So I’m a big Joss Whedon fan. Since, say, the second episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Go ahead, laugh – it’s your loss. Whedon’s creative talents have just kept getting better and better, earning himself an incredibly devoted fan base. One so devoted that he credits them with being a significant part of the reason he was able to make Serenity, a movie based on the abruptly canceled Firefly television series. Serenity’s storyline revolved around a group of exiles working against the authorities to make sure that a truth isn’t buried. That storyline is woven around a central message – the truth is a signal that can’t be stopped.
Unlike many (most?) successful director/writers, Whedon has a very positive and active relationship with his fans. And that relationship worked to great benefit for both him and his fans when it came to Serenity. For his part, Whedon kept fans up to date during production, dropped lots of hints without spoiling the story, and invited an enormous number of fans to screenings of the movie while it was still in post-production. What did the fans offer in return? An amazing amount of time and energy devoted to promoting the movie. Not just word-of-mouth “oh, yeah, go see that, it’s good”, but an extraordinary effort by people who simply wanted others to share in wonderful storytelling. People gathered up friends for the screenings, they talked it up in local media, and produced some incredibly well done derivative promotional materials.
Like what? Well, I can tell you – posters, bags, clothing. Some of it was simple, and some of it was amazing. But I can’t show you. Why not? These devoted fans have been shut down. Over a year after Serenity’s successful release, Universal’s lawyers have come to town, and not only want these fans to quit supporting the movie, they want money. In at least one case, the opening demand appears to be $9000. Nice, eh?
Yes, in return for all that devotion, all that hard work, all that energy – Universal is billing fans. They could have simply come out and said “Okay, folks, we know that we’ve traditionally turned a blind eye to this, but we have companies paying us for exclusive rights, and you need to stop now. We know that Joss has even encouraged you to make these things, but it’s not his decision. It’s ours. Thanks for your help, and we know you’ll understand.” No, instead my brethren at the bar embarrass me (yet again) by opening up with nasty demand letters and intimidation tactics. Aimed big guns at people who would have stopped with a simple request. A favorite tactic of the industry, sadly.
But I doubt they’ve ever been on the receiving end of an invoice in response. That’s right, fans have retroactively invoiced Universal for their marketing and promotional services. Can’t stop the signal.