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The Doctor is In

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog. You’ve heard of it? Chances are, you have. It is, without a doubt, the first blockbuster success for scripted content on the web.

Well, except lonelyGirl15. But people claimed they didn’t know that was scripted when they first started to watch. Oh, and Ask-A-Ninja. And RocketBoom. And - okay, so it’s not the first.

But it is the first with mainstream Hollywood stars, both in front of and behind the cameras. And that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

It certainly gave us a level of quality I don’t think a lot of people are used to seeing in made-for-online material. But the surprising thing to me is how far from broadcast quality it is. What does not surprise me is the fact that no one cares. They are entertained and that is enough.

So creatively, that means it was a success. What a lot of people seem to care about is whether Dr. Horrible was a success financially. In this rather self-important bloated post, I’m going to discuss my opinions on what they did right, what they did wrong ( or rather DIDN’T DO at all ), and what this means going forward for online media.

So let’s break it down, shall we?

What They Did Right

It’s written by Joss Whedon. The man is simply one of the best writers working in the medium of screenwriting today. But more than that – Whedon is probably the screenwriter most beloved by the “new media” crowd today. His mixture of sarcasm, intelligent and witty wordplay, and love of genre material appeals to a group of people that were beat up a lot in junior high for being sarcastic, intelligent witty people who love genre material. Joss Whedon and the internet are chocolate and peanut butter. Vodka and tonic. Joanie and Chachi. Meant for each other.

Also interesting is how Whedon used the less restrictive internet for jokes he could never do on the air – “The hammer is my penis” being the most obvious, but Captain Hammer also flips the bird in Act 3.

It’s a musical. Being a musical might seem to be a negative – musicals have a very specific fanbase. But it sets it apart from everything else and the two fanbases sort of overlap. It’s also a brilliant move in terms of recouping their money. They instantly created a secondary revenue stream. I purchased the “Once More With Feeling” soundtrack, and will also purchase this one. That’s likely another $10 in their pocket from me. I don’t know how much it’ll be, I’m guessing.

They got real actors. Before I get a bunch of angry emails and tweets – I’m not saying you have to be a successful Hollywood actor to be a “real” actor. But most people who are successful in Hollywood as an actor actually have some talent. I’m sure more than a few people watched for the novelty of seeing Doogie Howser sing. But that’s missing the point. Neil Patrick Harris is an amazing actor. I almost feel bad that he is best known for Doogie Howser, when his work as Barney on “How I Met Your Mother” is often the best part of the show, and his extended cameos in the “Harold and Kumar” movies are genius.

Take another look at Dr. Horrible. Watch what NPH does with his eyes. Watch his nervous blinks whenever his insecurity comes to mind. There is amazing subtly to his looks, his gestures, especially during the songs. Which, as a note, he nails. This is what a good actor does and why they are worth the money.

Felicia Day is also an attraction. And I don’t just mean because she is an extremely attractive young lady. I don’t just mean because she’s a talented actress. The fact is Felicia Day is a very well known geek and new media star in her own right. Between her podcast show “The Guild” and her frequent blog postings about D&D and WoW, she has established street cred as a nerd. The casting of Day as Penny also makes it seem less like Whedon is muscling in on New Media and more like he wants to simply join the party. ( author note of full disclosure: Felicia Day and I both were members of ACME Comedy Theater and know each other tangentially. I don’t know if she is still an active member, but I am no longer there. )

Nathan Fillion is Nathan Fillion, and as such, awesome.

They paid attention to EVERYTHING-

Locations were varied and real. They shot on the Universal Lot’s NY street set before it burned down. They shot in a weird house with metal walls that likely only a location scout would have known about. They shot in a real laundry mat, not the laundry room of someone’s house.

Costumes were actually thought about. I don’t just mean the “super” costumes – though I actually thought Captain Hammer’s “costume” was quite weak – I mean everyone’s. Notice how Dr. Horrible’s secret identity of Billy has a definite and specific “look” – layered sweats and hoodies and long sleeve t-shirts. In Act 2, Penny is actually wearing an outfit that echoes Snow White.

Lighting. There actually was some. This is a big step up from most web productions.

There were visual effects, and the entire thing went through a digital intermediate. This is actually the thing that is least impressive, after shorts like “Ryan vs Dorkman” and other fan films, effects like those seen in “Dr. Horrible” are nice, but do not really set it apart by themselves. Zoic did a nice job, but nothing that couldn’t be done by a skilled filmmaker and a copy of After Effects.

