'Dr. Horrible' leads Web charge

Dr. Horrible can stop people in their tracks with his Freeze Ray gun. He can extract gold from a bank vault with his nefarious remote-control devices. He can sing, fall in the love with the girl next door and do battle with his arch-nemesis Captain Hammer all at the same time. But can he make money for his creative mastermind?

Joss Whedon is testing the mettle of his own superpowers as an auteur with an ardent following. The “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator put up his own coin to finance “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a 40-minute “supervillain musical” starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day.

The “Web miniseries,” as Whedon dubs it, made a big splash in its debut over three days last week as a free streaming option on the Web or paid download via Apple’s iTunes. But now comes the really tricky part: Turning “Dr. Horrible” from a one-trick supervillain into a profitable franchise (think DVD release, soundtrack, merchandise, live events and, of course, a sequel or two) wholly owned by its creators.

Whedon’s gambit is the most high-profile example of a movement under way among Hollywood scribes to harness the marketing and distribution power of the Internet for their own creative (and moneymaking) ends, sidestepping the major studios and networks in the process.

Like “Dr. Horrible,” a number of these ventures were born out of the frustration and long days spent on the picket line during the Nov. 5-Feb. 12 Writers Guild of America strike. By then, veteran multihyphenates Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick had shown that it could be done, even if their made-for-Internet serial “quarterlife” didn’t set the world on fire.

“Everybody on the strike line was always saying ‘Let’s do something for the Internet’ — or ‘My feet hurt,’ ” Whedon recalls.

For some, the sentiment stuck even after the strike ended and the picket-line soreness eased. Screenwriter Aaron Mendelsohn has spent the past few months lining up seed money and advertiser coin for a writers’ collective venture dubbed Virtual Artists, steered by a clutch of scribes who have also invested in the company, including such notables as Ron Bass, Tom Fontana, Terry George and Susannah Grant. Mendelsohn first envisioned the company as strictly Web-oriented, but to his surprise found there was strong interest from nontraditional funding sources to back TV and pic projects.

“Sponsors are interested in working with the professional writers in our network on creative ventures that reach every size of screen,” Mendelsohn says. “What this is demonstrating is that there is a new way of financing professionally produced content that does not pass through the traditional (studio) gatekeepers and mediators.”

The market for Web content would seem to be fertile ground for startups. According to digital ratings firm comScore, Internet users in the U.S. alone viewed 12 billion online vids in May, up 45% from May ’07. The average user devoted 228 minutes per month to watching vids online.

Another post-strike startup, aptly named Strike TV, is designed to be a kind of interactive spec marketplace for biz insiders seeking to generate interest in their concepts for adaptations for films, pics, books, etc. Strike TV at the outset will carry only content submitted by members of Hollywood unions. According to Strike TV CEO Peter Hyoguchi, the site has a roster of more than 40 such programs, of varying genres and lengths, set to begin rolling out in the next few weeks.

There’s no shortage of enthusiasm for the possibilities for original Web content, but the real question is whether anyone can actually make a profit with the stuff. If even the mighty Google is having trouble wringing substantial coin out of YouTube (which is the equivalent of the Big Four nets, HBO, MTV and ESPN combined in its dominance of the Internet vid market) how can individual Hollywood creatives crack the nut?

Like most everything else in showbiz, timing and luck will surely play a big part. It certainly did for the duo behind the successful “Ask a Ninja” comedy website.

What began as a lark by two aspiring writers, Kent Nichols and Douglas Sarine, in late 2005, has blossomed into a Web business that grosses $100,000 a month from advertising, and averages between 1.8 million and 3 million video viewers per month. It has also spawned “Ask a Ninja” DVDs and a deal with Random House for a book due Sept. 9.

Nichols and Sarine were surviving on P.A. and script coordinator jobs when they began fooling around with their “Ask a Ninja” concept through a social networking site. They collected random questions from other users for a mysterious “Ninja” character, and they began posting short video “answers” delivered by a snarky, streetwise Ninja.

With sponsors including Verizon, Universal Studios, Petco and Netflix, the dedicated website Nichols and Sarine launched with $60,000 in seed money has become incredibly lucrative. But the weekly four-minute vids are still shot in Nichols’ West Hollywood apartment. (Recent installments have examined net neutrality, the writers strike, summer jobs and even the future of online video. “New media content creators are like rats, and the Internet is like London circa 1665,” the Ninja advises.)

