The Hollywood Reporter published an interview with Joss Whedon at Comic-Con about his Web-only musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” and the forthcoming Fox series “Dollhouse.” As I recently posted, in addition to being a wonderful musical dramedy, “Dr. Horrible” serves as an interesting test case for several aspects of Internet distribution. The Hollywood Reporter’s conversation with Whedon includes a number of insights about the state of the Web, both in terms of content format and revenue opportunities.
In regard to content format, we seem to be back in the early days of pop radio when no song longer than three and a half minutes could get airplay. But then, of course, the Beatles released “Hey Jude” in 1968 at 7:11. And Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” in 1971 weighed in at 8:09.
When we were making [“Dr. Horrible”], people were like, “You can’t have anything over seven minutes long,” and somebody else was like ‘You can’t have anything over three minutes long; attention spans will go at two minutes and 49.7 seconds every single time no matter what.” It’s a very nascent field and everybody was very entrenched about the way you could create content and what people would sit for on the Internet.
So we were like we were going to make it however long we’d like. We shot for 10 minutes, but it’s me so it came out long.
Good art frequently snubs its nose at the conventional wisdom about what works.
The revenue situation, however, may not be as malleable as the format issue. According to Whedon, “Dr. Horrible” has yet to return its reported “low six-figure” production costs:
We have not made back our investment, but we are in the process; we are accruing. We have high hopes. The idealistic side was, let’s throw this out there, why not. And the mercenary side was honestly, it’s honestly promotional.”
When asked about the response to releasing the streaming version for free, Whedon responds:
The free thing kinda threw some people. Everybody had to kinda take a breath on that one. Because, you know, you make less money with free things.
But there were two sides to that. One was very idealistic, one was very mercenary. The idealistic one was we wanted to do this event, we wanted it to be about the Internet as much as it was about “Dr. Horrible.” We wanted to say there is another way, just not to the studios, but to the people doing the Internet. It’s not your cat falls off a TV set or “Ben-Hur,” there is something in the middle.
When asked whether the Web presents a good business model, Whedon discusses the relationship between content format, revenue aspirations, and monetization opportunities:
None of us is going to become a billionaire from doing this but yes, I think it’s very tricky and most people will tell you it can’t be done. I had one person who might actually be a billionaire, and he said, “Yeah, you’ll make $2,000.” And he wasn’t being mean. … I’m happy to say, we’ve topped $2,000.
The thing is, as a business model, what it isn’t is a cash cow. Most of the territory has been staked out. Unless you create a YouTube or a Google or something that’s all already been done, now the field is crowded. There was 1.0, where it’s basically the open prairie, now that’s all done. And there’s 2.0, where the ideas are smaller and they fit in what is now an existing structure.
And so you have to find a niche in there ,and you have to accept that that’s what it is, especially if you’re working on my level. A studio isn’t really interested in making an investment unless it’s a huge one. I can’t do that.
But I do think that’s the best way to find a sustainable model on the Internet is to build something that is always exactly the size it needs to be. Don’t throw $100 million and need it to start bringing back (returns); don’t say, “Oh we’ll get in the black in five years’ time.”
I was prepared to lose every cent that I put into this. I did this because well, I got to make a musical that’s first and foremost, but because we do need new business models for the creative community as residuals are going to become a thing of the past. Some people are going to need to get into this and I feel the way to get it is to always stay at the exact level you’re at.
“Dr. Horrible” should turn a profit and just enough to continue at that level. At some point it could get bigger and turn into a bigger thing, or it could get smaller. You have to have that malleability. If your expectations are too high, if you’re in it to make a fortune, you’re going to have a bad time, I think. If you’re in it to make a living, you might do OK.
The full interview with Whedon is online in The Hollywood Reporter.