During a recent panel at PaleyFest New York, Joss Whedon and the cast of his hit web musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog were interviewed by a reporter from The New York Times on the highlights of their filming experience and the lasting effects of Whedon’s internet musical. When it came to discussing the legacy of the series, Whedon revealed that he had in fact earned more money from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and its related merchandise than he was paid for writing and directing Marvel’s The Avengers, a film which has since grossed over $1.52 billion. Could this mean that using the internet to release films, rather than via cinema and home video, is a financially and creatively viable way to succeed as a writer or director?
For Whedon it would appear to be the case, as he managed to make more profit from his pet project musical than from his role in the fourth highest grossing film of all time. By distributing films through internet services like Hulu and Netflix, it seems directors might still be able to share their work with a large audience while making greater profit than they would working on a blockbuster film. However this is questionable, as it seems far more likely that the extent of Whedon’s success with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog comes down to his established status as a writer and director, while his statement that he earned more from his own project than The Avengers is down to the proportionately small salary he received compared to the film’s overall profits.
In a 2012 interview with Forbes magazine, Joss Whedon revealed that the profits of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog were around $3 million after the initial cost of production, which means he must have been paid less than $3 million for his part in the making of a film which made about five hundred times that figure. And it wasn’t only Joss Whedon who was underpaid for The Avengers: in 2013, Robert Downey Jr threatened not to return to work for Marvel due to the salaries of his fellow cast-members, believing they had been underpaid for their work. His concerns seem fair considering that although Downey Jr received a staggering $50 million, some of his colleagues earned only $200,000 for similarly important roles. Knowing that Whedon was potentially given a small paycheck by Marvel in relation to the overall profits, the financial success of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog seems noticeably less impressive than it did at first.
It also seems unlikely that releasing media on the internet will replace traditional methods because although it can work for established directors such as Joss Whedon, it might not work as successfully for unknown names. Whedon’s credits cover a wide expanse of styles: he co-wrote Toy Story, created the cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and was a writer and producer for the horror film Cabin in the Woods, all of which have given him a dedicated fanbase of people willing to watch any project with the ‘Joss Whedon’ name attached. Whedon, as a well-established writer, director, and producer, also has the connections within the film industry to attract the interest of popular actors and actresses such as Neil Patrick-Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day, with similar cult followings to Whedon himself. Just from being able to get these actors involved Whedon had already pretty much guaranteed himself a financial success, with millions of people who would be willing to watch his musical regardless of what the film was about.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was also funded from Whedon’s own pocket, and although its production only cost around $200,000, this is out of the reach of many first-time directors who might find better success looking for backing from a studio or experienced producer. That being said, with many short films over the past few years finding backing on crowd-fund websites and receiving greater funds than Whedon’s $200,000, first-time filmmakers may not have this problem for long.
Although releasing films online doesn’t appear to be better than the current popular methods just yet, it worked in the case of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and so could work again. And even if it’s not an effective method for everyone, it provides a useful alternative for directors who want the freedom to have creative control without studios changing their artwork or taking most of the profit.