The most valuable commodity for Low- and No-Budget filmmakers is the ability to come up with a tight, compelling story that doesn’t require millions of dollars to tell. This isn’t a terribly common ability even amongst our readers, who do not have the millions of dollars required to replace creative innovation. However, for it to come out of a television network is unbelievably rare, so you can imagine my shock when CBS—the company that came out with one original series seven years ago called ‘CSI’ and has been basically making color-graded copies of it since then—comes out with a hard edged, blisteringly insightful, (comparatively) low budget drama about a post-nuclear holocaust America in Jericho. A show that, in my opinion, may be the most innovative television show to come out since the original Star Trek.
After commanding very decent numbers for the first part of the season, CBS put it on hiatus for three months and brought it back parallel to American Idol. To no one’s surprise, it didn’t fare well with that sort of competition, yet it didn’t get creamed the way every other show that’s faced off with Idol has.
Additionally, aside from decent Nielsen Ratings, CBS showed record numbers of people watching the show on their Internet-based InnerTube service. Despite the comparative success of the show, CBS decided that they didn’t want to risk any more of their resources on the edgy drama and called it quits a week after the Finale aired.
Why bring up information about a recent TV show in an editorial in a filmmaking magazine? For a couple of reasons.
The first of which is that TV networks behave in a very similar manner to Hollywood, tending to be very wary of extending themselves for edgy, creative fare. As such, they tend to be very quick to cut shows that don’t fare amazingly well immediately (which, ironically, is a criterion that would have gotten MASH, Cheers, and Night Court cancelled ). When Network TV states that America isn’t interested in edgy fare, then Hollywood tends to stop greenlighting edgy films and stops buying films that actually endeavor to be creative. Obviously, you can understand how allowing the lowest common denominator to determine what’s on TV can have a pretty nasty backlash for innovative microfilmmakers who might want a chance at theatrical distribution for their film. (It’s been said that if bumblebees went extinct, the entire human race would die of starvation in less than a year. Obviously, the relationship between TV and film is a much more direct connection, but you get the idea.)
The second reason I bring this up is because of what this show proves about grass roots promotional campaigns. You see fans of the show were so outraged that one of the most original shows in years had been cancelled that they organized into a massive, well-oiled protest movement. Utilizing the internet to get in touch with one another, this movement made the business and email addresses of CBS execs available and encouraged respectful letters and emails to be sent to all of the CBS executives until Jericho was brought back. The outpouring took CBS by surprise, effectively locking up physical and email mailboxes of the CBS executives. However, not unlike Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, CBS tried to ignore this plague of correspondence and the president of CBS started filtering any and all email that had “Jericho” in the header. This did not sway the fans, who had come up with a very clever campaign in addition to sending email and letters. They sent nuts.
Why nuts? In the season finale of Jericho the main characters recall a story of a town in WWII that was overrun by Nazis. The Nazis told the town that they could surrender or they could be slaughtered. The spokesman of the town replied with the one word response: “Nuts.” In the heat of the war, this was their subtle way of telling the Nazis they would rather die than surrender. In the finale, the town of Jericho uses this as a war cry against a nearby town that attempts to invade Jericho. As such, the fans of Jericho decided to send nuts as their way to show CBS that they wouldn’t let their favorite show go down without a fight. By the time CBS finally capitulated, nearly 30 tons of nuts had been sent to their coastal headquarters in New York & LA.
Now CBS has decided to give fans seven more episodes, with more to follow if the fan base that protested the show’s removal can find a way to get a lot more people to watch with them. This is a very interesting development, because this is the first time a Network has ever tried to team up with its viewers to promote a show. If it’s successful, we could see Networks using the equivalent of the local street teams popularized by rap groups to get the word out about new shows, as well as allowing their supporters to create custom content. (There has been some talk that Jericho short film contests may be officially sanctioned and given backing by CBS, for example. Due to the low-budget potential of short-films set in the Jericho universe, we’ve even looked at being a part of this here at MFM.) While this may seem like the networks are just trying to get free advertising, it actually could be a very good thing if they must work with their public more. It gives viewers a lot more control than they’ve ever had in the past, and, with that control, a lot more feeling of responsibility and ownership.
Which in turn translates to us as filmmakers. Whether you look at it from the perspective of Hollywood picking up Indie films or an American public that’s now getting more used to being interactively involved with their favorite content on a grass roots level, the war to resurrect Jericho is setting precedents that are great for us. (To get an idea of the power of grass roots support in our community, specifically, just look at rising phenom Alex Ferrari. Although I’ve seen filmmakers that are more talented than he is, I’ve never seen a more vigilant filmmaker about self-promotion than he is. His perfection of internet advertising, offering interviews to every print and online magazine, and storming the streets of Park City, Utah to track down the likes of Roger Ebert to review his short film, Broken, have made him legend. His phenomenal mastery of grass roots promotions and charisma have caused LA magazines to start dubbing him the “Quentin Tarantino" of the new millennium and colleges are requesting him to speak to their classes at a rate that’s not too shy of that of Kevin Smith requests.)
As such, if you decide to watch Jericho when season one reruns this summer or when it returns for season two this fall, you might find that you’re also giving both Networks and Hollywood an incentive to work directly with the public and to notice filmmakers who have grass-roots support. (Folks interested in finding out more about the show can go to the official Jericho fan site.) If not, you might at least want to think about the power of the internet and creative self-promotion as exhibited by the fans of this show and filmmakers like Alex Ferrari, as well-organized uses of these techniques can prove to be very effective. After all, if CBS can be “forced” to recant on a show cancellation, anything is possible!