It took awhile to happen, but I’m holding it in my hands — a glossy 160-page paperback about the making of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog (described on the cover as “A Joss Whedon Film”). The book includes equally glossy behind-the-scenes photos, the complete shooting script and sheet music, as well as articles describing the iconic web series’ conception and production. If you’re a hardcore fan, you’ll enjoy it; it will look very handsome on your shelf next to your Dr. Horrible DVD, Blu-ray, and collected comic books.
Reading it will also remind you of the weird place Dr. Horrible has always occupied in web series history. In the book, director Joss Whedon and his co-creators Jed Whedon, Zack Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen describe Dr. Horrible as “grassroots.” But their “grassroots” project cost $200,000 (admittedly, all footed personally by Joss Whedon), and there aren’t many independent web series creators who have the ability to spend a day shooting on the Universal (s cmcsa) (s ge) lot.
Many other moments in the book also highlight this disparity; for example, while co-star Felicia Day’s contribution to the book mentions that she “used clothes out of her own closet,” a four-page spread later spotlights the contributions of costume designer Shawna Trpcic, who not only supplemented Day’s closet with a rack of clothes, but used the Fox (s NWS) costume archive as well. Dr. Horrible’s white mock-turtleneck lab coat, worn by Neil Patrick Harris? That was also worn by Sean Maher in Firefly, and one of the mad scientists in Alien: Resurrection (which Whedon wrote).
Ultimately, the book highlights how important Dr. Horrible was to the web series world at that time — but how it may not be very relevant to the state of web original content today.
Dr. Horrible will always be a touchstone of web video’s early days: Its high-quality production values, high-caliber cast and catchy songs brought the idea of TV on the Internet into the mainstream. And it wasn’t just a creative success, but a financial one as well: Whedon’s $200,000 investment, a year later, had grossed $2.5 million according to Forbes, primarily thanks to iTunes (s AAPL) and DVD sales.
But Dr. Horrible was a child of the 2007-2008 WGA Writer’s Strike, born at a time when writers like Whedon, after decades of success in Hollywood, were inspired to challenge the studio system — for a little while, at least. Whedon says in the book that “it was a weird thing for me… it was a very meaningful thing, politically, but at the same time, it was a lark.”
Dr. Horrible was just one of the ways Hollywood talent was experimenting with Internet content in 2008 — that summer, Rosario Dawson and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane were also headlining original projects for the web. And those projects much more closely resembled what would become established business models for web content: Dawson was starring in NBC Digital’s Gemini Division, which relied on product placement from Intel, (s INTC) Cisco, (s CSCO) Microsoft, (s MSFT) Acura and UPS (s ups) for its budget, and MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy was working directly with Google AdSense (s GOOG) for distribution.
By experimenting with advertising possibilities, those series were helping to create business models for a sustainable industry of mainstream and independent creators, as seen with shows like Felicia Day’s own The Guild. Meanwhile, what Dr. Horrible primarily proved was that you could make online distribution work — if you had a huge, previously established fan base.
That model isn’t exclusive to Joss Whedon, for the record: Guiding Light star Crystall Chappell, as just one example, has had success bringing soap opera fans to her ongoing subscription series Venice. But there aren’t a lot of other creators with the followings to pull that off, especially at the level Whedon did.
Whedon said at Comic-Con 2010 that he had plans to return to creating web content, following his directing duties on The Avengers. And the one project he has mentioned, a collaboration with comics writer Warren Ellis called Wastelanders, frankly sounds awesome. But first comes Avengers — Whedon’s big chance at becoming a major director of blockbusters. Whether he returns to “larking” on the web or not will likely depend on his success there.
Dr. Horrible‘s value as an ambassador for web originals is mammoth: For many people, it was the first time they might have discovered that original content — great original content — could be found on the Internet, and its legacy as one of the first web series to permeate the mainstream cannot be understated.
But within the industry, it does need to be kept in context. Neil Patrick Harris describes Dr. Horrible as “a passion play” in the Dr. Horrible book’s afterword, as well as “the single best thing he’s ever done.” Labors of love can serve to inspire industries, but they don’t necessarily build them.