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In Defense of Turning TV Shows into Movies

Just about every time a beloved TV show is canceled, we start to hear whispers about turning it into a movie. Sometimes this chatter begins with the series’s producers; other times, it’s merely wishful thinking by hardcore fans. And over at Vulture, Margaret Lyons is sick of it. “TV is finite. Shows end,” she reminds us. Lyons argues that these adaptations are both financially and creatively unsound ideas: “Studios are motivated by money, and it’s damn near impossible to build a blockbuster on a show that got canceled for underperforming,” she writes, while “Friday Night Lights already had a perfect ending, and Arrested Development works specifically in the context of subverting television conventions.”

While we think Lyons is right about Friday Night Lights‘ perfect ending (although we have to admit we’d go see Coach Taylor and co. if they did make it to the big screen), we can’t agree that it’s always a bad idea to turn a cult hit TV show into a movie.

First, let’s talk about financial viability. Released in 2005, Joss Whedon’s Firefly film, Serenity, nearly earned back its $40 million budget at the box office. This was disappointing, but video rentals and sales managed to push it into the black. That’s the thing about cult shows: They may have a smaller audience than your average crowd-pleasing reality show, but the fans they do have are loyal. These folks are not only going to the theater to see the movie, but also buying it on DVD. And when a Blu-ray version or collector’s edition comes out, they may well throw down for those, too; Amazon rankings seem to indicate that both of those versions of Serenity are selling steadily.

Something else to remember about funding movie versions of these kinds of TV shows is that we’ve entered an age of crowd funding. If you have half a million fans willing to throw down $20 apiece on, say, Kickstarter for the storied Arrested Development movie, then that’s $10 million of production budget that you don’t have raise through more traditional methods. (And considering that many of these shows have their share of well-heeled supporters, it’s not unrealistic to assume that a significant number of contributors would donate much more than that.)

We also imagine that when Lyons writes that “studios” are looking for “blockbusters,” she’s thinking of big-budget productions. What’s to stop these projects from going the indie route? We’re sure that a smaller company would jump on the chance to make a movie with name actors and a built-in audience.

As for whether these films are a crass idea creatively, Serenity also serves as proof that they don’t have to be. If we can judge its artistic and/or entertainment value by critics’ response, then a score of 74 on Metacritic seems to confirm that the movie wasn’t unnecessary. This brings us to the difference between Firefly and Friday Night Lights: While FNL ran for five seasons and its staff knew well in advance that the end was near well before the final season, Whedon had planned Firefly as a seven-season show but saw it canceled after three months. Fox hadn’t even finished airing the episodes he’d already made by the time they nixed it. Serenity worked because Whedon knew where he was going with the plot and wanted to provide some closure.

There are tons of other shows that would benefit from tying up their loose ends on the big screen: United States of Tara had already wrapped up Season 3 by the time the cast and crew learned Season 4 wasn’t going to happen. Rob Thomas created a trailer for the fourth season of Veronica Mars before The CW made that show’s cancellation official. Arrested Development‘s future was up in the air for months, with talk that it would move to Showtime — and if you don’t believe that the smart people behind that show could adapt their TV-subverting style to film, then you’re probably not the audience for the film anyway.

Aside from Friday Night Lights, Lyons is right about one thing: Showrunners shouldn’t tease fans about cult TV-to-film projects they know are never going to happen. But, for the right series and with a smart and innovative funding plan in place, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be both creative and financial successes.

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