Web Exclusive Essay
Joss Whedon, the Browncoats, and Dr. Horrible
Experimentation among independent media creators is inspiring some mainstream media producers to create alternative systems of production and distribution. Few media producers have been as adept at courting and maintaining the engagement of dedicated fans as Joss Whedon—the showrunner responsible for such cult television series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Angel (1999–2004), Firefly (2002), and Dollhouse (2009–2010). Whedon has one of the most dedicated and concentrated cult audiences, yet he has often had difficulty building up a sufficient mass audience (as measured by Nielsen) to sustain a television series on broadcast or first-tier cable channels.
Whedon’s earliest series (Buffy, Angel) survived primarily because of deflated expectations about ratings numbers as new television networks were fragmenting the marketplace and as the television industry was adjusting to the erosion of younger viewers. His fan loyalty resulted in early successes in terms of DVD/video sales and rentals and, later, in terms of various legal download services.
Whedon’s more recent series have been short-lived, building desired and desiring audiences but getting canceled before the end of their first season (in the case of Firefly) or second season (in the case of Dollhouse). The Browncoats, Firefly’s most passionate fans, lobbied hard for a feature film, Serenity (2005), which would resolve some of the character and plot issues left open by Firefly’s cancellation. The Browncoats were out in force nationwide, drawing local interest in Serenity’s opening, camping out in front of theaters, developing online campaigns, and speaking to other science fiction fans who they hoped might embrace the series. By the end of their campaign, which was encouraged by the studio as “viral marketing,” the active Browncoats numbered more than 75,000 members, with more than 85 percent of them actively recruited by other fans. While the film had only modest box office revenue, its impressive DVD sales were attributed to the buzz created by the Browncoats (Affinitive 2006).
However, when the dust settled, the studio—Universal Pictures—sent cease-and-desist letters to some of the more enterprising amateur publicists, demanding retroactive licensing fees for the reproduction of series images on T-shirts and posters (11th Hour 2006). The fans regrouped, counting all of the time and labor (not to mention their own money) put into supporting the film’s release. They eventually sent Universal an “invoice” for more than $2 million as represented by their 28,000 “billable hours,” an attempt to translate their fan activities into the industry’s language (DMCA Wiki 2006). These Browncoats had understood their engagement in terms of their emotional connection with the property—measured within a nonmarket logic. However, if the studio wanted to read everything through a commercial lens, they pointed out that they had added much more value than they had taken.
The gap between the intensity of Whedon’s fan support and the quantity of viewers as counted through ratings or box office revenue suggested that Whedon might be better suited to a digital platform which counted every viewer willing to pay for access to his content. Such an approach would lower distribution costs and thus allow for niche success, and it also could grant him much greater control over production and distribution.
Whedon’s interest in digital distribution was inspired by the success of The Guild, a direct-to-digital situation-comedy series that was first launched in 2007. The Guild, which focused on an eclectic and eccentric group of online gamers, was created and written by onetime Buffy actress Felicia Day, who also appears in the show (Ohannessian 2009). Starting as a more or less independent low-budget project that counted on fan contributions to sustain its costs and using YouTube circulation to gain visibility, The Guild was later underwritten by Microsoft. Episodes of the sitcom were made available on Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE online service, as part of the company’s effort to expand the online multiplayer gaming platform into a digital entertainment delivery platform as well. The second season of The Guild received almost 6 million downloads on Xbox LIVE. It was also watched by 2.5 million people on the streaming service for MSN, Microsoft’s web portal, and by 3 million people through Zune, Microsoft’s portable media player platform.
Whedon saw an opportunity to explore this alternative business model when the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike—which centered, among other issues, on residuals for the development of online extensions of television programs—blocked him from working on projects for television networks. The result was Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a 2008 comedy musical miniseries about a supervillain in love. The series (which starred, among others, Felicia Day) represents one step toward such a fan-supported model for television content.
As Whedon (2008) has noted, the striking writers talked often about the prospect of distributing series directly to audiences without going through traditional channels. As he explained his “Master Plan” to his online fan base,
The idea was to make [Dr. Horrible] on the fly, on the cheap—but to make it. To turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet. To show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way. To give the public (and in particular you guys) something for all your support and patience. And to make a lot of silly jokes. Actually, that sentence probably should have come first. (2008)
He produced the full series in under six days for a budget of less than $250,000, recording the sound in his basement.
After struggling with the constraints of traditional media production, Whedon found the experience of working in a group of “professional amateurs,” as star Neil Patrick Harris put it (quoted in Littleton 2008), enormously liberating. Whedon sounded optimistic at the launch of the project that his “experiment” would have long-term implications for the television industry: “Proving we can turn Dr Horrible into a viable economic proposition as well as an awesome goof will only inspire more people to lay themselves out in the same way. It’s time for the dissemination of the artistic process” (2008).
