Thursday, August 4, 2005

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August's Books of the Month

The general interest book is -- [um, like, it's August. Could you please suggest something that's less.... non-fictiony?--ed.] I'll do that suggestion one better -- I'm not going to recommend a book. Instead, I'm strongly recommending that you go out and purchase Firefly -- the Complete Series -- a DVD of Joss Whedon's sci fi series from 2002. I confess that I missed the show when it first came out, but thanks to Tyler Cowen's suggestion I checked it out and am now completely hooked. There are many, many, many paeans to Firefly in the blogosphere if you're interested in them. Anyone who likes Battlestar Galactica needs to watch this show in order to understand the debt, both in terms of themes and visual style, that Galactica owes to Firefly (this is not meant to diss Galactica, which is a fine show, but rather point to its influences). At its core, Firefly is Whedon doing what Whedon does best -- making his watchers forget the multiple layers of irony they are used to in popular culture and care very deeply about what happens to the little world he has created. Be sure to check out Whedon's commentary tracks for some of the episodes as well -- you'll see that he cares even more about the characters than you do.

[So why now, why not save this until the fall?--ed.] Because Whedon has also accomplished something extrardinary -- he managed to convince a major movie studio to commit a fair amount of money and let him make a movie, called Serenity, based on the show. Here's the synopsis:

Joss Whedon, the Oscar? - and Emmy - nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE, ANGEL and FIREFLY, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity. The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family ?squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.

Whedon even contributed a final entry on the making-of-the-movie blog.

You can watch the Serenity trailer here. I suspect it will be an entertaining film regardless of whether you have seen Firefly -- Whedon also wrote the screenplays for Speed and Toy Story -- but I bet it will be an even better viewing experience if you have seen all 14 episodes of the show (the Sci Fi channel is also airing them).

[How in the hell did Whedon convince a studio to convert a failed TV show into a movie?--ed.] The best answer I've seen is in this Weekly Standard article by M.E. Russell. Besides the most succinct description of the show I've seen yet, ("Think of it as Star Wars, if Han Solo were the main character, and he still shot Greedo first."), Russell explains why Universal thinks this is worth doing:

Budgeted at a mere $40 million, Serenity will almost certainly break even once box office, home-video, and other aftermarket revenues are counted--which means Universal can afford to use the film to beta-test a new way of selling movies.

Rough-draft versions of films--with temporary music, editing and "placeholder" special effects that look like Nintendo 64 screenshots--usually have a carefully controlled release only to tightly-monitored focus-group screenings. They're never shown repeatedly to their core audiences (paying core audiences, mind you) four months in advance of their official release dates. Nor do actors and producers attend these screenings with barnstorming vigor: But in Serenity's case, all the major cast members have made surprise appearances during the screenings--signing autographs and holding lengthy Q&A sessions afterwards.

At the May 26 showing in Portland, some significant studio brass were on hand. Universal Pictures marketing bigwig Julie Brantley and Serenity executive producer Chris Buchanan introduced the film and watched it from café £hairs on the side of the auditorium....

And even if the producers are worried, it's a calculated gamble. The June 23 wave of previews has been expanded to 35 cities--including a couple in Canada--but the movie has still only been seen by a small percentage of hard-core fans. So the screenings create the illusion of scarcity and keep the fan message boards alive by relieving pre-release suspense in little kettle-steam puffs. It creates all-new sub-hierarchies of fans with "I saw it before you did" bragging rights. It inspires free advertising in the form of entertainment-press stories (including, well, this one) about the "Browncoat phenomenon." And, best of all for Team Whedon, revenue from these screenings will very likely be applied to Serenity's opening-weekend gross.

The marketing plan rises to evil-genius levels when you realize all the ways the move from April to September pried open six months' worth of free-publicity for the entire Firefly/Serenity franchise. Since the fan screenings began, Firefly DVD sales have shot up the genre charts at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. In July, a Dark Horse Serenity comic book, written by Whedon, will hit shelves, and the Sci-Fi Channel will soon start broadcasting the 14 Firefly episodes--all of them, in order.

None of which cost Universal a dime.

Of course, by blogging about this, I've become an unwitting pawn to the whole viral marketing approach.

Mmmm.... unwitting pawns....

Join the Browncoats, and go buy the goram DVD.

This month's international relations book is one that's been killing me for the past few weeks as I've been working on my APSA paper -- Susan Sell's Private Power, Public Law: The Globalization of Intellectual Property Rights.

