Joss Whedon’s Wacky Web Experiment Kicks Off

Sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. In Joss Whedon’s case, what he felt he had to do was make an online musical about a super villain who keeps getting foiled by a hero as he pines after the girl from the laundromat. So he did, funding “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” in “the low six figures” out of his own pocket.
Teaser from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on Vimeo.

Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” knows how to attract passionate fans like no other. So “Dr. Horrible” is almost guaranteed to be a hit, especially by Internet standards. (And we loved it, too — see our review.) But in deciding to release his musical extravaganza online, he got as creative about the business plan as he did about the concept.

The first of three installments of the 42-minute musical was released (with some technical difficulty, due to overwhelming demand and unforeseen geographic limitations) on the evening of Tuesday, July 15. The second one will go live on July 17 and the third on July 19. If you want to stream the ad-supported episodes for free, you must do so before July 20, when they will be taken down. If you want to buy them on iTunes ($1.99 per section or $3.99 for the series), you can hold onto them. After that, the plan is to release a DVD version, either independently or with a studio, that includes an all-new musical by the cast and crew that’s also 42 minutes long, to be called “Commentary!”

“We wanted to make an event out of it, like an old TV event, when you have to be in the same place at the same time,” said Whedon, admitting that part of the motivation was revving the hype engines.

Though some deep thinkers may argue that limiting access to your intellectual property will only dampen demand for it, many producers feel that introducing scarcity is one of their only bargaining chips left on the web. So they will cut deals to show new episodes for 24 hours on MySpace before posting them to their own sites, for example, as Marshall Herskovitz did with “quarterlife.”

But it’s hard to know where fan bases will grow organically online, and as Herskovitz learned (this was before “quarterlife’s” failed debut on television), it’s mighty difficult to emerge from the heap — even if you are famous for making “My So-Called Life” — without a good bit of promotion.

Anyone’s free to experiment on the Internet, of course, but now we’re seeing a new type of grand-scale (and pretty wacky) experimentation.

Seth MacFarlane, for instance, cut a deal with Google AdSense to make a new animated series called “Cavalcade” that will appear in ad units spread around the web on sites with a young male demographic (and also on YouTube, we’ve heard, so you won’t have to scour the web looking for every instance of the ads). Regarding the deal, Google bragged to the New York Times, “We feel that we have recreated the mass media.” The upfront budget for the series was undisclosed, but is apparently “by far the largest amount spent on original Internet content to date,” and revenues will be split between MacFarlane, the company selling the ads, Google, and the web sites on which the ads appear.

Rewarding your fans’ obsessions is good business, especially online, where the true fanatics thrive. And Whedon is having a half-baked, creative, unregulated time of it. If he doesn’t make a profit based on iTunes downloads and ad-supported streams, revenue from the “Commentary!” DVD might make up for it. But while DVD sales and rentals rose 1.6 percent in the first half of this year from the same six-month period the year before, DVD sales for the whole of 2007 famously dropped for the first time ever.

And to be clear, nobody thinks there’s much money in online video, at least not yet. The best estimates put revenue from online video advertising at around $1 billion this year, and paid downloads at somewhat less than that. But iTunes is quickly ramping up sales and the folks at Google are wracking their brains trying to figure out how to make a dime back from YouTube. This is the way people watch content now, for better or worse, so there’d better be some money in it!

How the business side of things will turn out for Whedon remains to be seen, but the upside will undoubtedly be more advantageous for him and the rest of the team than it would have been if they’d funded and released a musical television special or movie. By rejecting traditional financing, ownership and distribution methods, Whedon wasn’t constrained by other people’s content windows, bottlenecks and antiquated arrangements. And so he’s able to meet his fans on his own terms.

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