Back in March on the heels of the Hollywood writer’s strike, I suggested that the time was ripe for a major player like Joss Whedon to make a push into the realm of internet-distributed television. Whedon would be a good experiment because he already understands the idea of cult appeal, and because he knows how to be massively creative on a budget. Well, last week while I was off traveling, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was released, a Whedon production starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day.
Verdict? Perfect. The series was made on the cheap, but with high production values. The story was meaningful and poignant. The songs were awesome. And the show, which was available for free for a week on Hulu before switching to iTunes, is tearing up the online charts. Now there are plans for a DVD, a comic book, maybe a soundtrack, and bigger players have started calling to talk about other projects and adaptations.
Long by internet standards (at 12-15 minutes an episode), the three episodes received a combined 2.2 million views during the time they were available for free. The story is of the intrepid Dr. Horrible (Harris), who is attempting to join the “Evil League of Evil” by proving his super-villain mettle. His arch-nemesis, Captain Hammer (Fillion) manages to both hinder Horrible’s progress and steal his girl, do-gooder Penny (Day). All of the characters frequently break into song (and occasional dance) along the way.
In 2003 I wrote a paper looking at how digital production and international cost-sharing were contributing to the creation of truly multi-national programming with fewer home-country content constraints (i.e. being forced to “dumb down” programs to fit an audience). My paper was focused on Farscape, and the idea that cost-sharing arrangements and wider audience reach would allow smaller production houses more opportunities to reach new markets. Since that time, rather than seeing many international shows, we’ve seen instead shows in one country being re-imagined and re-created in another. The independents never got a foot hold.
Yet, at the same time, online distribution has become more feasible, and YouTube and myriad video blogs have shows that good programming without major studio backing can succeed. The question is, can these things become more than cheap labors of love? Can professional actors, writers, producers, directors, and crew make a living doing an online-only show? If anyone could embark on that sort of grand experiment, it would be Joss Whedon. And he did, and every indication is that he will make back his “low six-figures” investment and be able to pay his cast and crew. And that is a very, very good sign for the future.