Judged by the iron rules of showbiz, Joss Whedon's TV series Firefly and the spinoff movie Serenity were failures. Interesting—with their ragged Wild West-meets-sci-fi settings and cast of gunslinging outlaw spacefarers cursing in Chinese—but failures. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator's series bombed on Fox in 2002. The follow-up film stalled at the box office last September.
But that's the old paradigm talking. Firefly attracted an extraordinary worldwide corps of fans who call themselves Browncoats. (The name comes from an always-outgunned rebel army key to Firefly mythology.) And now, Portland's own Browncoats are spearheading an international effort to breathe new life into Serenity, which won critical acclaim, if not huge ticket sales.
In late June, near-simultaneous Serenity screenings in at least 33 cities—from Portland and Montreal to Adelaide, Australia—will raise money for Equality Now, a women's-rights organization Whedon supports. The coordinated onslaught came together online, but originated in a nighttime carpool on Portland's east side.
"It was the end of December," says Christopher Frankonis, the local Browncoat best known for blogging about local politics under the name The One True b!X. "Three or four of us were on the way home from either the Laurelhurst or the Kennedy School. We started talking about how the second-run screenings [of Serenity] were winding down. How can we see it on the big screen again?
"In a few minutes, that turned into 'Let's pick a day and try to organize a screening.' In about five seconds, that turned into 'Let's do a charity screening.' And about two seconds after that, it became, 'Let's pitch this to everyone.'"
That night, Frankonis nabbed the Internet domain name Cantstoptheserenity.com. Six months later, "Serenity Now/Equality Now" testifies to the Web's capacity to harness the energy of obsessed civilians everywhere.
Frankonis finessed distribution issues with Universal Studios and played a coordinating role. Otherwise, fans in individual cities organized the showings themselves. "I was relentless in pimping the idea," Frankonis says. "Once people emailed me to say they were organizing in Boston, say, I put that up on the site. But there's no central office picking which cities would be involved."
Screenings are scattered over June 22-25. The Portland event, June 23 at Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland, will serve as a rallying point for the local Browncoat battalion. With a Yahoo! group 356 members strong, Portland's Firefly fanbase is one small example of how grassroots, Web-connected enthusiasts are rewriting the entertainment industry's rules.
"It's an interesting period," Frankonis says. "The fanbase is still in the process of collectively deciding what it's going to be. The thing about this particular show is that there's so little of it, any enjoyment we're going to get out of it in the future is going to have to be self-generated. In this case, for once, it's not just fans organizing to convince someone to keep making a show they like. It's fans organizing for the benefit of something bigger."
For tickets and other information on Portland's
"Serenity Now/Equality Now" screening, see www.serenitynow.pdxbrowncoats.com.