I know the idea of seeing our favorite musical supervillain and his hammer-headed nemesis on the big screen has many people squeeing with delight, but it has me cringing. When I first heard the rumors that Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog might have a film sequel instead of a web one, I instantly began scouring the internet hoping that Neil Patrick Harris’s quote was misunderstood or that Joss Whedon had denied it. Surely, someone was mistaken here.
The internet has always been the red-headed stepchild compared to its coiffed, platinum-blonde siblings in film and TV. Dramatic prairie dogs and parkour just don’t compare to the artistic merits of Transformers 2 and Cavemen the TV show. But the internet is home to more than just rejects from America’s Funniest Home Videos. People are telling stories from their backyards and garages, from their apartments and offices. Instead of the financial backing of studios or investors, they are backed by the power of a story to tell, a love of filmed media, and the help of family and friends.
By no means was Dr. Horrible the first piece of original storytelling content to get noticed on the internet. Felicia Day’s web series about online role-playing game, The Guild, is now in its 3rd season and is distributed by Xbox Live and Microsoft and sponsored by Sprint. Dorm Life, a mockumentary web series about, you guessed it, dorm life, went on to be sponsored by Carl’s Jr. in its second season. The creators of the strange web video diary Lonelygirl13 were signed by a major talent agency, and Lonely Girl herself went on to have a role on ABC Family’s Greek. After the first episode of Red vs. Blue, a series using animation directly from the popular video game Halo, the producers were contacted by the video game’s production company to arrange a deal so the series could continue to use game properties without license fees.
But how many people are really aware of any of these series? What made Dr. Horrible unique was the amount of mainstream media attention it recieved, the sheer number of viewers that went to the site, and the respect it was given in the entertainment community.
In a time where the old models are struggling to survive — network TV’s ratings are flagging and box office draw isn’t what it used to be — the internet is primarily being treated as a marketing tool instead of a new method for distribution. Sure, the producers of film and television are posting content to the web, but they are doing so in hopes of enticing those eyeballs to move over to the TV screens and movie screens that matter to them. Yet, if the current trends continue, soon most television and movie viewing will be taking place on the web. One-third of teens and a quarter of tweens watch TV on the internet, according to a 2006 Mindshare survey. As these internet-savvy kids grow up and more full-length content becomes available online, web viewership can only increase. Eventually the internet will become the primary distribution method whether we want it to or not.
If an internet-based future is so inevitable for content, why is it still so underutilized? The simple answer is money. Web content has struggled to make ends meet, let alone turn a profit. Even with sponsorship, the cast and crew of The Guild aren’t making the same salary as the cast and crew of The Middle, and Dr. Horrible‘s profit pales in comparison to that of major box office releases. We haven’t found a model that works yet.
But if there’s anyone I wanted to see buck the odds and show them how it could really be done, it was Joss Whedon. Who better? With a cult of devoted followers who would follow him to the ends of the internet and back, anything he creates is sure to be talked about all over the blogosphere, and after suffering the premature death of the beloved series Firefly, he must have been wondering how he could take his ideas straight to the fans. Why not fan-finance?
What if instead of pitching the idea to FOX, Whedon had pitched it to the fans via the internet? Post a treatment with a synopsis of the idea and characters, just like he must have created for the network executives, for the entire fanbase to view. Then ask everyone to subscribe for the first season at just $1 an episode. If you look at Firefly‘s viewership during the first few episodes — 4.7 million viewers — that would translate into a $4.7 million dollar budget per episode. You don’t even need half of those viewers to subscribe in order to match the roughly $2 million per episode budget that Firefly actually had. And considering that people were willing to spend $2.99 on a Firefly comic, $1 might even be a low pricepoint. Don’t receive enough money from the fans? Don’t make the TV show. You truly live and die based on what people are interested in. When it comes time for a second season, you live and die base on whether or not the first was any good.
This model, of course, would only work for someone with a built-in following, the kind of devotion that, say, spawns multiple fan websites and t-shirts that read “Whedon Is My Master.” You think these people won’t pay to see more content from the Whedonverse? Even better, this would be Whedon unfiltered. Without those pesky network executives that we blind followers always blame for the rocky start to Dollhouse or the less-than-stellar first season of Buffy.
For those who complain about the endless police dramas and reality shows that clutter the network airways today, an internet distribution method could herald a boom in creativity and diversity of content. As a professional in the entertainment industry, I’ve seen notes — from executives, producers, other writers — slowly destroy a work and debiliate writers. Yes, notes from others are an incredibly valuable tool, and without the help of executives guiding the way, I am certain that some of my favorite TV shows and movies wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are. I have a feeling that the original Star Wars trilogy would have been, well, more like the second trilogy.
But the notes process — and the power struggles and egos that are sometimes behind it — can also destroy the original author’s point-of-view and result in a muddled, directionless mess. Instead of having people create a show on the web in hopes that it would be picked up for TV, wouldn’t it be wonderful if people established a career in TV in hopes of harnessing the power of internet distribution to finally work on their passion projects?
Surely, this simple, fan-financed model isn’t the only idea for what would work on the web. What we need is someone with the entrepreneurial spirit, the necessary financial and fan capital, and a love for the art of storytelling to pave the way. I’m not sure that Joss Whedon is the one to do it, but I do believe that having our favorite member of the Evil League of Evil move to more traditional media is a step in the wrong direction. Here’s hoping that this Sing-Along Blog remains where it belongs — in the blogosphere — and that it inspires new innovation and creativity in internet media.
Juliana Weiss-Roessler has been writing in web-based media for 10 years, including writing web videos for an Emmy-nominated reality series and ghostwriting a blog for Yahoo. She is an aspiring TV writer who hopes this all works itself out, so she can one day take advantage of the power of internet distribution herself. To learn more about the process of applying to write for TV, visit her website WeissRoessler.com to read her spec scripts or visit her blog Boring Future Generations.