Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dr Horrible's Screen Culture Blog

(Note: An edited version of this post was previously submitted for my AFTRS Screen Culture course, Distribution Task, June 2010) 

In the ever changing marketplace of media consumption, one element has remained constant for over 50 years, the cinema. Cinema goers have been and still are having the cinematic experience down at their local art-house theatre or regional multiplex. Ticket prices have drastically increased, screens have grown in size, an extra visual dimension has been added and luxury food and seats are furnished for the viewer’s pleasure.

Despite all this, 2010 was a record year for cinematic attendances. Since 1998 the total number of tickets sold in the Domestic (and of course by domestic I refer to the United States) has largely unchanged, while box office intake has grown as prices have inflated. Yet amongst this, there is a belief that cinema is dying. Its the ageing distribution plan that is no longer applicable to today’s market. Indieflix unveiled an indie distribution plan at Cannes and more and more plans such as this are beginning to pop up as cinema, distribution and story evolve with the times.

Traditional Distribution Model

1st window
Theatrical screenings
1-2 months
2nd window
Video-On-Demand + Foreign theatrical
2-3 months
3rd window
Video cassette & DVD rentals/sales
4-9 months
4th window
1-2 months
5th window
Premium Cable
4-6 months
6th window
Basic Cable
3-6 months
7th window
Broadcast network television
one showing
8th window
Independent TV Station Syndication

I would like to express that my opinion on this matter, is not that the traditional distribution model (cinematic, pay-tv, rental, home video etc, as seen above) model is not working; it is the stories that the films contain within their reels that is ageing. Consumers have changed their consumption patterns, and so stories must change along with them. The least effective Nintendo Wii games are those that are ports from other consoles, which take no advantage of the unique elements of the Wii. And for that reason, I have chosen to analyse Joss Whedon’s revolutionary "Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog", For not only was its distribution model one that bypassed the traditional, so did its story.

"Dr Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog"

Written during the 07/08 WGA writer’s strike, “Dr Horrible” was one of the first ever entirely original pieces of creative made purely for Internet distribution. While television shows (such as LOST, Heroes, The Office) and feature films (District 9) have extended their creative worlds by stretching their universe across mediums, those elements have only ever been ‘additional’ content for audiences. I would possibly even say that the content found on websites for those properties, is considering non-canon in some realms.

It is a reflection of the changing method of the two indistinguishable elements of story and distribution. Whedon explains The idea was to create something small and inexpensive, yet professionally done, in a way that would circumvent the issues that were being protested during the strike. The issues that Whedon references are to do with crediting writers for this ‘additional’ content, such as The Office Webisodes for example. These elements were no longer being considered as after thoughts, as studios and networks began to see the potential for revenue from these avenues.

Internet Distribution at work

“Dr Horrible” Analysis:
Dr Horrible’s title and content sums up all these issues and addresses them all.
-        It is a Superhero story, the current craze in Hollywood.
-        It is a Musical, a current hot point in American films and TV (think Glee, High School Musical etc).
-        It is a Blog, which became ever more popular around the time of its release.
-        It is a ‘Sing-Along’ show, meaning that the way the audience interacts with the story has also been considered. Audiences no longer just observe but now also participate.
-        It is of Short Form, that being 3 x 14 minute episodes, reflecting attentions spans and the less time viewers are willing to invest in a show.
-        It featured Pop-culture icons, such as Neil Patrick Harris. (re Doogie Howser, M.D.)
-        It featured Internet icons, such as Felicia Day. (re The Guild)
-        It was distributed entirely Online.
-        It was made Freely Available for a Limited time.
-        It was released Worldwide from the get go, something (to my hatred) sites such as Hulu have never offered before.
-        It relied on Word-of-Mouth.
-        It exploited previously created Fanbases.
-        It was Self-funded, Independent, and Low-cost.
-        It was created with the Plan to find a venue for the series that would enable it to earn its money back and pay the crew” – Whedon.
-        It would go on to be available on Other Platforms, such as DVD, Blu-Ray, CD etc.
-        It has had content created to Expand its universe, such as a Comic Book, DVD Extras etc.
-        It had a Website before any content was created.
-        It has had continued Audience Participation, from official Sing-Along events, to fansites
-        It will most likely have a Sequel, in the near future. 