Sell's book is about the role that software, pharmaceutical, and entertainment firms played in having the United States lobby for the creation of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property system (TRIPS) within the World Trade Organization -- and then the counter-lobbying by developing countries and transnational activist networks that led to the November 2001 Doha Declaration, which explicitly carved out an exception to TRIPS "to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all."

It's the second part of the story that drives me crazy -- because if Sell's narrative is correct, it falsifies the argument I make in my own book on globalization and global governance. When the regulatory status quo is embraced by the two largest trading powers (the US and EU) and by powerful economic sectors embedded in those economies, there is no way that weaker countries and NGOs should be able to budge the status quo. And yet, if Sell's account is correct, that's exactly what happened (Any USTR folks who know otherwise, kindly e-mail me).

It's because Sell's account is so compelling that I'm in the middle of doing something that should happen more often in political science -- examining the cases that cut against my own hypothesis. Either this case is emblematic of a larger problem or it suggests a minor anomaly that I didn't account for in the original model, or the significance of the case is overblown. Reading through, I think it's a combination of the latter two, but it's a credit to Sell's book that she's making me sweat this case. Go check it out.

posted by Dan on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM


Serenity looks incredible. I highly recommend the series. Then again, I own all seven seasons of "Buffy" on DVD, so I might not be a credible source.

posted by: Grant on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

"Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand..."

I also recently discovered Firefly. When it aired, I remember being concerned about trying to mix the Western and scifi genres, but - big surprise - Wheedon managed to pull it off. I agree with you about Battlestar owing a big debt to Firefly, I have to confess that I think the new Battlestar is the better show. Firefly is terrific fun, but Battlestar does what good science ficiton used to do - ask hard questions that sometimes don't have real answers. That said, nothing would make me happier than a great Firefly movie (Did you get a chance to see it at the screening, Dan? I have yet to hear a really firm opinion on it.) and seasons and seasons of Battlestar on Scifi.

One suggestion, Dan. Why not add a DVD of the month as a regular feature, instead of just this one-time August treat? More amazon sales via your blog couldn't really hurt, could it?

posted by: Aaron on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]


your argument may be wrong - I do hope that it isn't- but the good news is that you found fertile ground for churning out a good number of papers between you and Sell until you resolve the problem for once and for all!

PS. Getting the claws out won't hurt either!

posted by: Nick Kaufman on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

So glad you hyped Firefly and Serenity! Was never a big Buffy/Angel Fan, but Firefly takes the Space Opera standard and turns it 90 degrees. My biggest complaint: taking this brilliant TV show to the movies was fine -- but I want the goram TV show back on TV! Whedon's greatest scriptwriting strength (apart from the biting humor) is his ability to develop characters over time, which requires an episodic format. I know the movie will do well -- can we get it back on TV? PS: you forgot to mention all the truly vile, un-beeped cursing . . . in Mandarin. Probably the biggest stroke of genius for the show.

posted by: Terry Mancour on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

I am a huge Whedon fan myself, and I also recommend the firefly box set!!! Watch it, you will not be disappointed.

posted by: Natalie on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

I've already said this before, but I think Firefly is an absolutely awesome show (even if it doesn't feature the hotness that is Natalie Portman).

posted by: fling93 on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

Great job on your part for talking up the show and movie! Of course, I'm totally biased because I'm a Whedon freak.

I saw one of the sneak preview showings in Tampa. I absolutetly loved it, but again, I think Whedon walks on water. I think other fans of the genre will rate Serenity "pretty good" at the least. It can be enjoyed if one hasn't seen Firefly, but if you've really liked Firefly you should pretty much love the movie. Joss is at his finest here, with the possible exception of some work he did on Buffy. It simply doesn't have the budget of a Lucas film, but the effects it does have are excellent. The story doesn't need excessive effects to attract viewers however, because it's character driven. The actors are compelling and look like the movie stars they are on the big screen. It's much like the show, just way bigger and better. Mal, Jayne and Simon are even hotter on the big screen and I wouldn't have thought that possible. But again, heavy bias here. And oh yeah, the story starts rolling during the opening credits and never slows down -- 'til the closing credits. There's the usual seamless mix of drama, action, comedy, suspense, a little bit o' the creepy... and on and on. Note: "seamless" It's the kind of film that's like a rollercoaster from start to finish and keeps you riveted all the way through. And leaves you wanting more. And there's the usual Whedon-gut-wrenching emotion going on and I can think of one scene that might just leave you clapping in the theater, and you know what a rarity that is! You might not get reviews as rave as this from the general movie-going population, but some people won't get it. Serenity is a story revolving around around 9 main characters, but the storylines have now been adjusted to accommodate the new 90 minute big screen medium. None of the actors are big names (yet) and Universal's marketing is great because it's sure worked on me. It's a tough sell but worthy for a reason.

