A version of this article was originally published by Knowledge at Wharton
TV and movie writer-director Joss Whedon wants to change the way Hollywood does business. While Whedon works inside the studio system on major projects, he also hopes to blaze a trail on the Internet for creating and monetizing independently produced content. In doing so, he is confronting what he terms the "homogenized, globalized, monopolized entertainment system."
One of Whedon's recent projects is "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," an online musical comedy starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day, written by Whedon, his brothers Zack and Jed, and Jed's fiancee Maurissa Tancharoen.
"Dr. Horrible" was released on the Web in three parts last July, and Whedon's plan was to remove the free online versions and sell all three episodes as video downloads through Apple's iTunes Store. A week after the series moved to iTunes, it reappeared online on advertising-based sites such as Hulu, a joint venture of NBC Universal and News Corp. In December, a DVD version became available on Amazon.com. With these various distribution channels (and the lack of a traditional advertising budget), "Dr. Horrible" serves as something of a case study for marketing independently produced content.
Q: You've made "Dr. Horrible" available through a number of different distribution channels. It was free for a short period. Then it was available for purchase as a video download through iTunes. The soundtrack can also be purchased online. It's now available once again for free, streamed over the Web with advertising. And now there's a DVD. Can you give us an idea of how successful each of those has been?
A: iTunes has been a great boon for us. And the DVD has done quite well -- although I'd love to bump that up more. Streamed (online video) with advertising is probably the smallest revenue. Whether that's a viable monetization scheme ... is the question. In some ways it acts as an advertisement and in some ways it might be pulling people away from bothering to download it or to buy the DVD.
In the case of the DVD, we went so ballistic with extra content that it took twice as long to make as the movie (laughs). It wasn't just a question of: Here's another potential revenue stream. It was a question of: Here's something new, so that you don't feel like this is something you already have. We were trying to protect the monetization stream there and give people a new experience.
Q: You've created content for television, for feature films, for the Web. Do you view these as fundamentally different media or as merely different distribution channels for similar content?
A: I see them as different media. They are connected and connecting in ways that I find both fascinating and appalling in the sense that everybody's trying to make every story work on every platform. Sometimes you're like, "Can you just make a frickin' movie! Can it not be a franchise and a comic book and a bobblehead? Can the characters just matter?"
Part of it is absolutely respecting that the media are different. That doesn't mean that you can only make things on the Internet that are two minutes long, like a lot of people believed. But it does mean that a movie and a television show and a limited Internet series are going be positioned differently, responded to differently and experienced differently. Ultimately, it's always going to boil down to: Did I (care)? Was I having a good time?
But the integration of the things can be exciting, if it's approached the way everything needs to be approached -- which is artistically.
The problem now is the form that the integration takes. When I'm shooting my TV show I have to shoot it for 4 by 3 television ratio and widescreen -- which means I can never compose a true frame. I'm always splitting the difference between frames. And that is destructive. So you do have to make a choice at some point.
Q: What advice would you give to someone starting out that wants to make an independent film or Web content? How can they get their work seen? How can they generate enough revenue to do another one?
A: The fact of the matter is, if somebody has a story to tell there is no reason at all that they should not be telling it. The quality of the material that exists -- I'm talking about the physical (equipment) like the cameras -- (allows you to do) things that could not be done when I was a kid for almost nothing.
People aren't going to the Internet to look for IMAX (large screen movies). They're going to look for things that shock and delight and surprise and upset and all that good stuff. They're going for the most basic story.
A lot of people sit around and go, "How can I get this made?" The only answer is: By making it. By borrowing someone's camera. By buying a camera. They come cheap and they work well. And if you know where to point them -- and the person that you point them at is saying something interesting -- that's it! That's how it works.
I can't stress enough that I believe the best thing in the world is for everybody who feels like they have a story to tell, to tell it.
If they want to sell it, if they want to make a lot of money, they can do that -- and they can kiss their story goodbye. Because, in general, that's the last they're ever going to see of it, because somebody else will own it and they will either not make it, or make it very differently than that person hoped.
So, if you really have a story you think you're ready to tell, what are you doing talking to me?