The Power of Fandom in the Whedonverse

Joss Whedon, critically acclaimed television auteur and creator of the hit television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), is not only a master of storytelling, but he is also an excellent catalyst to investigate the internal workings and politics of the television and film industry. Within the film and television industry there are a number of key struggles and relationships involving power. The internal politics of the industry warrants much discussion and analysis in its own right. Issues of production, financing, distribution, and marketing could have easily been the basis for articles and discussions.

Whedon’s career and body of work provide a constant for us to look at during a period where the industry moves into an arena completely changed by the arrival of new media like the Internet. The Internet has changed the way people live and work and, without doubt, this includes the internal politics of the film and television industry. The changing face of the industry has also brought to the forefront the value of creators such as Whedon, the auteur’s role within the television industry, and, arguably most importantly, the audience, the latter being the fans who watch and support the shows that ultimately give the creators their power.

Although the creators and the mass media companies/networks both fall under the same umbrella of production within the industry, they do not always share the same values and interests. One such power struggle is the commercial and creative control over a property, including issues of auteurism. In television, it’s widely accepted that the director isn’t necessarily the auteur; the role of auteur is instead embodied by producer(s), executive producer(s), or show runners. The producers or show runners are the ones who have to make the day-to-day decisions, both large and small, It’s these decisions that ultimately lead to the power struggles between creator and media companies.

My aim here is to examine how these relationships have changed. The issues that have arisen include how the audiences’ relationship with the creator has altered; how the audiences’ relationship with the media companies has evolved because of new media, and how that has affected the relationship between media companies and creators.

In 1992 the motion picture Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released in cinemas across the US, directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui and written by an up-and-coming, yet relatively unknown television writer, Joss Whedon. Whedon would go on to create a number of critically acclaimed works including the television series based on the Buffy movie, and the Internet sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It would be Dr. Horrible that would earn Whedon a Vanguard Award from the Producers Guild of America. The award saw Whedon join the ranks of previous winners James Cameron and George Lucas as he was recognized for his achievements in new media and technology. The original Buffy film and Dr. Horrible don’t mark the totality of Whedon’s work, nor do they mark the beginning or end of his career. What they do show, is how a creator’s control has changed.

Instead of a strict comparison between the two products, the changes will be examined chronologically. Using Whedon’s work and career as a catalyst to understand how the varying relationships within the television industry operate, and how the changing context led to the creation of Dr. Horrible.

While serving as a staff writer on Roseanne and Parenthood, Whedon wrote the script for the original Buffy. Having tried and failed to sell his script to any of the major studios, it was finally picked up by Fran Kubel and Kaz Kuzui (she directed; both produced). Here, it seems, Whedon ceased to have creative control over the film, with rumors that he eventually left the set and never returned when he saw how his script was being interpreted. Whedon openly acknowledges that the film was not what he had in mind and makes a sharp distinction between the script and the film. As a writer selling a script, Whedon had surrendered his creative control to the Kuzuis, something he would actively rectify when given his second chance with Buffy on television. Although having no involvement with the show, the Kuzuis would continue to receive royalties from Buffy and the merchandise surrounding the property. The political economy of the film and television industry means they would continue to reap the rewards. These rights would later be exercised in May 2009 when the Kuzuis announced their intention to relaunch the franchise without the involvement of Whedon. This news was met with a substantially negative response…

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole — until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.