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‘Firefly’ feature alights

Whedon project jumps from Fox TV to bigscreen

Last month, Universal greenlit “Serenity,” a feature based on Joss Whedon’s TV show “Firefly,” which Fox canceled in 2002 after airing only 11 episodes.

The film biz is filled with adaptations of hit TV series, such as “Charlie’s Angels” and “Starsky & Hutch.” But it’s rare when a feature is based on a nonhit, such as the six-episode “Naked Gun” and the never-aired-pilot “Mulholland Dr.” In each of those cases, the pics featured the original contributors of series — and went on to significant bigscreen success.

“Serenity” is hoping to similarly rewrite the TV-to-film rules. But then, breaking the rules is familiar territory to Whedon, who created the series and will direct the film.

Five years after the 1992 film “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” opened to ho-hum box office, he used the material to create a TV show that became a seven-year hit and even spawned a spinoff, “Angel.”

Now he’s reversing that process with “Serenity.”

While Universal’s decision may seem like an eyebrow-raiser, it’s closer to a no-brainer: The risk is modest, and the rewards could be plentiful.

With a first-time director and no pricey stars (Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Sean Maher), the pic is a bargain, particularly for a sci-fi actioner: under $40 million. Most of it will be shot on stages on the U lot. The handful of locations will be in the L.A. area.

In addition, “Firefly” has a loyal fan base. A number of Internet fan sites, such as CHUD.com continue to dissect “Firefly,” follow Whedon’s career and swap series action figures.

“If you strike a chord with fans of science-fiction adventure, they’re never going away,” Whedon says.

This would seem to ensure a built-in audience for “Serenity” at the box office and afterward. The “Firefly” DVD has sold a surprising 200,000 copies since it was released last December. (The release fortuitously came out while U execs were debating greenlighting the pic.)

Underlying the deal was U’s desire to be in business with Whedon. His shingle, Mutant Enemy, has an exclusive television deal with Fox and no motion picture deal. U execs, particularly vice chair Mary Parent, had been trying to figure out a way to work with Whedon for years.

Fox had touted “Firefly” for its 2002 season as a show that could potentially fill the sci-fi gap in its sked created by the end of the aging “X-Files” franchise. The concept was to set an ensemble of characters familiar from Westerns (the noble outlaw, the hard-scrabble preacher, the practical prostitute) in outer space 500 years in the future.

But just 11 of the 14 “Firefly” episodes produced made it to air. Interrupted by baseball and dropped for November sweeps (much to Whedon’s chagrin), the show never caught on with a big enough audience to justify its 8 p.m. Friday slot (the show averaged a 2.1 rating and a 7 share; it also briefly ran at 9 p.m.).

Just before Christmas, Fox pulled the plug, using “Fastlane,” which would itself later be yanked, as a replacement.

After the cancellation, Whedon sat down with Chris Buchanan, the president of his production company, and his longtime agent Chris Harbert of CAA and started brainstorming how they could keep the project alive.

Per-episode production costs were high. They mulled cable and tossed around the idea of a miniseries. The very last idea on their list was turning to a movie studio to make a feature version.

So Universal stepped in, purchased “Firefly” rights from Fox and gave it a greenlight.

Thus, U and Whedon are fulfilling the fantasy of every TV writer who has had a show canned after just a few episodes.

“You have no idea what this means to writers,” Whedon says. “You took something you love and you got a second shot. Do you know how often that happens to writers? Never.”

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