was hungry.