Remember the Browncoats? Everyone loved Joss Whedon's Firefly and was sad when it got canceled. Some people, taking a direct lead from early Trekkies, went a bit further. The email campaign to resurrect the TV series didn't work, so when a Firefly movie was announced instead, they were delirious. The Browncoats instigated a wave of grassroots fan action that took group obsession to Japanese-level heights. They mobbed advance screenings. They wrote songs, created amateur movies, held rallies and, yes, filled sci-fi convention panel halls. Browncoats loved being Browncoats. News coverage made it clear: Firefly's got the Trekkie touch. Who knows how big the movie could go with awesome fans like that?

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Serenity opened. It was a good movie. It did mild business, but not great. It went quickly to DVD where it made back its costs. The Browncoats were disappointed. Some of them were angry - maybe Joss didn't write a proper Firefly movie. Maybe Universal screwed up the marketing. They got very angry when it was suggested that maybe, just maybe, the image of the Browncoats themselves had hurt Serenity's box-office take by scaring away people who might otherwise have liked it.

The marketing was partly to blame, in that once the Browncoats phenomenon emerged it was nurtured, encouraged and manipulated by Joss Whedon and Universal. The hardcore/obsessive template often works well - look at Halo's online universe, a Microsoft-fostered environment designed to give rabid children something to be rabid and childish about. But the Browncoats went too far and ended up as an example of Angry Fandom's downside, a lesson from which others have learned. Blizzard never touts the hardcore World of Warcraft players in mass advertising anymore, even though their game is a machine for generating detail-oriented obsession among those prone to it. Star Trek's producers themselves made the smart move of backing away from the Trekkie image with the new film, constantly reassuring people that it wasn't one of those outings, that you could come along and just have fun and not have to deal with smelly misfits wearing Vulcan ears.

As a marketer, you have to be careful with Angry Fandom. Once you let tendencies like the Browncoats loose, there's not much that can stop them, and at some point they will turn on you like scorpions. Hopefully, that's after you've generated a good return on investment.

Get a Life

Our culture fosters too many people who, directly or indirectly, inherited the idea of angry fandom from Star Trek. They've been encouraged by a generation of marketers who see an obsessive grassroots core as crucial to building buzz around a product. Here's a thought: Real passion is about making things yourself, investing fully in your own life and those around you without needing to turn entertainment into a totem pole. Gene Roddenberry was a secular humanist who didn't believe in kooky religions or mass manipulation of any type. Where the hell did that bit of Star Trek's legacy end up?

Colin Rowsell is a Wellington, New Zealand-based writer. Tell him why he's wrong on giantmonkeyvirus@gmail.com.

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