Credits were handled PERFECTLY. Six seconds at the beginning – title, the three stars. It wasn’t until the last episode that there was a minute of full credits. I realize this is antithetical to what people are after on the web – credit and notoriety. But the bandwidth saved by not downloading the same minute of credits over and over was likely significant – essentially every 15 downloads with credits equals 16 without. Something to think about when you are budgeting bandwidth costs.

The last, and most important, thing they did is they made Dr. Horrible an event. By making it available for free only for a week, and by releasing each episode at a specific predetermined time, they made it something people looked forward to, and almost guaranteed that the entire blogosphere would be talking about it in a given window. They even managed to crash their servers, an event that was of note in and of itself. And now, if you keep hearing about the show and want to see it, you gotta cough up some dough – rewarding those who were in the know early, and making people want to be in the know for future events.

What They Didn't Bother With

I intentionally didn’t call this “what they did wrong” because I don’t think anything they did was “wrong”. They simply made certain choices that I think would have been handled differently had this been made for broadcast television. Some of this might seem very nitpicky and people may wonder how in the heck I noticed any of it, but realize that as a director and filmmaker myself, it’s my job to notice these things. These are only what I noticed on first viewing. There may be more. I don’t fault them for ANY of these – I’m simply pointing them out to draw the distinctions between this and broadcast productions.

The first thing I noticed was in Act 1, where Dr. Horrible is doing his video blog. You should be paying attention to NPH’s performance. And I was. But I also noticed the hum of traffic noise outside. On a real set, more would have been done to eliminate BG noise.

Also in Act 1, when Nathan Fillion is on top of the van, especially while crouching, you can see the safety cable. I’m all for his safety, of course, but this would have been painted out on a broadcast budget, or another take would have been done.

In Act 2, there is a moment where Billy hands Penny some frozen yogurt. Felicia holds her hand out for a spoon as NPH fishes for it in the bag. My guess is this was either take one or take twelve. Meaning that they had either discussed what was going to happen and got it close enough on take one, or that they had done that part right in the first eleven takes, and the performance was best for this take, so they just moved on. A similar moment happens in Act 1 during the dancing, a hand grab is missed. For broadcast or feature work, you will often just keep going until everything goes perfect. In all likelihood, the production had a limited amount of time at the laundry mat, and it is more important to get all you need, then to get half of it perfect. This leads me to the last thing I noticed in Act 2. In the last song, as NPH exits the store, his line makes reference to “the sun is high”. Only problem is that it is quite obviously dusk. The sky is a deep blue grey, houses and stores are lit up in the background, and the principles are lit rather harshly by what looks like a strong kino. Does it matter? Not really. Get the shot, go home. But that shot would have gotten a reshoot had this been Buffy.

Act 3 is the one I have the most problems with, in terms of cutting corners. That’s a rather sad looking press conference. And what was up with the white board in the background? On TV, you would never have had a spotlight in lens like you see during Dr. Horrible’s song. But it has some nice effects, a live horse, and some killer costumes for The Evil League of Evil – Dead Bowie being my favorite.

So, am I a nitpicky dork for noticing that stuff? Well, yes. But here’s the thing – those “problems” don’t matter. The show was just as enjoyable with those “mistakes” in as they would have been without. This brings me to a thesis of mine – the production budget valley.

Joss Whedon has stated that the production cost was “low to mid six figures”. My guess based on that is $300,000. That may seem like a lot. But Dr. Horrible is 42 minutes long ( the same as a broadcast hour. Hmmmm... ) That would give it a cost per finished minute of $7150. Kent Nichols of “Ask-A-Ninja” Has stated that each episode costs around $7000. Those average around two minutes or so, giving it a cost of approximately $3500 a finished minute, roughly half.

Before continuing, let me explain my production budget valley concept. At a certain point, and that point comes very quickly, you stop getting much benefit from throwing money at a problem, until you reach the next anchor point, or if you have an effects heavy show. If they had spent $600,000 on Dr. Horrible, it would not have looked twice as good. But it would have been riskier and in the end, less financially rewarding. It would not have gained them $300,000 worth of viewers. But if they had put $1,000,000 you would have really started seeing it on screen, but I doubt you would have gained enough viewers to make it worthwhile at that price. But if a show like Battlestar Galactica tried to do an episode for $300,000 vs $1,000, 000 you would really see it on screen. Simple business question- What’s the cost, what’s the benefit? Just keep asking that of every penny spent. Every penny not spent is a penny that you don’t have to earn back.

Getting back to the main concept - for twice the cost as a guy sitting in front of a greenscreen, we get an elaborate musical black comedy. This is not to denigrate the Ninja in any way. I would never do that, if simply because the Ninja could be anywhere and I don’t want him to look forward to killing me soon, or at all. Rather, it is to point out that you can get an amazing piece of work that, to many viewers, looks as good as broadcast television for roughly twice the cost of Ask-A-Ninja per finished minute.

