I’ll interrupt this program for a special announcement: A new Joss Whedon project will be available for the world to see in all its glory in just two long weeks. The first episode of three of Dr. Horrible’s Sing- Along Blog, will premiere July 15.th. The second episode will be put up July 17.th, and the final July 19.th. The show stars Neil Patrick Harris (Doctor Doogie, Starship Troopers, How I Met Your Mother) as the wannabe archvillain Dr. Horrible. Nathan Fillion (Serenity, Firefly, Slither, Waitress, etc.) will costar as the good doctor’s nemesis, the too perfect hero of the piece. Felicia Day (of Buffy season 7 and internet rave The Guild), will be on damselly duties. Hear yea, see yea! You’ll be able to see the three part project at this address. For the time being there is only a trailer well worth checking out (with Whedon himself performing the duties of Trailerman, if I’m not mistaken), but be sure to catch this event before July 20th, at which time it will be removed from the site and put up again later as a pay per view thingy. There are plans for releasing the whole little thing on DVD at a later, and so far undisclosed time, but why deprive yourself of quality entertainment for that long?
Oh, and by the way, yes, it’s a musical.
This is indeed good news for those of us who are waiting impatiently for Whedon’s next project, the TV-series Dollhouse, due to premiere early next year (on a hopefully new and improved Fox Television) and starring Eliza Dushku (Faith from Buffy, as she probably is pretty tired of being called).
During the recent writer’s strike in Hollywood, one of the most active and outspoken members of the Writer’s Guild were Joss Whedon, Creator/Writer/Director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Serenity. While not being able to write anything for television or film during the strike, and while tending to a bad case of the flu, he conceived of an idea that might (with a bit of luck) change the balance of power between the creative and “industrial” sides of the conflict. By going outside the studios altogether and still produce something with sufficient quality to draw the viewers (punters, for you in the UK) in, he could strike two bats in the same belfry, as I like to say…
A significant part of the disagreement that necessitated the Writer’s Strike, had to do with revenue from internet downloads and other distributionary concerns. (I doubt “distributionary” is a word. Well, now it is…) Although I haven’t seen anyone explicitly making the connection between the conflict and Whedon’s new project, apart from noting that he wrote and directed it during the strike, I can’t help but feel that it also serves as something of a validation of his argument during the strike. Internet related products are becoming increasingly important tothe industry – be it as streaming and downloads of television episodes or rental of films or whatever the very near future will offer in terms of technology and institutional usage of such. Of the billions of dollars in play in the newer medium, the creative end of the entertainment industry has had to stick with a miniscule percentage, unchanged since the days that internet was unthinkable as a mass distribution system.
The studios’ reluctance – or downright unwillingness and plain orneryness – to even accept this as negotiable, was perhaps understandable from a purely greedy – or capitalist, if you like – viewpoint. And what other point of view should one expect from them? In the end, after filling the sedated American homes with reruns and reality shows (and one or two talk show judases) for months, an agreement of sorts was reached, but I think quite a number of the creative force had their eyes opened to some of the more unpleasant truths of “the business”.
It’s been well documented that the relationship between the creators and studios, seldom ideal at the best of times, suffered severely. I don’t think we have yet seen the full consequences of this rift. There are some that fear that the studios will act out against the more prominent of the strikers, but these worries have so far been delegated to the paranoid/conspiracy- corner of the internet. We shall see.
Anyhow. Whedon’s idea – and not being content to write two or three comic titles (e.g. Buffy, season 8, Astonishing X-Men, Runaways, vol.3) while standing on the picket line – was to accomplish something within film akin to selfpublishing in literature/comics. Internet should really afford a great opportunity to filmmakers that want to – or can afford to – bypass the studio system. To find an audience for whatever you put out there won’t really be as difficult as making them pay for it. Sometimes, though, the exposure of the work is more important than immediate monetary gains. This is particularly true for up and coming artist. Also, chances are that the production will have to be quite a lot cheaper than a studio financed film would allow for.
Relatively unknown filmmakers have for some time used the internet as a venue to showcase their smallish films/episodes, what have you. The mentioned The Guild, by and with Felicia Day, is an example. I think the course she has taken with her project is valid and sound. It’s comedy, fairly broad – although aimed at a certain target audience – and firmly rooted in the real world – even though it’s about people living in an unreal world, and as each episode only lasts some five minutes, it does not outstay its welcome. The production costs should not be excessive, neither, as the actors presumably work more or less for free. The genius of showcasing the series on internet, is that it’s about the very people most likely to be heavy consumers of internetrelated material and highly trained at finding niche products on the net.
