Dr. Horrible: Taking Advantage of All Things

ETA: Looks to me that Joss Whedon told Wired he’s looking for some crochet coverage. Call me, Joss. I can hook you up. Um. Pun not intended.

UPDATE: I sent a fax to Joss’s agency. Think there’s a way to drum up buzz so they take the request seriously?

There’s been a huge amount of hype about the release this week of Joss Whedon’s newest work, an internet musical drama of goodish guys and baddish guys called Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Hype in mainstream media has focused on two aspects of the production: That it’s a Whedon project and is thus worthy of giddy anticipation, and that it’s a revolutionary new experiment of Hollywood types creating high-quality content specifically for internet distribution.

The first hype has been bang-on. The first of three episodes of the show, released on 15th July, is great. Totally entertaining, cute songs, great performances, high-quality video.

The second hype I have a little bit of trouble with. I don’t actually think the Whedon clan—Joss wrote and produced the show with his brothers and soon-to-be sister-in-law—is doing anything truly revolutionary. Which is not to say their project isn’t extremely important. It is extremely important. But not because they’ve invented some new thing. It’s important because they have taken advantage of elements big Hollywood has not been able to exploit despite many attempts. Why? Because the internet is different, and the Whedons get it. We internet types also get it. But the media giants don’t get it. What the Whedons are able to do is bridge the gap between these two worlds. They are Hollywood types, and they get the internet. Ok, so maybe it’s a revolution. But of the friendly, quiet kind.

Joss has a massive and dedicated following of fans who, for good reason, respect and revere his work. He talks to his fans. He gives it to them straight. Does any other big-Hollywood writer/director have a fan base that approaches the size and passion of Joss’s? I don’t know, but none comes to mind. This is the first way the Whedons have taken advantage of the internet. The ‘net thrives on quick communication and word-of-mouth transmission of information. If Joss said he likes mushy peas, within 24 hours there would be links to his quote on scores of message boards and fan sites, all, with a smirk, commenting on Joss’s affinity for this squishy British fare. If Joss says he’s producing an original musical just for the web, said web erupts in fits of anticipation. No need for an expensive marketing plan; no need to turn said marketing over to the lowest bidder who might not actually grok the audience or the work’s potential reach.

Then there’s the distribution plan. Nothing new here, just a new way of doing it. Put the three episodes up online for a limited time, then take them down. People get free, high-quality content that the Whedons have gone out of their way to ensure is available to people regardless of their geographical location (I can only imagine how they had to wrangle Hulu to display to computers outside of the U.S.). And then, later, fans get to buy the DVD that has extensive and deliberately entertaining bonus features that, from what I understand, will far exceed the 45-minute length of the actual short movie.

“The buying of it is part of being in the (fan) community because it supports the people who have created it,” Joss told News-Journalonline.com. See, he gets it. But note that he didn’t take his fans for granted. He didn’t approach this project with the attitude of entitlement that Whedon fans will buy anything Whedon produces. He went out of his way to give his fans high-quality content that would make it more than worth their while to pay money for.

And he did it with his eyes wide open. “The inevitability of some piracy is something we’re prepared for,” he said in the same interview. It’s not that piracy is okay; he’s not condoning it. But he’s accepting that it will happen whether they shake their fingers at it or not, and in my opinion this is the key to achieving success in online distribution. Accept that piracy will happen, and innovate to both keep it to a minimum and to make a profit in the face of it.

Now, at the same time they’ve played nice in the Web community, they’ve taken advantage of largescale Hollywood resources and mainstream monetization strategies. They did some of their shooting on the Universal Studios back lot. From the beginning, they’ve said they’re open to exploring potential wide-scale big-industry distribution deals. They’re listing the episodes for the standard $1.99 fee on iTunes, and they’re selling merchandise through an online store.

What’s newsworthy about Dr. Horrible is not that the Whedons have invented some new thing, but that they’ve played nice with all parties to create an online show that’s successful in the mainstream. They didn’t stick it to the man, and they didn’t give their fans the impression they’ve sold out. What they’ll accomplish in their success is to prove themselves able to navigate both worlds, to show industry and consumer alike that it can be done and done well and done successfully for all parties—creatives, producers, and consumers alike. Big Hollywood might find themselves a bit humbled, and might decide to embrace the faster-moving, more unpredictable, more demanding-of-transparency culture of the Web. And Web-content producers might see there’s something to be gained, if they want to gain it, from playing nice with the big industry mucky-mucks. If this comes to pass, the world of entertainment will be better off for having the Whedons lead the way.

Watching NPH & his iPhone on my iPhone

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