Joss Whedon hybrid artists

October 19, 2015

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 layers upon layers 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. The point was that good work could be done independently and the studios/producers didn’t have all the power.

The catch–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.

Every artist, hybrid or otherwise, still relies on distributors. In the beginning, Dr. Horrible was available exclusively on their website–no distributor needed. But iTunes. And DVD. And because Joss has an agent at CAA, the biggest, arguably most powerful agency in town., it didn’t stop there. 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” Whedon has made from Dr. Horrible compared to 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 earned more from Avengers in box office bonuses than profit sharing or royalties. My guess would be that he got 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.

Joss Whedon at Forbidden Planet bookstore
Joss Whedon at Forbidden Planet bookstore in London

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.

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6 responses to “Joss Whedon and the power of hybrid artists

  1. Wonderful post Annie. It’s inspiring to see that artists don’t need traditional platforms to make a living, and even though Joss’s background and experience propelled him into the fame he has now, it’s so true that it’s his fans and his dedication to creating art for his fans, that has made him truly successful. So great to remember that when the fans hear about a favorite show cancelled, or a film adaptation that was ruined by the studio’s need to make money.

    • Annie

      It really is exciting to see the evolution of our entertainment that allows artists to control more of their own work and still be successful. Joss has been so great with his fans and I think also producing smart and interesting work cultivates smart and interesting fans 🙂

  2. This was a great post! I like these types of shows that are on youtube and places like that. I can’t imagine being in that type of business. I can barley run a blog let alone and entire empire. This is the type of person though that I like.. one that has a fandom where people love all that he does.

    • Annie

      thank you! In addition to being a nice guy, I think Joss is such an interesting person to pay attention to and learn from when it comes to empires and mixing business and art. In the past I’ve done comparisons between him and JJ Abrams and also Joss and Christopher Nolan and it’s always so fascinating for me to examine different approaches. It inspires me to want to have my own empire 🙂

  3. This is so interesting. I can’t believe that Dr. Horrible has done so well that he’s made more from it than The Avengers! There’s a writing conference I went to where the main speaker actually said the best money as a writer is in hybrid writing. Writing with a publisher gets you recognition, but with self-publishing you get more of the money. If you can do both, you get the best of both worlds. I think I would really like to try to that if I can. Not gonna lie though, it makes me a little mad that Whedon makes decent money from SHIELD when he doesn’t even want to claim it as Marvel canon. Whatever, dude.

    • Annie

      I totally am going for the hybrid road too 🙂 The story I finished first was the one strategically I wanted to self-publish. And I want to keep the Princess Kingdom series as my own. But I’m about 2/3 of the way done with the first draft of the book I want to try to query and sell traditionally. I like the idea of being able to continue writing and continue self-publishing while I query. You read so many stories of writers stressed and worried while in the querying or selling process. I think that being able to do that but then focus on a different book and see momentum there would offset that stress 🙂
      And, YEAH, the whole SHIELD not being canon thing is a debacle.