Internet geeks – and I don’t mean that at all derogatory – have buying power as a group. The trick is making them want to pay for something they have ways to get for free. Here is where a term like fandom can come into play, so to speak. If the geek – and I could include myself in that group – really likes something, he or she will likely want to see it survive, and if this can be done by paying for a product instead of downloading it for free, said geek/fan will easily do this.
We all know us nerds/geeks/fans have an affinity for material traditionally belonging in comics or pulp: Superheroes and science fiction done right, done as well as good comics have been done. The problem is that these types of programs have severe problems reaching outside its niche audience, and as such seems to be terminally on the brink of cancellation. Of course, this has changed slightly the last five or six years, with superheroes and SF finding a hitherto unknown success in the cinemas – and especially on DVD.
Still, the average American – and World citizen at large – prefer more traditional entertainment when it comes to television. Once in a very blue moon, a show manages to break out – such as Lost and Heroes, but even the fans of these series (which should consider themselves lucky for being fans of SF series that actually do almost all right in the Nielsen Ratings) are constantly worrying that this season will be the last, that the ratings sink gradually for every season. (The truth is that neither Heroes nor Battlestar Galactica had the number of viewers their second seasons that would normally mean an automatic renewal of their network contracts. But since the viewers the series do have are quite sought after among the advertisers, they manage to stay on).
As a consequence of this insecurity, us fans of what has traditionally been deemed nerd entertainment, will buy the DVDs of our favourite shows rather than download them from some pirate site, we will talk about the shows to anyone who cares to listen and to those who don’t, we will, in short, pay good money for the products we would like to see survive the ruthlessness of ratings, and we will do lots of advertising for free. I’m convinced this gives these types of entertainment a competitive edge that will never befall, say, Grey’s anatomy or Entourage. I like Entourage, but I wouldn’t bother to feel any kind of obligation for the show’s survival. Not like with Firefly or Buffy or Galactica or Heroes.
So, when Joss Whedon, an established writer/director, offers a new creation of his for free, I believe him when he claims it is to give something back to the fans, but clearly he is also testing the waters for the “real” value of fandom. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog will be, I assume, a low budget affair. Whedon has the respect and admiration of his actors – even those who have gone on to (slightly) bigger things, and they will initially work for free for such a hobby project of his. They know that their involvement in a Whedon project automatically generates an enormous good will from the fans of the Whedonverse, and besides they seem generally decent people and not overtly obsessed with trailers and entourages and the follies normally accompanying actors on some kind of brink to some kind of starhood. But still, it’s always risky to partake in something as untried as this.
Whedon’s decision to premiere his show for free for the fans that has the wherewithal to know about the scheduled airing dates, and then later charge for the experience, could be comparable to the release of Radiohead’s latest album, where they charged people as much as people wanted to pay. But it is still more safe than Radiohead’s gamble (which was not really that much of a gamble, since they can afford not to earn millions for every record). I think Whedon’s fans are more loyal, for one thing, and it’s easier to support someone that we know is not a worldwide household name, and that has to struggle to see almost all of his intended projects come to fruition. Whedon knows the show will be pirated, but he has to trust that the product and financial support thereof, will prove the validity of the show. (And that us Whedonites will hope for a sequel?) And he has the geek vote, and that will take him quite some of the way. Were Michael Bay, say, to initiate such a project, I can pretty much guarantee no one would bother to pay for it, even though it had more viewers than sense.
It will be interesting to see whether Whedon actually can declare some kind of success with this show/experiment. The definition of success could vary from artistically sound to commercially viable. If nothing else, it should generate sufficient word of mouth to strengthen his position in the industry as a hero for the geek community, and as such strengthen his bargaining chips with Fox or other networks as he presents a new series. I, for one, have faith in the project. One of my favourite episodes of Buffy, was “Once More With Feeling”, the now famous all musical episode, and Whedon certainly showed he had an ear for catchy musical numbers (he wrote all the music), as well as the visual flair needed to handle the genre. Dr. Horrible is a musical. It cannot be bad. I’m excited. And I’m not alone. I think.