Joss Whedon recently revealed, at Paleyfest NY, that he has made more money from Dr. Horrible than from the first Avengers.
While that’s a mind boggling fact, it’s also a perfect glimpse into the power of hybrid artists. There are layer upon layer of reasons he made money with Dr. Horrible; connections between his work in the mainstream and independently that converge in Dr. Horrible and stand as a startling counterpoint to The Avengers. And if you’re anything like me, it’s fascinating.
The Fandom Foundation
Dr. Horrible made money because people watched it. Without tv ads, without print media, barely with any internet promotion, people showed up in droves to watch Dr. Horrible the moment it was released. So much so, that the servers crashed the first day and Jed had to scramble to find new ones or add more or whatever it is he did with servers.
The fans came because they loved Joss’ work. And because they were curious.
That fandom couldn’t have been built without his mainstream work. Buffy, Angel, Firefly, even Serenity. Joss Whedon had been telling incredible stories for decades that people watched every week and loved.
Granted, the mainstream wasn’t always good to him (hello, Firefly. And then also Dollhouse but that came later). Partly because he’s always had an indie sensibility as an artist. And while his shows didn’t always have the highest ratings, he had the best fans.
He then connected with his fans well. Even before social media opened the doors to celebrities in new ways, he was acknowledging his fans a lot in interviews and occasionally commenting on Whedonesque.
The Risk of Control
And those fans were willing to follow him out on a ledge. Because he’d earned their trust. He did an episode where no one spoke. He did the first musical episode (and how many series since seem to think they need a musical episode). He earned the fandom by telling good stories and therefore being worth following.
But even when it came to Dr. Horrible, Joss started down a mainstream path. He tried to sell it traditionally, but no one was buying. Then the writer’s strike happened and he had nothing but time on his hands and a point to prove to the Producer’s Guild and other writers and maybe even himself. That good work could be done independently and the studios/producers didn’t have all the power.
The thing was, he had to fund it himself. And pull together all the resources (actors and crew and locations and equipment). He had been the writer and director before. Now he had to be producer and distributor and… if not do all the things, be responsible for finding the people to do all the things. The success or failure of this venture was on him alone.
The Downside of Fame
But that risk also carries with it higher rewards. When the studio owns the work, they get to keep the money. Therefore, when you work in the mainstream you’re giving up money in order to get the visibility, power and influence a studio or a traditional publisher or a record label wields.
Joss spent all the money to make Dr. Horrible happen, so he got to keep all the money (except for profit sharing and whatnot but essentially, all the money).
Which is where we truly get to the power of the hybrid artist.
The fandom he’d built through mainstream media showed up to watch his indie venture.
They told their friends about it. People bought it on iTunes. And DVD.
But then we cross back into the advantage of mainstream work. Because Joss has an agent at CAA, the biggest, arguably most powerful agency in town (comedy defection not withstanding). Solely indie artists don’t have agents who make deals to get their work on Hulu. Or sell the tv rights to a network like the CW.
And I’d bet the majority of the “more money” he’s made from Dr. Horrible than the Avengers is from those tv deals. Because tv is lucrative. And royalties are better than residuals.
I’d also wager that with the Robert Downey Jr. deal, even Joss is more box office bonuses and residuals than profit sharing or royalties. My guess would be that he made about $5 million of the $1.5 billion Avengers made. Maybe $10 million.
I’d think Disney offset that with the a sweeter deal for Avengers 2 along with the deal to contribute creatively to Phase 2 and executive produce SHIELD. If it lasts enough seasons, he’ll likely make the most money from SHIELD (again, tv is lucrative). Though, clearly, that’s all speculation.
And while not all of us work in tv, there’s a lot we can learn from Joss.
First of all – work in tv because there’s a lot of money there.
And then seriously, a lot of his power comes from his mainstream work – the fandom he built, the connections and alliances he’s made. He then wields that power in his independent projects and retains the control and profit of those ventures.
And that’s the advantage hybrid artists have over exclusively mainstream or all indie artists – the ability to leverage the power of one for the benefit of the other.
At least, that’s what I’m hoping to do one day.