So, let’s talk money.
Now, perhaps it’s only natural that Firefly fans would be a bit defensive about things like financial success or viewership numbers. The TV show was well and truly screwed out of finding a firm audience by a variety of irritating network decisions, that I will not rehash. But let’s just look at Serenity, the great attempt at jumpstarting the whole thing, an attempt that, in terms of creating the opportunity for more live-action adventures in the ‘verse, failed.
Serenity was made, by Universal, for somewhere in the region of 39 million US dollars. By the close of its theatrical run, it had not made that back, but moved into the red within a short enough time frame, thanks to DVD sales and what have you. You’ve heard that story a million times I’m sure.
But it’s actually more complicated than that, because of the things that too many armchair box office speculators tend to ignore completely. They include things like promotion budget, which is usually not included in the production budget number. They include things like distribution costs. They include things like the limited amount of a cinema ticket or DVD sale that the studio actually gets back into its pocket. Serenity is listed as making 40 million dollars or so on Wikipedia, but Universal only saw a bit of that money. But, on the other hand, there are windfalls that Universal also got as a result of Serenity that are not immediately obvious as well.
Let’s go into the details a bit more firmly. You add on an estimated promotion budget. You give the studio around half of the box office, and a certain percentage of DVD sales (I’ve read from reliable sources that usually works out around 12$ per copy). Throw in the cash from rentals. You add on Serenity’s TV rights, sold by Universal as a package deal with a few other films, as standard. This is a really nice, brief, summary from a few years back.
Then you can get into merchandise. Universal gets a bit of every comic book, role playing game and ThinkGeek item that has Serenity connections, and that stuff sends a steady stream of profit the studios way. It’s not on a Star Wars level, where the merchandise profits outweigh the box office profits by a gargantuan degree, but it is something.
With all of that in line, it is completely reasonable to say that Universal made money on Serenity. And not just a small little trickle, but enough that those who made the decision to bankroll Whedon could be satisfied that they weren’t ripped off or duped.
They certainly helped it along. Serenity was released on September 30th 2005. It was a good week to do so, with not exactly amazing competition: the film debuted in second on the American market, behind Jodi Foster’s forgettable thriller Flightplan (38% on RT, sorry fans of airplane drama) and ahead of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and comic adaptation A History Of Violence, that had been released the previous week. Taking a look at what else was going on that week makes for some uninspired viewing. It was a week where Serenity had every opportunity to grab hearts and minds, to take off if you’ll allow the pun. The biggest, cinema dominating, films of that year weren’t around for a month.
Only it didn’t, never getting beyond second place and falling off fast enough. Comparing just to other Universal Films released that year, Serenity’s profit margin lags badly behind the likes of The Producers (7 million theatrical profit), Cinderella Man (20 million), Jarhead (25 million) and Munich (60 million). Films in the same sphere of science fiction genre like Land Of The Dead (26 million) made more, and even acknowledged duds like Doom (-4 million) aren’t that far behind Serenity. And you look at Universal’s heavy hitters that year – Pride and Prejudice (90 million), The 40 Year-Old Virgin (150 million), King Kong (250 million) – and the point begins to become clear.
Even making a profit, Serenity was small fry with its barely breakeven, if that, theatrical run. For the people signing the checks in Universal, the attraction of forking out another 40 million or more for a Serenity sequel is limited, when the possibility that something else could get the budget (or two things with 20 million, or four with ten, etc, etc) and make a more sizable profit.
I mean, just look at Judd Apatow’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin. It was made for little more than half of Serenity, 26 million, and raked in 177 million in return. 700% profit. It’s hard to imagine Joss Whedon doing well in a post-release meeting with Universal executives, when they could just turn around and say “Why shouldn’t we just throw 40 million at two movies like that?”
Whatever the reason – a lack of promotion perhaps, an overestimation of brand recognition, no Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd (there were no stars, at the time, in Serenity, and since then only Chewitel Ejiofor has really made it truly big in Hollywood), or just plain deficiency in that most crucial of box office success makers, word of mouth recommendation – Serenity didn’t cut it. And that’s why the franchise never really got going, even if I happen to think Serenity is one of my favourite films. Serenity had its shot, a much fairer one than it got with Fox. Indeed, I think that things were weighed in its favour that Friday morning. But it simply didn’t work out.
I’m not saying all this to crap on peoples hopes, but I have encountered a certain naivety in the Browncoat community sometimes, a bafflement that Serenity never made it good, confusion over the lack of a sequel and whispers that surely something, someone, wouldn’t let the film succeed as well as it could have. I write this to puncture those ideas a bit. I love Firefly/Serenity and much as anyone else, but reality, while painful, should be acknowledged. We are the minority. They can’t take the sky from us, but they can take a sequel away.