For Dr. Horrible to succeed, Whedon needed to count on fans to do what grassroots intermediaries do best—talk about what was happening: “Spread the word. Rock some banners, widgets, diggs . . . let people know who wouldn’t ordinarily know” (2008). During the first phase of Whedon’s three-tier distribution strategy, the episodes were posted for free via the commercial online video platform Hulu (backed by NBC Universal and News Corporation) for about a week. The demand was so great that his followers crashed Hulu; Dr. Horrible’s episodes drew more than 200,000 viewers per hour across the first few days of their release (Littleton 2008). When the dust settled, Dr. Horrible had been watched more than 2 million times in the first five days of its free distribution (McManus 2008).
Then, the episodes were sold via iTunes, bringing in paying customers on the basis of the word-of-mouth from early adopters who had watched on Hulu and mainstream media coverage generated by the program’s surprise success. By the end of the first week of iTunes sales, according to industry gossip, Whedon had recouped his production costs. From there, the episodes went to DVD, complete with a commentary track which was, in the spirit of the musical, sung by the program’s creative team. Again, the series was an instant hit, becoming the second-best-selling DVD on Amazon in its release week. By any criteria, Dr. Horrible was, to use a technical term, a “big honking success.”
The buzz also inspired secondary Dr. Horrible projects, including a soundtrack album which made it onto the iTunes Top 40, webcomics, and, later, a print comic book series. Whedon has hinted that he will continue the story through follow-up episodes or even a feature film production. Buoyed by the experiment’s success, Whedon told a San Diego Comic-Con audience that he wanted to become “an internet Roger Corman” (Walters 2009), funding other creative projects with this distribution plan, though nothing more has come of these efforts at the time of this writing.
Whedon argued that one reason Dr. Horrible worked was that he could scale his project to the web as a distribution medium, making Horrible “exactly the size it needs to be”—neither an epic Hollywood production (“Ben Hur”) nor amateur content (“Your cat falling off the television set”) (Goldberg 2008). In the process, he built a more intimate relationship with his audience. Fans of Dr. Horrible felt they had a participatory stake in this series they had helped promote rather than, as the always colorful creator put it, simply being told to “sit back and enjoy your entertainment and shut up and buy stuff” (Goldberg 2008).
Whedon hosted a contest in which fans could submit their own musical applications for admission to the Evil League of Evil—the society for supervillains which is a key focus of the story—with the best material featured as an extra on the official DVD. Additionally, fans, on their own, have organized sing-along screenings and created Dr. Horrible fan films beyond the official competition (Powell 2009). Always a supporter of fan-initiated media, Whedon has endorsed many fan productions, seeing them as helping to sustain interest in Dr. Horrible.
Whether this represents the future direction of Whedon’s career or not remains to be seen, since he continues to develop new pitches for television network series, to direct broadcast television shows (a 2010 episode of Glee), to write for mainstream superhero comic series, and to helm Hollywood blockbusters (such as The Avengers for Marvel). Whedon has tested the waters, but it may take someone else to cross the river.
Soon, an ambitious cult producer may create a fully viable and influential model for producing and distributing content based on the quality of audience engagement rather than on the quantity of impressions. Might future customers subscribe to a television series the way readers now subscribe to magazines and, in the process, help underwrite the costs of production? A series might survive and profit in a networked culture with a fraction of the number of viewers required for a ratings success on a broadcast network, as long as those fans were committed to supporting the series with their mouths and their pocketbooks.
Affinitive. 2006. “Universal Pictures: Serenity.” http://www.beaffinitive.com/case-studies/universal-pictures-serenity/.
DMCA Wiki. 2006. “Universal vs. Browncoats.” http://dmca.pbworks.com/w/page/17963805/Universal-vs-The-Browncoats.
11th Hour. 2006. “Universal’s Legal Action—Fans Beware.” Firefly forum, Mzinga, Oct. 28. http://forums.prospero.com/foxfirefly/messages?msg=32591.1.
Goldberg, Leslie. 2008. “Q&A: Joss Whedon.” Hollywood Reporter, July 29.
Littleton, Cynthia. 2008. “Screenwriters Strike Back: ‘Dr. Horrible’ Leads Web Charge.” Variety, July 18. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117989200.
McManus, Jeffrey. 2008. “What’s in It for Doogie Howser?” The New Thing (blog), July 21. http://blog.jeffreymcmanus.com/896/whats-in-it-for-doogie-howser/.
Ohannessian, Kevin. 2009. “Felicia Day and The Guild’s Path to Level 80 Digital Success.” Fast Company (blog), Aug. 24. http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/kevin-ohannessian/not-quite-conversation/felicia-day-and-guilds-digital-success.
Powell, Jenni. 2009. “Horrible Turn: Not Whedon . . . but It Could Be.” Tubefilter, Nov. 24. http://news.tubefilter.tv/2009/11/24/horrible-turn-not-whedon-but-it-could-be/.
Walters, Ben. 2009. “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” Film Quarterly 62 (3) (Spring): 66–67.
Whedon, Joss. 2008. “Master Plan.” Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. http://drhorrible.com/plan.html.