“We created ‘Ninja’ at a complete low point in our careers when no one would talk to us (about writing gigs),” Nichols says. “We wanted to show people what we could do. And we knew that cheap shortform content works on the Web.”

There’s a debate within the world of Web entrepreneurs about where the smart money is on Internet content. Is it a vehicle for teasing or showcasing projects to be adapted in other forms, or should the focus be on organically grown Web content? Or does the savvy digital mogul diversify with a little of both?

Whedon’s investment in “Dr. Horrible” is seen as a major boon to the made-for-Internet sector, in part because his young, tech-savvy fanatical fan base (who follow the writer-helmer’s every move at sites like Whedonesque.com and Whedonage.com) is preternaturally disposed to seek out new content in new forms. And a rising tide lifts all boats, insiders say.

“The more good content that gets out there, the more people explore new (production) business models,” says Brent Weinstein, CEO of 60Frames, the Internet production company backed by private investment shingles Tudor Investment Corp. and Pilot Group, among others. “What Joss and his team have created is really great. I’m excited to see how it plays out on DVD and iTunes. I hope he makes a killing.”

“Dr. Horrible,” which was shot over seven days in high-def vid at a budget in the very low six figures, tells the story of an underdog supervillain, played by Harris, who maintains a video blog to chronicle his efforts to be accepted by the Evil League of Evil. Horrible also has a softer side, as we see when he battles his arch-nemesis, the two-faced Captain Hammer (Fillion), for the heart of a girl he meets in the Laundromat (Day).

Whedon directed “Dr. Horrible,” and co-wrote it with his brothers, Zack and Jed, and Jed’s fiancee, Maurissa Tancharoen (Jed and Maurissa are writing partners and on staff of Joss’ upcoming Fox drama “Dollhouse”; Zack is a scribe on the new J.J. Abrams’ Fox skein “Fringe.”)

Joss and Jed also penned the music and lyrics to “Dr. Horrible.” Much of the musical recording was done at Joss’ home studio “with my kids running around.” Filming was done on location in Los Angeles at the end of March and some on the Universal backlot, on the New York street set a few months before it was destroyed by a fire.

Joss Whedon leaned on his stable of cast and crew members assembled during the runs of the TV series “Buffy” and “Angel” to give the production a high-quality sheen. F/x house Zoic Studios, a company Whedon helped put on the map by giving them the “Buffy” f/x biz, did a lot of pro bono work on “Dr. Horrible” on the promise of receiving a proper payday when and if the project ever turns a profit.

Whedon also made a point of securing the blessing of the Writers Guild, Directors Guild an
d Screen Actors Guild on the project, to ensure that everything was done “street legal,” he says.

The prospect of “Dr. Horrible” taking off looked good last week after it generated some 200,000 hits per hour with the launch of the first installment July 15. The site crashed from overloaded demand a few hours after it went live, which sent Jed Whedon scrambling to line up more servers to improve capacity.

Joss Whedon characteristically took a different tack in stoking viewership of “Dr. Horrible” than is the norm for Web content these days. The decision was made to launch it as a three-part event, with all three segments being available for free streaming through July 20, and on iTunes at $1.99 per installment through July 29.

After that, it’ll be pulled to build interest in a DVD release, for which Joss Whedon’s reps at CAA are busy hammering out a deal. (The “Dr. Horrible” team has already penned another original tuner, “Commentary!,” which will serve as one of two commentary tracks on the DVD release.)

What is different about this launch strategy is that it bucks the wisdom that the way to gain traction on the Web is to get the content on every bit of shelf space available on Yahoo, Google, MSN, Hulu and the like.

“We wanted to make an event out of it, like an old TV (special) event in a sense you have to be at a certain place and a certain time” to watch it, Whedon says.

The joie de vivre and creative freedom Whedon and Co. enjoyed during the production is palpable onscreen, particularly in the charming perfs by Harris and Fillion.

“There was no one to answer to,” Tancharoen says. “We felt like kids on a playground.”

Adds star Harris: “We had the freedom to be like professional amateurs,” and that sensibility “worked into the vibe of the film.”

Joss Whedon insists that part of his mandate in tackling the production, which grew more ambitious as the team grew more excited about its potential, is to share whatever riches may come his way with the friends and colleagues who helped him made it happen. As a producer-financier, he’s vowing to be far more generous than the terms his team would be owed under guild contracts.

“You don’t make a statement about what we can accomplish as a community … by screwing people over,” Whedon says.

(Liz Miller contributed to this report.)

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