I'm as sucked in as all the other die-hards and these days I'm pimping Firefly/Serenity every time I go to a bookstore, comic shop or Best Buy, as well as most times I go online to about three discussion forums with related threads. Universal is loving me for the free promo; Dark Horse, Marvel and Vertigo are loving my new interest in comics (which really started when Whedon began writing Astonishing Xmen); and now SciFi is reaping the benefits too, because I've started visiting their site as well as watching Firefly on Friday nights despite owning the DVDs. But hey, marketing -- little tidbits of Serenity previews each week so far! I'm so glad it's airing on SciFi (and still PO'd at Fox for cancelling it) that fine! I'll sit here with SciFi on 'til eleven pm even if I don't watch SG1 and Battlestar Galactica as closely. They're growing on me and I'm so passionate I'll even say I'm glad to keep their advertising on. I've never said that about a show before. And oh yeah, Universal-which-owns-SciFi also got me in the wallet today when I bought Battlestar Galactica Season One on DVD with an extra DVD featuring behind-the-scenes Serenity stuff and a little bit about Joss and Co. and the nutty fanbase I'm proud to be a part of. I'm happy to check out Battlestar Galactica now and get caught up so I can enjoy Season 2 more. After all, I've been attracted to it already by the cast, effects, and so on but still don't understand the story yet. I will next week. After all, I began to check out BG more closely after learning they had the same FX folks that Firefly had. Viral marketing is only NOT evil if you are a rabid fan of something. Otherwise I'd say it sucks but hey, did I mention I'm biased already? :)

I've said this on a couple other sites, but I'll say it again here. Whedon has pretty much spoiled me on most scripts I'll see and hear in the pop culture world for years to come. I went to see Episode III and War of the Worlds and while I enjoyed the actors, some good FX and the action, the storylines and scripts were just way pale in comparison to Whedon's work. I yawned alot and didn't mind going for snacks or the bathroom. None of the Serenity fans so much as whispered between scenes during that sneak preview, let alone get up for something. No way would one have walked in front of others, let alone even want to miss a second themselves.

I know I don't know you and this is long-winded, but I enjoyed reading your blog today and was happy to see the FireflySerenityWhedonUniversal pimping on such a nice blog. It's also nice to have a place to respond about the viral marketing thing. Note: Yup. It works on the rabid hounds. Cheers!

posted by: River Tam on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

I'm a little mystified by the enthusiasm for Galactica, maybe because I look for science fiction to establish a world within which to tell a story and develop characters instead of the other way around. The actors certainly pursue the story with great dedication, but the world isn't much more persuasive than the one in the first BG.

I suppose at some point I will have to read Dan's APSA paper, because I don't understand his theory either. To me it seems only common sense that a consensus can be upset if new players arrive at the table or an issue previously in the background becomes salient. Sebastian Mallaby's book showed how this happened -- more than once -- with respect to the World Bank's activities, and there are fewer players at that table than at the one Dan is researching.

posted by: Zathras on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

Was a big fan of Gina Torres and the companion and sorry they took Firefly off the air. Have been watching it on Sci-fi now that they are going to show all the episodes. The real kick has been that Stargate a show I could never fathom in terms of its appeal(MacGyver in Space?) has now cast Claudia Black and Ben Browder. I still can't take it although I managed to get through last years episode with Claudia Black and the secondary cast. But this weekend took the cake. There is
Claudia Black giving every testosterone laden adolescent her wonderful smirk and Ben Browder unable to contain himself in a preview so I say I gotta watch. Who walks in Lexa Doig. All that's left is how does Selma Hayek fit in. Those who say brunettes have more fun in space write into to Sci-fi to let them know about their dark haired beauties.

posted by: Robert M on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

I watched the complete "Firefly" in about a week, but the plug was pulled so abruptly, it was rather jarring to have so many storylines just fizzle. That's the real shame. I want to know how it ends. I don't suppose the move goes there?

posted by: trotsky on 08.04.05 at 10:36 PM [permalink]

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