Clearly there are as many points there that related to story as there are for distribution. And this was the key to “Dr Horrible’s” success. It was unique for not only being a piece of creative that was planned for internet distribution, but one that was successful, in terms of generating an audience, bringing in revenue, and being loved by critics.

Whedon trialled such elements when he made ‘additional’ content for his television series “Firefly”. He expanded the universe with Comics, he provided small viral clips such as the "R. Tam Sessions" which were available on the shows website, he generated audience participation with a Role Playing Game etc. I personally was a part of this experiment, as I was a involved in the distribution of the film that followed “Firefly”, that being “Serenity”. I was heavily involved with the fan community at the time and was invited to marketing sessions with Universal Australia/ UIP and organised special advanced screenings for fans, months in advance of the films release.

River Tam sessions, Firefly and Serenity. 

These involvements were concerned with how we could get fans of the show in to the film, how we could attract non-fans etc. This gave the fans a sense of ownership of the film and is a vast change in audience – studio relations. (This was a key point to address as the fans of “Firefly” had strongly negative views of Fox due to the shows treatment and cancellation).

“Dr Horrible” remarkably reflected a number of the views that distribution guru Peter Broderick expressed at SPAA Fringe 09. It had a distribution plan that was spot on, but one that would not have seemed so unless it’s written content reflected that. The internet cannot be ignored in this area. Its content reflects numerous pop-culture elements that were capitalised on to almost guarantee an audience would be attracted. Musical, Superhero, Short Form, Blog style, Audience involvement, Free distribution, available on demand rather than at a set time etc.

The worldwide aspect is the final point I would like to express about “Dr Horrible’s” Success. In cinematic terms, the term Domestic is an expired term in my view. Hollywood can no longer just look to its own shores for numbers. International box office is now generally 2/3rds of a films intake. Whedon acknowledged this, and heavily pushed for Hulu to unlock their distribution pattern. Never before had extra content, such as The Office webisodes, been available to viewers outside of the US and Canada. But from Day 1 (well actually there were still issues with International availability until Day 3 from memory!) the show was available to International audiences, and this can only be good news for Australia.

The Australian online market place is behind the times, but it is improving. Elements such as AFI TV and ABC I-View are recognising how viewers consume content. But again, story is key. At SPAA Fringe 09 ABC Television was asking for submissions to address both this current form of distribution and story consumption. I personally was involved with this, as I pitched a 52 episode, 11 minute, Animated Children’s Show to the Head of ABC Children Commissioning and Development, Carla De Jong, called "Hugh Definition". It stressed heavy online content, was short form and would have (you know I would include this!) meta-elements in terms of ‘HD’ and what its content would be. 

Hugh High Definition

Hybrid Distribution in my opinion is not one that refers to just hybrids of the distribution of a film, but also the combination of its story and content. This is a key area that needs to be addressed not just in America, or in Australia, but in how we consume online content, and that is with a worldwide perspective.

Now on to SPAA Fringe 2010 this Friday, with more helpful tips from the superb Peter Broderick!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kieran,

    I had no idea about Dr Horrible's distribution plans and the historical reasons behind it so thanks for sharing all that. It is so hard to find any history for Whedon projects online and the fan pages are so full of fan stuff its hard to decipher fact from wishful thinking. I'll have to link my Whedon blog to you as the Master of all things Whedon!

    I haven't seen Dollhouse yet but I have only heard mediocre things about it. Maybe the best plan is to wait for his next film to hit us so we can see which way he is travelling. In the meantime I'll just have to rewatch Firefly and dream of the future.....