But it didn’t really. Whedon has stated that he relied on favors and deferred payments based on the success of the show. And I would say betting an “unpaid” week of work against the possible success of a Joss Whedon project is a safe bet.

Let me make a couple assumptions here. I’m basing these numbers on guesses, on some known facts, and personal observation.

Some Facts:

  • crashed under the weight of roughly 1000 requests per second when Act 1 went live.
  • Apple keeps 10% of the cost of a purchase, the rest to the publisher, in this case also the creator.
  • There will be both a DVD and soundtrack release.


I’m going to guess that there were probably 1 – 1.5 million viewers of the show. This is just a guess based on multiple sources that have given this range. I think it’s probably lowball, but lets play it safe. Of that 1m - 1.5m, and I’m going to be generous, I’m guessing 35% purchased the show through iTunes. So, that means 350,000 to 525,000 paying viewers. I will use an average of 400,000 iTunes viewers for my calculations. I could be completely of my rocker. As I said, I’m just guessing. But Dr. Horrible did fill up a 3000 seat hall at Comic-Con, and I would guess less than 1/2% of Whedon fans made it to the con. And I think a lot of people bought it in iTunes just to support the effort after viewing it for free via Hulu. I alone have purchased it three times, once for me, and twice as gifts.

400,000 viewers at $4 is $1,600,000. I realize it was really $3.99, but average in all the people who bought each episode individually ( which you must do as a gift ) and it all evens out, OK math nerds? Once Apple takes their cut, you got just over $1.4m. Not bad. Take out the production costs, and you have approximately $1m. Split that amongst the creators, and your actors are probably taking home $80,000 - $120,000. Not a bad haul for a week of shooting and a couple weeks of rehearsal.

You also can plus that revenue with DVD and soundtrack sales. I’m going to say 25% of viewers will buy the soundtrack, once again using the $10 cost, and 15% will buy the DVD because of the added content and quality. I’m going to use total viewers. Some will want the DVD that didn’t buy from iTunes because they didn’t want to buy it twice. Some will want the soundtrack that didn’t buy the show. And some will buy everything that says “Joss Whedon” on it, so they will buy it a second time. We’ll guess they clear $9 on the soundtrack, and $12 on the DVD. That means $4,050,000 to $6,075,000 in additional revenues. A million here, a million there and suddenly we’re talking about real money. And all to the creators.

So – was Dr. Horrible a success? I would say absolutely – both creatively and financially. But can it be repeated, and repeated by those outside established Hollywood? Where do we go from here? ( cue music )

First, I think the novelty of this brought in viewers that it might not have cared if it wasn’t an “event”.

Second, Joss Whedon got this into iTunes as a for-sale item. I bet Felicia Day wishes “The Guild” was $1.99 an episode now, rather than a free podcast, given the show’s bump in visibility. Apple also picked up the bandwidth costs, along with Hulu for the streaming. Indie creators will not receive such treatment.

Third, iTuners expect TV episodes to be $1.99, not $3.99. And make no mistake, this was a single episode of a show, not three episodes.

I can easily imagine something of the quality – production and content wise - as Dr. Horrible being completely underwritten by an advertiser at up to $1,000,000 an episode – making it free to viewers as a video podcast.

These are the hurdles that have to be overcome before those outside the “establishment” can monetize their creations as effectively. But I think it will have two effects quite quickly.

You will see creators with a name that draws viewers – Joss Whedon, James Cameron, George Lucas, Aaron Sorkin, Ron Moore, Seth MacFarlane, Judd Apatow – these are all creators that can get people to work for them for cheap for a piece of future action. These are creators with the personal capital to underwrite a high quality production. These are creators whose name alone will draw interest and viewers. They can do pilots the networks will not, and get them in front of the only people that matter – viewers. I foresee a moment in the near future where a pilot the networks shun is created and premiered online, then moves into great success in “mainstream” media. Think quarterlife only not so, um.... bad.

I think you will also see creators getting clauses in their contracts to take canceled shows and continue them online. Remember, the network standard is not “Can this show make money?” but “Can this show make more money than anything else we can put in the same timeslot?”. Shows like Arrested Development or Firefly, that were not successful enough for the network, but could find great success online, and in doing so the financial benefits for their creators could be great. And the variety and quality of programming available to viewers could be even greater.

Again - i did a lot of guessing, and could be off my rocker. It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out once real numbers start to emerge.

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