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November 20, 2006

Babylon 5 Lives On with New Plans for DVD Releases

Last week, a major announcement was made in terms of alternate distribution of a television project and a potential future model for future transmedia ideas branching from a cancelled television show to a film: the plans for a straight-to-DVD film from Babylon 5. While last year, it was Firefly that showed the power of fandoms to resurrect a cancelled television property and breathe new life into it, it is the economic success of Babylon 5 on DVD that has inspired plans for a new product from the fictional world, in hopes to create a product that will both be lucrative to the dedicated niche market of Babylon 5 fans while not making the mistake of overestimating the widespread interest in the film by giving it enhanced expectations with a widespread theatrical release. Some were disappointed with the performance of Serenity, just as others were disappointed with the success of Snakes in the Plane earlier this year because some optimists had inflated the degree to which the cult promotion of the film would bring in audiences. In the case of all three products, it is taking grassroots initiatives to appeal to fans in a non-traditional manner, thus costing less to promote but not necessarily gaining great mainstream appeal.

By making a product that is significantly cheaper, without concern about all the costs associated with theater distribution nor the jumping through hoops the series had to do in relation to airing on a network, the model may be key for beginning to understand how shows may market directly to their fan bases. While this has been done with Christian media for a while and a variety of other direct-to-DVD products, this is one of the first times such an attempt has been made to further the story of a cancelled TV show on DVD. The other correlations are the derivative direct-to-DVD "2" Disney films (the sequels to famous Disney films that just aren't very good), as well as a variety of other sequel franchises that eventually moved to the direct-to-DVD market. As opposed to those products, the hope with the planned Babylon 5: The Lost Tales is a product that is equivalent to the quality of the original series. The release will include two stories which will share the title "Voices of the Dark," and will feature extras such as behind-the-scenes content. Famed creator J. Michael Straczynski is both writer and director of the two new stories, and will be joined by the original executive producer Doug Netter, as well as a variety of actors from the original series, including Bruce Boxleitner, who played President Sheridan; Tracy Scoggins, who played Captain Elizabeth Lochley; and Peter Woodward, who played Galen.

According to the press release from Warner Home Video, the product "will be targeted towards the Babylon 5 loyal audience and science-fiction fans in general." The press release directly sites the more than $44 million in consumer sales for the franchise's DVD releases as a reason for these two films, indicating that companies are beginning to take notice of the success of longer shelf lives for some of its products. Babylon 5 aired from 1993 until 1998 and also launched a series of TV films on TNT in 1998 and 1999. While plans for the theatrical release fell through, many believe that these mini-stories about various characters from the franchise may help to revitalize the narrative universe of the story after it has lain dormant for almost eight years in video form. Novels and comic books have kept the series alive as well, and those offshoot stories have been considered part of the official Babylon 5 canon.

Jeff Brown with Warner said, "We are very excited to be releasing this new made-for-video release filled with original content for Babylon 5, one of the most successful science fiction series of all time. This popular TV show which has been off the air for a few years continues to have a strong loyal fan base that is hungry for more content. This is the first time we're utilizing one of our popular TV franchises as a made-for-video title, and we have a strong commitment to the growth of this sector."

As the Slashdot story from Zonk points out, this DVD release will be the first of multiple planned releases in this "Lost Tales" series. What does this mean for the future of the franchise, and how will the fans of the DVD releases of the original series react to these episodes? Will they continue to be considered part of the official canon? With original actors and the creator onboard, one would think the series stands a good chance of acceptance, but all those interested in alternate distribution formats for TV properties will likely be watching this project closely.

Of course some fans, like LiveJournal's bobafet, believes the franchise is dead, and the discussion surrounding the news on this thread focuses on the group's desire to keep JMS from making the mistake of creating continued product that compromise the integrity and artistry of the series. Others, like Orac of Respectful Insolence, display a high degree of ambivalence, both questioning how a new product can work after all this time and without many members of the original cast but also expressing interest at the same time. Others, like Jamie with Eye of Polyphemus, have expressed interest despite acknowledging the limitations of picking the series back up several years later.

For more on reviving old and popular cult franchises, see the discussion surrounding WWE's revival of the ECW wrestling brand here, here, and here. And for previous posts on the Firefly and Snakes on a Plane phenomena, see Henry Jenkins' post here and my post on Snakes on a Plane here.

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