More on Firefly and the Long Tail

With apologies to Steven Colbart, 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 (“Firefly listed in top 1 DVD sets on,” 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.


  1. Greg Conley says:

    I’m really fascinated by what you’ve been saying, concerning Firefly and the “long tail.” I need to do some reading on that, I suppose.

    Anyway, I’ve been whining about direct to video, in some format, since Farscape was cancelled. I don’t know the fine points, as I don’t live in Japan, but I know some anime is direct to video – and is known for higher production quality than serial tv shows. Again, I don’t know the fine points, this might not be true any longer.

    Have you visited these sites?

    The first, in its original incarnation, actually wanted to pool the money needed for a single episode, then give it to Whedon as proof to Fox there was money to be had. Some legal issue stopped that. Now they’re pushing more general, groundroots stuff – of the kind that got Family Guy back on air, I suppose. The second seems to be advocating the same system you are.

    Thanks for such interesting posts, by the way.

  2. According to the rumors I’ve heard, much of the reason Firefly got the treatment it initially did was because of personality conflicts between Whedon and high-ups at Fox, but Fox has something like a 10-year exclusivity agreement for Firefly on television which as a policy they never give up. So even if another network wanted to pick up the series, Fox’s policies wouldn’t let them turn it over, and presumably the high-level conflicts would continue to prevent them from working with Whedon to get the show back on on Fox. Thus, a movie made under a different studio is what we got.

    That’s all rumor, so far as I know, but it certainly seems plausible. I have no idea, however, whether Fox’s purported exclusivity agreement would apply to a direct-to-consumer model.

  3. One could take this even further – have the early, hardcore fans be “friends, fools, and family” investors and owners of the game project. If they love it, they will market it and sell it… even more so, if they own a piece of the action.

  4. What I find really interesting is how much American and Japanese culture differs in terms of “direct to video”. On these shores, I believe DTV is still something of a stigma–it carries the impression that this show wasn’t “good enough” to get onto TV or movie theaters.

    Yet in Japan, direct to video releases of animation–OAVs–are a major distribution channel for the industry, filling a niche between the lower-budget-many-episode TV series and the shorter-but-higher-budget cinematic movie, and it’s been that way since the early 1980s. In fact, OAVs were probably largely responsible for the success of the laserdisc format, given that in Japan videotapes were a rental-only medium and priced-to-sell laserdiscs were significantly cheaper than priced-to-rent VHS.

    American production companies really need to shake off the negative connotations of made-for-video and start releasing more movies that way. Not just schlocky sequels that are too lousy for cinema (like all The Substitute movies) but original movies and series too.

  5. The possibility of direct audience funding was also investigated during the campaign for Farscape, which predated the Firefly campaign by a couple of months. (Indeed there was a lot of back-and-forth strategy-sharing during that time, as many people were fans of both shows.)

    The Viewer Consortium did quite a lot of footwork developing a model for direct viewer contribution as part of the finance package. They got as far as investigating incorporation (which would allow the TVC to sit at the table as producers) and meeting with Henson & Co before news of the mini-series being financed made it rather a moot point. (Neither campaign really got what they wanted show-wise, since a one-off event does not equal 22 weeks, but at least the narrative was closed.)

    The TVC website appears to be down now, but you might find this forum from the boards at SaveFarscape, now, interesting. And Firefly has indeed just recently become available in iPod format.

    One of the problems I forsee with the model of direct viewer finance, however, is prohibitive cumulative costs to the audience. While I would gladly pay $1-3 an episode for a full season of either show, if I had to pay roughly $25 a season for every show I watch, my bill would run upwards of $500 a year. I would hate to see quality television become something available only to those who can afford to buy it. And an iPod to watch it all on.

    In addition, passing the financial burden for keeping a show alive directly on to the viewers does not really guarantee that shows will not suddenly be cancelled. (It was exactly this broken promise aspect which truly fueled the fire for both campaigns as FF was cancelled mid-season, and FS halfway through a two-season contract.)

    The direct model may avoid a show being cancelled due to network shake-up, as Farscape was, or unreasonable demands for audience growth, as with Firefly, however a model which cannot guarantee full production of a coherent season will not be satisfying artistically to either side of the equation. I don’t think we actually can get away from episodic television being a matter of immediate economic viability, whether the revenue is generated from advertising sales, or from viewer contribution. FS, for example, was a relatively cheap show at $1.5mil per ep, but it required $14mil start-up just to get the first script in front of the cameras. That may be generated by pre-sale, but after that, a model which requires immediate profit to continue to finance the show ep-by-ep would be even more sword-of-Damocles than the present system, which at least orders eps in pre-paid blocks of 3 to 25. I would be worried that we as viewers will still be held hostage to market demand, only now we’d be directly out of pocket for a show that doesn’t earn enough to complete its promised run.

