December 23, 2009
Horribly Influential: Fan Passion for a Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog Prequel

In 2008, Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog took the entertainment industry by surprise. As a response to the writer's strike, Whedon's 42-minute low-budgeted online superhero musical opened in July to a fan following that already anticipated the web series' success. Available for free over the span of a week, Dr. Horrible eventually was taken down to be released later for a small fee on iTunes, until its second release this time on DVD (chock full of incentivizing extras) alongside the CD soundtrack in December 2008.

Comparable to the success of Glee and its soundtrack (which I wrote about before in Singing in the Living Room: Fueling the Business Model of FOX's Glee), Dr. Horrible's success depended on the relationship between its transmedia franchise and its fandom. The (unintentional?) short form of the web series seems to have fueled fans to search out and purchase the DVD, which featured a segment called Commentary! The Musical, containing twice as much music as the original musical (and is now available on YouTube here. TubeFilter reports that Dr. Horrible banked over $2.6 million via iTunes before the DVDs were even released. And the series has even made its way onto Henry Jenkins's syllabus for his Transmedia Storytelling & Entertainment class at USC.

But recently a new variable has been thrown into the equation: Horrible Turn, the Dr. Horrible Sing-Along Blog prequel.

Horrible Turn trailer from Horrible Turn on Vimeo.

Calling Horrible Turn "the" prequel is a bit of a misnomer. Technically, Whedon has already envisioned Dr. Horrible's early years. Over at MTV, you can see a preview of Whedon's comic,Doctor Horrible #1 (Dark Horse Comics), which explains a bit of the backstory to the web series' narrative.

When entertainment has a strong fan following, though, "technically" doesn't seem to matter. Disregarding Whedon's comic, Horrible Turn is a fan-produced movie that details the early years and exploits of the Dr. Horrible cast. Like Whedon's low budget ($200,000, according to Forbes) production, Horrible Turn was self-funded by an inexperienced film crew working with a musically talented cast (PopWatch). The production values, while inexpensive, are surprisingly fresh and vivid, with original songs that fit the mood of the piece (and borrow from the original Dr. Horrible work).

Also similar to Whedon's production, the Horrible Turn team takes a semi-serious approach to the novelty of their craft. The front page reads:

Any similarity to the characters created by Joss Whedon is, like, totally a coincidence. And by 'coincidence' we mean accidental. And by 'accidental' we mean fortunate. And by 'fortunate' we mean intentional. And by 'intentional' we mean 'unauthorized.'
The producers know the space in which they are operating and with a mock-serious tone identify and celebrate issues of online piracy, media innovation, and relations with the entertainment industry. In an interview, Whedon says about the Sing-Along Blog, "It's fun, it's different, the limitations are what you make them." And with an equivalent passion, Horrible Turn has met similar success (albeit without what appears to be any financial rewards).

True, the form isn't new -- it's simply an online movie -- but the HT crew realizes and harnesses the online aspects of their media environment. They make the film easy to watch (available through both YouTube and Vimeo) and the songs easy to access after the initial viewing, with all thirteen songs available for free download from the website.

With its broad success, the real dilemma of Horrible Turn is what will come after this triumph. Whedon has already announced a Sing-Along Blog sequel that has been in the works for months. But how -- or even will -- Whedon recognize the impact that Horrible Turn has already made on his franchise? In the past, we have seen producers in the industry take offense at fans impeding on the original narrative (for example, the Star Wars franchise and its many non-canon fan offshoots). The question remains whether or not Horrible Turn, as a fan production, will become part of the canon of this traditionally-produced transmedia story.

Or, even more important, will the success of Horrible Turn blend into the prior success of the Sing-Along Blog, and what might be the implications on the creative industry if this happens? We might see, for instance, a conflict between creator and fan-creator but in the reverse direction: Whedon may need to appeal to those he inspired to continue their story as he continues his own (that is, if he does intend to recognize the prequel). Especially now that Whedon has already begun work on the sequel, will he have to reconsider certain elements to balance the challenge of a successful indie transmedia project? From here on out, Horrible Turn seems to exemplify the current tipping point of the convergence culture that Henry Jenkins identifies in his 2006 book, and we can only wait to see what Whedon will release next.



Near as I can figure, the primary engine of canon derives from a writer whe sits alone in a vacuum, a vacuum that promotes collaboraton between the artist and selected characters.
Sometimes that singular collaboration between artist and characters comes to include a host of writers, carefully selected to participate in a process (that utterly complicates attribution)...but the guiding spirit, the arbiter of canon, the one who runs the show usually continues as the master of the vacuum, the sire of the original story, negotiating continuity in spite of the wantonly-commercial interests of the powers that be(have badly) and the hankerings of the slayity, which increasingly-cheezy technology has given an increasingly-audible voice, which compromises vacuums.
Eventually, somebody's going to ask who (if anyone)owns culture, and is it a noun or a verb?