February 10, 2009
Whedon's New Business Model 'Horribly' Awesome

Last week Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania posted an excellent in-depth interview with Joss Whedon that is one of the best pieces of from-the-trenches insight that I've read in ages - especially in how Whedon digs into the emerging business model of independently-produced Internet content. Whedon is best known as the creator of the transmedia franchises Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, as well as the upcoming sci-fi/drama Dollhouse, but it's his recent experiment with independently producing (and monetizing) the superhero-romantic-comedy-musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog that has us currently sitting up and taking notes.

Created during the writer's strike and produced on a shoestring budget (approximately $200,000 and a lot of favors), Dr. Horrible was initially released for free online, then strategically taken down and put up for purchase on iTunes and finally released on DVD (complete with extras including fan-generated videos and Commentary: The Musical!) through Amazon's on-demand DVD authoring system. Although Whedon doesn't divulge actual numbers, he does admit that the project has now earned back over twice its original cost - and he's working on how to make it scale.

Some highlights from the interview include Whedon on how people are getting paid:

Knowledge@Wharton: Which members of the production shared in the profits on the backend?

Whedon: The crew that got paid, got paid. [Those] who didn't get paid [included people like] department heads who had jobs and could afford to do this as a lark.

As we go forward into profit, there are also residual schedules and payment schedules for all of the creative people. We're trying to figure out how that works.

From the start I also laid down a gross participation scheme for my three key actors and the other three writers. While the guild was negotiating for one-tenth of a yen, I said, "How about we just get into some percentages." It was an opportunity to say to the guilds, "Guess how much better we can do" -- which, in the case of the Internet, is the only way for the guilds to survive.

We can't accept anything remotely like [our current situation] with the studios.

When the studios talk about the difficulty of monetizing the Internet, they're not lying. There are a lot of paradigms wherein you aren't making that much money. But it's all pure money for them because they have these libraries they can just put on. They're really not interested in putting on original stuff because they can just throw the libraries on and make free money off of that. None of us is in that position.

For [the studios] not to offer the creative community a percentage of what they make -- they say, "oh, it's too difficult" and "we're not going to make any money" -- is disingenuous to the point of criminality. What they're making is pure profit. For them to shut out the people who actually created the content is something that should be looked into by a federal investigatory committee.

...And Whedon on transmedia storytelling and, essentially, comparative media studies:

Knowledge@Wharton: 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?

Whedon: 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.

Like when we did our commentary musical [on the "Dr. Horrible" DVD]. It's ridiculous. It's sophomoric, it's silly, it's off-topic. But, ultimately, we were striving to make a commentary musical, not just to pile on content for the sake of clocking more hours on the extras DVD. We wanted to use the idea of a commentary musical to at least have fun with the concept. Even if we didn't really break huge ground there, we were professionally silly.

As I said, this interview is one of the best pieces of insight into these new challenges I've ever seen, and I've already mentally added it to the syllabus of a future class on transmedia development. Whedon gets it, and is leading the charge for the rest of us. Go. Read. Now.