  6. The Hey says:

    Of course I have no facts to back up my claim of last April, but the Firefly DVD has been a top selling box set for 28 months.

    The DVD set did sell 200,000 units as reported, but it was just in the DVD’s first month of release in December 2003 – which prompted the gears in motion to produce “Serenity”. Given that a title like Chappelle’s Show can sell 5 million in a few months, 2.5 million over 2 1/2 years is not so far fetched.

    Fox has not released actual numbers since the first month, which tells me that as they enjoy the success of the product, they shy away from admitting that they were wrong about Firely.

  7. Terry Mancour says:

    A very intriguing proposition. But there are some additional factors which might be a help.

    Firstly, while Serenity did indeed gross just $25 million or so BO, that is a base line figure that plugs into the larger rule-of-thumb formula: that BO accounts for roughtly 20% of total revenues on any given property. Once you add in foreign sales, pay per view, direct, DVD, etc. Serenity can be estimated to have grossed about $125 million, and grew the already impressive DVD numbers for the Firefly series by a good portion.

    Secondly, there is the merchandising issue. Firefly was poorly merchandised to the point where the fans essentially had to make their own — a great thing for the art of the show, and a contributor to the overall fan culture, but a definate loss of potential profit for the producers.

    Would a Firefly direct-to-video series work? Consider how many pilots are paid for, to the tune of millions, only to crash and burn before they hit their stride. Then consider the cost of marketing for any new show that has no built-in audience. A second Firefly series (lightened by the reduction of the crew by two characters) already has a hard-core, built-in audience of at least 300,000+, which would be quickly augmented by word-of-mouth by fans hungry for more Whedon fare. Call it 400,000, just to be arbitrary. Film four post-Serenity episodes at a million apiece, plus another ten million to rebuild the sets, etc., and you can break even with a $35-$40 DVD release, easily. But the revenue streams do not stop at DVD sales or direct downloads of episodes. You are building a franchise, here, with merchandising potential and hefty legacy. Convince the fans that this is the last that they will see of the ‘verse unless sales are stellar, and you might could double that figure.

    But why eschew advertising? DVD and direct download both have opportunities for advertising placement, pure gravy. Throw in a broadcast on SCI-FI network 6 months after the DVD release, and you’re well into profitable territory.

    Would the actors and crew work on spec like that? Probably. Convince them to work for SAG minimums with a nice piece of the back-end, and they’d go for it just to keep their rabid fans hungry for more. Conventions might suck after a while, but if the phone doesn’t ring for anything else for a few months then a couple of cons can pay the rent while your agent keeps hunting. Keeping the fans happy is in their best interest — face it, none of the actors has an appreciable fan base for their other work. They need Firefly as a career-building vehicle as much as anyone. And the direct to DVD format would allow a far more flexible shooting schedule than a show that has real air dates. Nathan’s doing another bad horror flick? (No offense — just not a horror fan) Just re-schedule his scenes. No worries. Gina can’t make it out until the end of the month? Shoot her seperately and CGI her in.

    We live in the age of video magic. These are not hard problems. And the geeky Firefly fans are not poverty stricken. When millions are flushed every year on stupid pilots that will never attract an audience and never see the light of day after their inglorious debuts, how hard could it be to convince a few angel investors (no Whedonesque pun intended) to pony up the dough for a proven commodity?

    A fact that escapes most analysts (but shouldn’t) is that every proven commercial property like Firefly continues to generate revenues in one form or another in perpetuity. Babylon 5 is still making money — not a lot, perhaps, but the hard work has been done on the show. Everything after that is residual income. I say someone should stake the first 4 episodes, and then based on the sales and response to those the next four should be shot. Do this six times and you have a season of the traditional variety, complete with two-hour season finale and a Christmas special. And with every new episode, new fans will not only purchase the initial show, but all of the previous shows as well. Add in the superpacks of the old show, movie, and new show, plus Joss’ visual companion and related works, and you have plenty of profit opportunities without the pain and angst of developing a show from scratch.

    And gorramit, Joss (I know you’re reading this) when are we gonna see some novelage? How many fanfic novels does a guy have to write before he gets a chance at real papery books? Steven Freakin’ Brust has written a FF novel on spec, and it’s languishing in his office right now. Turning down that kind of talent is like telling Beckham “Sorry, but the last slot on the team was just filled.”

    In point of fact, the fans ARE demanding more story, and as shiny as the comics are they are inadequate for the story arcs we want to see. If ever there was a potential test-case for direct-to-video/video download of a show, this is it — and it could be had for less than the cost of research into the matter.

    Terry Mancour

    Blatantly self-promoting author of fan-fic and diehard Browncoat