Death is never final in the Buffyverse — Buffy herself died twice.
Then a hit comic book series shepherded by show creator Joss Whedon and a series of sold-out sing-alongs gave the vampire slayer new life years after her TV show went off the air. But now that the midnight sing-alongs — known as “Buffyokes” — are being canceled, fans have been left wondering what can be done to resurrect them.
“This is hugely depressing,” Whedon said in a statement. “I will do everything in my power to find out the exact reasoning for this and try to convince those responsible what a mistake it is. Of course, the words ‘my power’ might confuse my gentle readers into believing I have any. I don’t know what I’ll be able to do, and I’ve no idea even where to start. Nor do I think this was done maliciously or capriciously. But it’s lousy news and it’s bad business.”
For the uninitiated, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” sing-alongs are kind of like midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Fans dress up and throw things while a cast acts out the parts being shown onscreen from the musical “Buffy” episode, “Once More With Feeling.”
” ‘Once More With Feeling’ is pretty badass,” actress Michelle Trachtenberg, who played Buffy’s sister Dawn, told MTV News.
“They learned all the dances, all the songs,” said fellow “Buffy” actress Amber Benson, who played Tara. “That’s dedication.”
Whedon told MTV News when he first saw footage of Buffyoke that he thought it was “the best thing ever.”
“Who doesn’t dream of getting a little piece of that ‘Rocky Horror’ vibe?” he said. “I wrote it to be an episode of television to air and disappear. I didn’t think about its afterlife that much, and now it has much more of an afterlife than I could ever have expected, and a much more fun one. Of course I love it!”
So did the fans who turned out in droves.
Buffyoke organizer Clinton McClung, who started the shows in Boston before spreading them across the country, said there was more demand than he and the “cast” could supply. “The amazing thing hasn’t just been the attendance, but how fast the tickets have sold in advance for these shows,” he said, pointing out that midnight shows typically don’t have any advance sales to speak of.
The Washington, D.C., show (which played to an 800-person theater) sold out a week in advance, as did the San Francisco show (in a 700-person theater). Sing-alongs in New York; Chicago; Milwaukee; Minneapolis; Detroit; Denver; Tucson, Arizona; Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Houston; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Los Angeles also had full houses, with some cities (including Portland, Oregon, and Seattle) cracking the thousand-person mark. “We have been pretty much selling out every place we’ve played,” McClung said.
That was part of the problem. Though the sing-alongs had been picking up steam since starting last year, Buffyoke’s organizer and cast weren’t necessarily making a profit. The goal was to create something self-sustaining, and the ticket price was an attempt to cover the cost of the materials and travel. But although it was nominal, they were charging, which caused the Screen Actors Guild to sit up and take notice. Last week, SAG sent 20th Century Fox Television a six-figure bill for unpaid actor residuals, and since Fox had been unaware on what scale the Buffyokes were taking place to begin with, it called Criterion, which had been given a license to exhibit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and had in turn given McClung permission to mount the shows. Fox’s response was to revoke the license.
“Needless to say, I was a bit shocked to find out that they were pulling the plug with such little notice,” McClung said. “I was under the impression that everything we were doing was completely legal and had been cleared by the appropriate people. It’s one thing to be throwing a fan-based event with no legal clearance and have it shut down by lawyers, but it is another entirely to be trying your best to keep it all above the board and legal and still have it come to a crashing halt.”
Unfortunately, Criterion never had the legal right to grant McClung permission to screen “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” theatrically or commercially, according to a Fox spokesman. “That was never part of the license agreement,” Chris Alexander said. “Their license agreement was to show it in certain arenas where admission is not charged, like on airplanes, in churches, on Army bases, but not commercial theaters. So they went beyond what they were authorized to do.”
Criterion, however, said it is not responsible and that it was McClung who had the more liberal interpretation of the license, not the film distributor. “Due to the terms of its license agreement with Fox, Criterion Pictures granted to Clinton McClung only the non-theatrical distribution rights to Buffy,” the company said in a statement. “As this event has expanded beyond the rules and regulations of the non-theatrical market, Criterion Pictures must restrict the screenings of this episode until such time as it has secured the theatrical rights which it is now diligently pursuing. … Once the appropriate rights are obtained, we are hopeful that screenings of this program resume.”
“I was never told we were ‘non-theatrical,’ ” McClung responded. “These shows have always been in movie theaters as midnight shows, and that hasn’t changed. But the crux of it is that they granted me the rights to do the show, approved my bookings, and then the show just got too big and became ‘theatrical,’ at least according to Fox’s rules.”
Alexander stressed that Fox isn’t trying to stifle the Buffy love — it’s just a question that’s never come up before, so it’s trying to figure out what to do. “Can you think of another TV show that this has happened to? It’s new territory,” he said. “We’re certainly thrilled at the enthusiasm for ‘Buffy’ several years after the show’s been canceled. It’s not our intention to squash any legal and sanctioned fan activity, but we can’t allow it to continue this way, because our agreement with the unions is very restrictive, and we’ve got a business to run.”
Understandable, considering the SAG penalty fees. But what if the cast and crew of the “Once More With Feeling” episode were to waive payment? Or what if Buffyokes didn’t charge admission, and only asked for a donation to cover costs instead? SAG didn’t return calls about the issue by press time, but Fox did have an encouraging response: If Buffyokes were held for a charity event or a film festival, “then we could do this without triggering payment to the unions,” Alexander said.
Does that mean there’s hope yet? McClung said it’s “absolutely” an option to stage Buffyokes for donations only, but the venues will suffer. “That’s how we started doing the shows in Boston,” he said. “And we’re exploring doing a few screenings as benefit shows to help get out of debt. But it does stop the momentum built up for the tour.”
“I have faith that much like her character on the show, the Buffy sing-along will rise from the dead once again,” said Jeff Yanc, programmer for Tucson’s Loft Cinema. “Fans of cult TV shows have a long history of creative protest when it comes to saving their favorites from cancellation, so I’m looking forward to what they come up with for Buffy.”
In the meantime, McClung has set up a petition for Buffy fans to let Fox know “we are here if they want to take our money in exchange for some Buffy action.”
“Within 24 hours, we had over 1,000 signatures,” said Caroline O’Connor, who plays Willow in Buffyoke stagings. (As of press time, the petition had passed the 2,500 mark.) “That’s pretty awesome. In the meantime, we’ll laugh, we’ll play, we’ll sing, we’ll dance, and hopefully, soon, we’ll be able to do it for an audience.”