What Dr Horrible Can Teach Media Creators About Participatory Culture
What Dr Horrible
Can Teach Media
Dr Tama Leaver
Curtin University of Technology
Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
• Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly).
• Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, Felicia
• Global fan engagement in lead-up
(Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Blog hype,
Joss’s ‘master plan’.)
• Musical, fannish and fan-promoted = very
participatory; fan promoted, not fan
• Available for a short time online for free
(freemium), or forever via iTunes.
Joss Whedon & The Fans
• Buffy (1997-2003) and The Bronze
(and Bronze beta) discussion
– Whedon directly interacted with fans.
– Other show writers, etc., interacted
– Put fans before the network:
‘Bootleg that Puppy’ after US
postponed season finale after
(Unlikely progress) from Firefly (2002) to Serenity (2005)...
2007/8 WGA Strike ...
• 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of
America (WGA) strike.
• Strike, in part, over residuals for
online media (webisodes, online
streaming episodes, etc).
1) Why, Joss? Why? Why now, why free, why us?
Once upon a time, all the writers in the forest got very mad with the Forest
Kings and declared a work-stoppage. The forest creatures were all sad; the
mushrooms did not dance, the elderberries gave no juice for the festival wines,
and the Teamsters were kinda pissed. (They were very polite about it, though.)
During this work-stoppage, many writers tried to form partnerships for outside
funding to create new work that circumvented the Forest King system.
Frustrated with the lack of movement on that front, I finally decided to do
something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by
everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly
created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know,
there are far too few. The idea was to make it 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.
Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
• Three-part web-based musical
comedy based on a super-villain
• Shot on a shoe-string budget, 6-
day shoot, no studio funding.
• Released online, streaming for
free for one week; and for (paid)
download via the iTunes store
(and eventually Amazon.com).
Felicia Day ...
“Felicia is partially responsible for this ever happening.
"The Guild" first made me realize we could just go out
there and get it done, make funny shows all by our
lonesomes. In fact, I had coffee (not literally; I had tea)
with her just to ask her about the process before I ever
thought to cast her. (She has a huge amount of
knowledge and talks very fast. I just nodded a lot and
tried not to panic.) She's perfect for this part, but it's
nice that she also earned it with Karma.”
- Joss Whedon, 17 March 2008, Whedoneque,
Dr Horrible Web Presence
Official Web Presence: Fan Web Presence:
• DrHorrible.com • DrHorrible.net
• Facebook (c. 120,000 • Whedonesque
fans) (first port of call)
• MySpace (15,000 fans) • Other fragments all over
• Twitter (@drhorrible) the place (fan blog posts,
Conversations, not just promotion portals.
(Participation, not just dissemination.)
Dr Horrible is (just) American?
• Episode one released via Hulu.com; not available internationally
for first half day (massive fan outcry!).
• Immediate response via Twitter (then MySpace and blogged at
Whedonesque.) After a few hours, a Twitter post pointed to a
website with instructions for circumventing Hulu’s geo-blocking
via an ISP anonymiser. (NB: 1999, ‘bootleg that puppy’ after Buffy
season finale delayed in US after Columbine shootings.)
• Long delay for iTunes outside of the US (different negotiations
needed with each). (Lost $) Team Whedon eventually get
• The Tyranny of Digital Distance creators not aware of the need
to negotiate separate contracts with Apple for each distribution
region (and Hulu to release internationally – US-only default).
Immediate Response to Fan Dismay ...
Dr Hulu …
“Dr. Horrible is diabolical, relentless and surprisingly
hummable. … HULU hosted Dr. Horrible for free for a
week, which we, the mushortio-makers, are forever
grateful for, and now you can stream it for free on their
site. How awesome is that? I know, you're humbled. Stop
groveling. Just remember: the more you watch it, the
more you will understand about life and the universe
and hydroponics. You'll laugh, you'll cry.... and you just
might learn long division. With songs! PLEASE watch it.
We're so lonely...”
- Joss Whedon, http://blog.hulu.com/2008/7/29/dr-horrible
Dr Horrible: The Figures (All approximate)
• 1000 hits/second in release week! (Server crashes initially.)
• 3 Episodes: Released every 2 days, in all up for 6 days. Then
pulled. (www.drhorrible.com) Cost c.$250,000 to make.
• iTunes sales ($1.99 ep/$3.99 all); $3.59 remains after Apple’s cut.
• Neil Patrick Harris (Scale + 3% profit)
100,000 iTunes Sales = 3,273; 1 Million = $109,100.
• Joss Whedon ($250,000 investment; 80% profit)
100,000 iTunes Sales = 87,280; 1 Million = $2.6 Million!
