Joss Whedon Says He Made More Money From ‘Dr. Horrible’ Than The First ‘Avengers’ Movie

Paleyfest NY Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
Courtesy of Paleyfest

Joss Whedon shared an eye-opening fact during Saturday night’s reunion of the “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” team: He’s made more money from his independently financed 2008 Internet musical than he did from writing and directing Marvel’s first blockbuster “Avengers” movie.

Whedon noted this point during the Q&A following a screening of the 45-minute “Dr. Horrible” tuner starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion, who took part in the reunion that kicked off Paleyfest NY at the Paley Center for Media. The stat made jaws drop, as 2012’s “The Avengers” grossed more than $600 million domestically alone.

The foursome shared fond memories of the DIY production process on “Dr. Horrible,” a pioneering moment for made-for-Internet content. “I do enjoy the purity of its success,” Harris noted. “It just was what it was.”

“Dr. Horrible,” a musical about the titular super villain played by Harris, was conceived of by Whedon during the 2007-2008 writers strike — the title came to him in one big burst, he told moderator Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times. Whedon directed “Dr. Horrible” and collaborated with his brothers, Jed and Zack Whedon, and sister-in-law Maurissa Tanchareon, on the script and the music and lyrics for the original songs.

Five months after Joss Whedon pitched the idea to the other writers, “Dr. Horrible” was released via iTunes and Hulu in three acts spread across three nights in July 2008. The project was later released on DVD and in 2012 was licensed for linear TV airing by the CW.

Whedon said he initially tried to lineup traditional Hollywood backing for the project but had no luck. He finally decided to go it alone from his own pocketbook. “This is my mid-life crisis,” he joked. “It isn’t a car — it’s an Internet musical.”

The production crew was skeletal, which meant some creative improvising. Musical sequences were filmed with a crew member carrying a boom box playing the song on CD while the actors did their best to lip-sync.

Fillion played Harris’ nemesis, Captain Hammer, while Day limed femme fatale Penny. Harris joked that had “Dr. Horrible” been on network TV, there would have inevitably been “the Captain Hammer variety special.” To which Fillion replied: “You laugh, Neil, but I’m telling you it’s going to fly.”

The group remarked on what a gamble “Dr. Horrible” seemed to be in an era before the Internet was truly established as a platform for long-form content. “This is before the Internet was inside everyone all the time,” Day said. Whedon said he was floored after he wrote “the dorkiest fan letter” to “Hamilton” maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda and found out that Miranda was a big “Dr. Horrible” fan.

Whedon credited Day’s pioneering web series “The Guild” as providing inspiration and a guide for how to produce for the Internet. The group also noted that Day was the first to tell them about Twitter around the time they were promoting “Dr. Horrible.” “I’m the grandma of the Internet,” she joked.

Whedon said that the gratifying experience of working on “Dr. Horrible” gave him the confidence to take on “Much Ado About Nothing,” the 2012 black-and-white rendition of the Shakespeare play that he filmed at his home.

On the question of whether the gang will ever get together for another “Dr. Horrible” adventure, Whedon was noncommittal. He said the plan for a sequel “is where it’s been for a long time.” Two weeks after the triumphant premiere of “Dr. Horrible,” the creative team began writing songs and conceiving stories. But at the same time, “I went to work at Marvel,” Whedon said, “and the rest is a blur.”

Saturday was a double-header of Whedon series reunions in New York City Earlier in the day, Fillion and other cast members from Fox’s cult-fave Fox drama “Firefly” held a 10th anniversary reunion session as part of New York Comic Con.

(Pictured: Joss Whedon, Felicia Day, Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion)

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  1. pmiddy says:

    Old story is old. He said this back in April too, where it was pointed out that the first Avengers movie was only his second feature film, the first being Firefly. I love Joss Whedon’s stuff (esp. Dr. Horrible), but it’s easy to see why his rep at the time he signed up for Avengers didn’t justify a huge paycheck.

    • Exactly, Whedon revealed this to the Wall Street Journal way back in April, and it was reported on several sites at the time. This isn’t breaking news in the slightest; Variety just failed to do the basic due diligence of simply Googling it, and now numerous (just as lazy) other sites are reporting it like it’s fresh news. Massive fail. What will the next exclusive be? Let me guess. “This just in: Chris Pine will be the new Captain Kirk.”

  2. jonnyrp says:

    And should we cry or laught about this? I’m sure Disney’s Marvel offered him a pretty lucrative contract.

  3. Meets the Eye says:

    He’s being completely disingenuous. His DGA and WGA mandatory residuals for the first Avengers film would have to be worth several million dollars. I’m calling bullshit on this.

  4. How on God’s green earth is that possible. The movie made a billion and a half dollars worldwide? Didn’t Joss have an agent who could strongarm Disney into giving him a share of the profits? He needs to change agents, then.

  5. Stanley O says:

    Gee, this is a surprise? Disney is well-known for their cheapness. Poor Joss just didn’t know that Mickey was such a cheapskate. LOL.

  6. Dennis Fister says:

    Joss should work from home n internets.

  7. Amy says:

    Do you guys need a proofreader? 😉

    The group also noted that Day was the first to tell them about Twitter around the time they were promoting “Dr. Horrbile.”

  8. Jacques Strappe says:

    Oh Josh, you’ll make more money from Marvel/Disney in your lifetime than the entire United States population combined. I’m sure Marvel/Disney lowered your salary even further for the Age Of Ultron. Poor Josh. Let’s have a bake sale to help you pay your bills.

  9. Benny Ace says:

    Yeah, bullsh*t. Either he’s lying about the money, or he has the worst agent in history

    • Whedon wasn’t a super-established film director going into Avengers and Marvel wasn’t super-generous at that point. I could see him pulling as low as half a million on Avengers. Probably more in the 1-2 million ballpark, one would hope.

      Meanwhile, Dr. Horrible had, apparently, around a $150k budget. Whedon’s said it was low six figures and that estimates that he made around $2.6 million from around 100,000 digital sales are “not far off”. Although this probably partly just proves that if you work with well off people who are having fun and willing to let you keep most of the money and the internet loves, you that you can make more money off of that than a project where the money is split between hundreds of people’s checks, the people have stressful jobs and expect to get paid, and you have investors and bosses and lots of overhead.

      • cadavra says:

        If he writes, produces and directs a major studio tentpole for a flat salary and no points, then either he’s an idiot or his agent is.

      • Ben Shaw says:

        I agree… larger slices of a smaller pie can end up being a lot more rewarding.

        Also, the fact that it was self financed means the studios banks are one HUGE slice that he got to keep.

        While this may sound like a do it! Just do it! Story, the one aspect that really got him the money in this thing is he was also footing all the risk. If this was a flop, if some technical or legal aspect held the movie up Joss would have been out $150. And, there’s still a good chance that trying this again wouldn’t work. Serial content was novel at the time, The four “big” names involved were really really hot in 2008 among the target demographic: Firefly/Serenity were still fresh, Neil Patrick Harris had just mounted his comeback with Harold & Kumar, and The Guild had just started, launching Felicia Day into the hearts of… pretty much every geek out there. A lot of things came together at once to allow Doctor Horrible to hit big. I mean, even the concept of vlogging itself was still new and hot, so framing the series in that manner felt more creative, less “here’s a gimmick” than it would now. I mean, imagine if Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan tried to do a sequel of You’ve Got Mail a decade after the original… putting it in 2008. Hmm… now I may have just started a fan theory that Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog is the spiritual successor to You’ve Got Mail.

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