Before he was cast as Hoban “Wash” Washburne in Joss Whedon’s short-lived-but-beloved sci-fi series Firefly, Alan Tudyk was not the kind of guy that you’d find at a pop-culture convention. He was a Broadway actor whose biggest onscreen film role was playing a gay German patient in a rehab center alongside Sandra Bullock in 28 Days. “I didn’t even know who Joss Whedon was before I got the role,” he says amidst the chaos of the San Diego Comic Con, just before his panel in the 60,000-square foot Hall H where more than 6,000 people will hear him speak. “I was a theater actor, didn’t own a TV.”
But soon after Firefly was canceled at the end of its first season, he realized what a special place those conventions could be. It was then that he first had the idea that would become his new web series with his Firefly co-star Nathan Fillion: Con Man, now made possible with a record $3.1 million in crowdfunding.
“I wish I could say it was an original idea,” he says, “but when you go to a convention, it’s always full of artists sitting around the room. And people go, ‘God you know, somebody’s gonna write something about this.’ And I would be like, ‘I’ve got to get this thing made.’”
The 10-minute comedy stars Tudyk as Wray Nerely, an actor whose career has stalled after the sci-fi show Spectrum was canceled. Nathan Fillion plays his much more successful co-star, and the list of guest stars reads like the top line of a sci-fi convention marquee (or a Joss Whedon family reunion)—Whedon vets Felicia Day, Seth Green, Amy Acker, James Gunn, Gina Torres and Sean Maher, along with Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer and Michael Trucco, Uncharted’s Nolan North, The Walking Dead’s Emily Kinney; Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick, Austin Powers’ Mindy Sterling, Supernatural’s Mary Winchester, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Wil Wheaton.
Before going straight to the fans, Tudyk pitched the series to network television, but the executives they spoke with completely missed the tone Tudyk and Fillion were going for—something to celebrate the fans at these conventions.
“There was some people in the beginning who obviously didn’t understand what it was about, obviously didn’t understand that this was a love letter,” says Fillion. “They didn’t honor the fans; they didn’t respect the fans. They kind of ostracized the fans from the get-go.”
“It was really clear,” Tudyk adds. “We went to a lot of these small production houses, smaller studios basically. They would be like, ‘You know I went to Comic-Con once. Crazy, right?’ This one woman called the fans ‘weird convention nerds.’ ‘You’re not gonna be able to fund this on the backs of those weird convention nerds.’ And I said, ‘This is not going to work.’ And she goes, ‘Nope, it will work, it just depends on where we get this and on what publications.’ And I said, ‘Alright, you misunderstood. THIS is not going to work. You, me, your company. This meeting’s over.’ I left.”
It became clear to both Tudyk and Fillion that if studios didn’t understand the fans, the result of a studio project was just going to frustrate them. The more they don’t understand, the more they want to control,” Fillion says. “The more they control, the less it becomes the show it was intended to be. It’s an old story, but one that Alan certainly did not want to have to endure.”
“In network shows, they’re making show for the entire country,” Tudyk adds. “From every walk of life, from every background, every taste. They’re trying to find that perfect general while being a new voice and specific. It’s really complicated to do that and hard to accomplish, whereas we’re able to speak to a community that exists and already wants to see something like this. So there’s some inside jokes. We’re talking about Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. And if you watch Battlestar Galactica, you’ll get the joke. If you have not—my mom liked the joke and I know she’s never seen it, but she’s my mom.”
If they wanted to make something respectful for the fans, they needed to go to them to get the show made.
It wasn’t until Firefly was canceled after only 11 of his 14 episodes had aired on Fox that Tudyk first started going to conventions and experienced the enthusiasm of that audience. The show imagined a future where space opened up to humanity and we found that—at least in our part of the universe—we were alone. It averaged 98th in the Nielson ratings but spawned rabid fans who would dress as Browncoats in honor of the rebel crew of Firefly’s Serenity. The fan support enabled Whedon to create a follow-up feature film, Serenity, which just increased interest in the original series. Those early panels drew crowds of a couple hundred, but they continue to grow every year, even with the show off the air.
“We just did a con in Dallas,” Tudyk says, “and we had 9,000 people in attendance of our panel. As it’s grown it’s become closer and closer to my heart—certainly the fans have. When somebody helps make a dream come true, you feel indebted to them for the rest of your life. And I will be and—we already are. I mean what are we doing here if it wasn’t for the fans?”
“In their entirety,” says Fillion, “we are indebted to the fans.”
“They’ve shaped our lives in such a major way,” Tudyk continues, “beyond the fact that we spent two months making Serenity, that they resurrected Firefly and helped us make a movie. Beyond, [conventions are] a major staple in my schedule.”
In March, Tudyk launched an Indiegogo campaign with the help of Fillion and sci-fi writer PJ Haarsma. They set the goal at $425,000 and enlisted the convention community to spread the word. Within 24 hours, they’d surpassed the $1 million mark. A month later, they’d shattered the record for a web series with over $3.1 million. And by the end of June, they’d wrapped production on Season One, which debuts tonight on Vimeo.
Con Man isn’t the first web series for Fillion. If he’s known best for his roles on Castle and Firefly, a close third is his role as Captain Hammer in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the first big breakout webseries created by Whedon.
“The most successful web series, I believe, is Dr. Horrible,” says Tudyk. “I remember when Dr. Horrible came out, it was like all of the industry went, ‘Okay, finally somebody did what we know this Internet is capable of.’”
But at the time, the idea of a web series was still scoffed at by Hollywood. “Yeah. I remember people in the indie industry were talking to me,” says Fillion. “I was excited about the project, and people would downplay it like, ‘Oh, the Internet.’ Like it was dirty.”
That was seven years ago, and the wave of web series is finally starting to crest. “I think people are going to look back on this era as the beginning of the end of an old business model and the beginning of this new business model,” says Fillion. “And I think it’s a very exciting time if you’re willing to try the new model.”
One of the pioneers of web comedy is Felicia Day, who plays Nerely’s assistant at a convention in Con Man’s second episode. Despite a two-episode guest appearance on Whedon’s Dollhouse, she had never worked on camera with Tudyk, but the two had met at “one of Whedon’s Shakespeare readings,” she said during the panel for Con Man.
“Alan sent the script to me a year ago because my middle name is ‘web series,’” she jokes. “I read it and it was good and funny and I could see him in it so clearly. I was fortunate enough to be part of Doctor Horrible, and I had a feeling when I read the script that he could blow up the world the way Doctor Horrible did. I was like, ‘Oh my God, please do this!’ I love breaking the system and the fact that they decided to do crowdfunding—and did it in such an amazing way. The support was just incredible and the consideration of the fans. And of course, underneath it all, I was like ‘Get me a part!’”
Her sentiment was echoed by the other Con Man cast members who took part in the panel—it was a love fest that culminated in a marriage proposal from one of the crew to his boyfriend, just days after the Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage. “It’s a family,” Day says. “People don’t think about it but the actors at cons form a family. We travel a lot and see each other and hang out and have drinks. It feels like coming home. You form a family on set and form a family at a con and [Con Man] just has the beautifulness of both worlds combined.”
Fans can get a glimpse into that crazy, silly and deeply meaningful world when Con Man premieres this week.