• Dr Horrible – all 3 episodes sat atop iTunes store sales list for 2
Source: Jeffrey McManus, ‘What’s In It For Doogie Howser?’,
21 July 2008.
“This was a sensible article on a subject that will, if
we beret-wearing artistes have our way, will matter
very much. And the guestimates were not far off,
as far as I noticed. I would, however, like to clarify
“The Actors agreed to do this because they wanted to
do this. When I finally laid out my plan for gross profit
sharing, Nathan said "I think you mentioned that
somewhere at the beginning. And I think we all
agreed that WHO CARES." I hope they, and the
writers,and the me, make scads, but we all showed
up for more or less the exact same reason you all
did, and I won't have my peeps thought mercenary.”
- Joss Whedon, July 23, 2008,
Dr Horrible as purposeful exemplar ...
“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. Create more for less. You
are the ones that can make that happen.
Wow. I had no idea how important you
guys were. I’m a little afraid of you.”
- Joss Whedon,
“ … few watch television in total silence and
isolation. For most of us, television provides
fodder for so-called water cooler conversations.
And, for a growing number of people, the water
cooler has gone digital.”
(Jenkins, 2006: 26).
1000 True Fans
A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer,
craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker,
or author - in other words, anyone producing works of
art - needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a
living. A True Fan is defined as someone who will
purchase anything and everything you produce. They will
drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super
deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though
they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert
set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where
your out-of-print editions show up.
- Kevin Kelly, ‘1000 True Fans’,
A Horrible Model?
• Whedon has a few more than 1000 true fans; Dr Horrible is
clearly a huge success.
• Dr Horrible’s publicity – entirely web-based and fan-reliant –
could be harnessed by entirely unknown producers with
carefully designed publicity, conversation and full fan
engagement (probably have to give more initially).
• Tools for global distribution are getting better (Vimeo, Hulu,
• In the YouTube era, quality entertainment and quality
engagement with fans still works.
Participation Continues After Release ...
• Thousands of YouTube parodies, homages, sing-alongs.
• Everything from fan-art to sheet music.
• Dr Horrible on twitter continues to converse and engage
with the fan base (although not always about Dr Horrible
per se) real connection with other Whedons (Zack &
Dr Horrible ponies ...
The DVD: “Seeking New Evil”
The rumblings you've been hearing in the criminal underground since July indeed are
true: At long last, we are seeking new applicants to the League.1 Aspirants to new
heights of Evil should submit an application video that meets the terms below.
• It should be no more than three minutes in length.
• There should be little to no swearing.2
• Dialogue, logos, and music must be original.3
• Songs are not required (singing is a bonus).
• You must be evil -- it's a plus to have a name.
• Your application video should be posted to YouTube or Vimeo.
• Email us a link to the video, with your contact information.4
• October 11 is the last day to submit.
•The best applicants, as determined by the League or its designated agents, will be
included on a special DVD commemorating our most recent member.
1. Henchmen need not apply. Please contact your union.
2. Evil can be something of a family affair.
3. We're evil, not stupid.
4. Finalists may be contacted by the League or its agents.
Dr Horrible on DVD ...
#23, Film & TV,
26 May 2009,
(179 days in chart).
Dr Horrible at high school ...
Winward High School. Source: http://twitpic.com/4ytuv
Dr Horrible at Miami Valley School ...
Does Dr Horrible Work as a Model for new creators?
• Whedon’s popularity and connection to fanbase existed
long before Dr Horrible.
• Conversations with fans take time to build, but move
beyond franchises (eg Buffy to Firefly to Dr Horrible).
• Start the conversations as soon as possible (long before
the ‘product’ exists), and be as genuine and transparent
• New creators won’t hit the same heights as Dr Horrible,
but even a fraction of that success is a good start!
“And while there are elements of the
project that only someone of Joss’
position could pull off — the money, the
cast, the values, etc etc etc — I think there
are still lessons to be taken from it that
apply broadly. Not least of which are, Be
Short, Be Bold, and Get It Done.”
- Warren Ellis, ‘The Guts of Dr Horrible’,
Fan Loyalty crosses franchise boundaries ...
“Terminator had a nice little run,"
explains [Fox] Entertainment
President Kevin Reilly. "We did see it
trailing off a bit, and ultimately we
made the bet on Dollhouse. That's it
for Terminator. If we canceled Joss
Whedon's show I would have got
110 million emails from his fans
Possible issues with fan media creation...
• Who ‘owns’ fan creations relating to Dr Horrible?
• When fans engage in media creation (eg posting YouTube
clips of Dr H sing-alongs), this work might be transformative
(US: fair use) but possibly not. Also, no ‘transformative’
clause in Fair Dealing (Australia, for example).
• Fan media creation relies upon a social and historical
understanding with Whedon (ie ‘make clips, we like them’; not
‘don’t use our stuff, we’ll sue’).
• For new creators, clarifying what fans can and can’t do in
their engagement media products is paramount to avoid
confusion, legal issues and bad blood with fans. (Creative
Commons licenses are one possible solution.)
So the Future Might be Horrible …
… and rely greatly on the power
of participatory culture and
harnessing social networks
through genuine ongoing
engagement with fans…
… and oddly, that might just be a
really good starting point for the
upcoming media creators of
today and tomorrow!