Sunday, May 31, 2009

This was supposed to be good news

Zach Oat at Television Without Pity put it best: "For all of you Buffy fans out there, your wildest dreams are about to come true... and it's your worst nightmare." If, like me, you putter around entertainment news sites, you've probably heard the news that Fran Rubel Kuzui and Kaz Kuzui announced plans to "relaunch" the Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise in the form of an "event-sized" feature film minus creator Joss Whedon and minus any of the TV series characters.

The initial reaction among fans has been a fairly collective, "Do not want!" (There's already a #buffyboycott hashtag on Twitter.) Keep in mind, though, it has been a matter of days since the announcement, and there are almost no details about the project. The announcement that J.J. Abrams would be directing the eleventh Star Trek feature and that it would be a prequel to the original series was met with skepticism from many Trekkies (perhaps primarily because Abrams was an outsider who admitted he had little knowledge of Trek lore), and look how that turned out.

In spite of this, I do find myself with the "Do not want" crowd. There are three main factors I've identified that have resulted in this negative reaction to something Buffy fans would normally be ecstatic about: (a) the Kuzuis and the original film, (b) the questionable timing and optics of a "reboot", and (c) Joss Whedon's non-involvement with the project. I will examine each of these in turn.

Shove your copyright up your Kuzui

Here's the problem: the part of the Buffy franchise with which the Kuzui team were most heavily involved was the 1992 film and they blew it. Fran Rubel Kuzui directed the film after "discovering" Whedon's original script. She and producer/husband Kaz took the story in their own direction and the result was an overly campy flick with mere traces of what would become the Buffyverse. They retain the rights to the original film and remained as executive producers on the TV series, but from what I've read, their involvement was nil to the point of having never been on the set.

I've read a lot online over the years from Buffy fans and nobody I know of has a soft spot for the Kuzuis. They're not going to win anyone over by going forward without Joss. Fans very much have the sense that the film was swept out from under Joss. It was he who went on to develop the TV series. It's highly unlikely the film was ever used as a selling point when looking for a network to air the TV series. If anything, the pitch would have been, "Remember that Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie from a few years ago? You do? Ok, so, forget about that movie..."

The Kuzuis are now saying they want to take the franchise in a direction that is darker than the TV series and have brought in producer Roy Lee, whose specialty is remaking (mostly) Asian films for American audiences (The Ring, The Grudge, The Eye, The Departed, The Strangers). What I glean from this is that (a) the film will likely be devoid of Buffy's characteristic wit and (b) the Kuzuis may have never watched an episode of the series if they believe the show was not dark (if it wasn't in Season 1, it certainly was from Season 2 onward.)

A question of timing

Closely tied to the Kuzui dislike factor is the questionable timing of this announcement, which may have a lot to do with optics, but raises valid doubts if one considers when a "reboot" is necessary.

Let me explain what I mean by the problem of optics. Fran Rubel Kuzui, the not-so-acclaimed director of the 1992 Buffy movie, believes that now is the time for a new Buffy feature. However, regardless of her actual motives, many see this as a case of a money-grubbing exec producer with zero creative vision trying to cash in on the recent success of vampire stories (Twilight; True Blood) and reboots (Star Trek; Wolverine).

Where the line is drawn between remakes, reboots, relaunches, and re-imaginings, I don't know. What I do know is that I am always skeptical of remakes and their ilk. I don't reject them en masse on principle, but I don't like the way in which Hollywood film has been increasingly devolving into the land of adaptation devoid of original content. Much of what gets produced these days are remakes, book-to-film adaptations, and "based on a true story" films and the original stories tend to be fluff (taken to the not so extreme, even crap like Observe and Report could be considered a "re-imagining" of Taxi Driver). Graeme McMillan at io9 points out that "our culture has become endlessly recyclable" and he's right.

My second problem in this vein is the timing in terms of need for a reboot. Is this really, as the Kuzuis believe, the right time for a reboot? Consider when you reboot your computer - it's frozen or slowed to a crawl. The same should go for an entertainment franchise. Generally, a film/TV franchise gets rebooted when significant time has passed and its formula has gone stale to the point where even die-hard fans are looking for a change (or they're too old for producers to care what they think.) Admittedly, Star Trek needed a reboot, and for the most part J.J. Abrams delivered. Old fans aren't up in arms and mainstream audiences are becoming one with their inner Trekkie.

Making a Buffy movie in the next couple of years is poor timing in at least two ways: (a) insufficient time has passed since the "conclusion" of the most recent large-scale (non-comic book) incarnation of the franchise (the TV series ended in 2005), and (b) the TV series is too fresh in the minds of the public to attract people who don't already like Buffy. With the Scooby Gang having graduated from high school just ten years ago, Buffy's original core audience is still within or just beyond the target audience of movie bosses.

In contrast, the original Star Trek TV series aired in the 1960s with the cast appearing in films through to Star Trek: Generations in 1994. The success of the film franchise was dwindling, but die hard fans can only go a few years before they demand something on the big screen. The solution was Abrams' reboot in the form of an original series prequel film. The original Star Trek audience is not in the 16-25 demographic any longer, so a great shift in direction was able to draw a new audience to the franchise.

What I'm trying to say is that when Sarah Michelle Gellar is as old as William Shatner, then you can go and look for a shiny new Buffy.

Does Not Compute: Buffy - Joss = Grrr...Argh!

Finally, Whedon's non-involvement with the development of the film has been, perhaps, the most influential factor leading to the overwhelmingly negative reaction from the fan base. Cast members from the series are now starting to weigh in on the matter. In an interview with Lorrie Lynch at USA Weekend, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles) said:
The Kuzuis didn’t do a great job on the movie the first time around. It was Joss’ script at the age of 19, but they changed a lot of it. They said, ‘Look, we know best and we know how to make this movie,’ and it became quite schlocky and high camp. [...] The bottom line is if a movie was ever to be made, it should be made with Joss Whedon, whether it’s a retrospective or not. But it would be madness to do it without him. [The Kuzuis] have the rights to because they have the rights to the original movie, but it should be interesting to see. It may be a bit like watching a car wreck.
Given the circumstances outlined above, I'm inclined to agree with Head. However, McMillan argues, "Just because Joss created Buffy and did the franchise proud for more than a decade doesn't mean that someone else can't come up with something equally as interesting, and almost as enjoyable." I'm willing to accept that people other than Joss are capable of taking care of Buffy and telling great stories. Obviously, Joss did not write and direct every episode of the show, or write all the novels and comics. Heck, there are people out there who who write some pretty decent fanfic.

As is the case with the Star Trek franchise absent Gene Roddenberry, there is a group of people involved with Buffy who care about the franchise and about the fans (I'm looking at you Fury, Noxon, Espenson et al.) They care more than the Kuzuis and the fanbase trusts them as much as they trust Joss. If the franchise is to move forward without Joss at the helm, it should be them, not a pair of uninvolved executive producers who take the wheel.

Read More: