Does Doctor Horrible offer a way for Machinima creators to make money?

It may not have escaped the notice of our eagle-eyed readers that there’s been a small new entry into the world of web-based video, namely Mr Joss Whedon’s Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

What’s interesting about it?

  • It’s a big-name, cult-following director releasing something purely on the Internet - one of the first, actually, after David Lynch (whose projects have been, shall we say, not mainstream).

  • It was produced on a “low” budget, but low, in this case, is estimated at about $250k (Whedon’s said “Low six figures”).

  • The numbers (there’s a great post on this subject) say that Mr Whedon is likely to at least break even on his investment, if not make a couple of million dollars.

  • It wasn’t released for unlimited availability - it went up for free viewing, then it came down again five days later, and was only available to buy on ITunes after that, with a DVD release coming later.

So, what does it mean for Machinima artists?

First of all, it’s very hard to say what’s going on with Dr Horrible seperate from Joss Whedon’s fame. All the actors and crew essentially agreed to work on the project because it was Joss Whedon’s work. And the publicity for the project has, essentially, been “Look! New Joss Whedon thing!”

The biz model is obviously based around that principle. “What? New Joss?” Fans rush off to check it out, love it, and then buy it - because a pretty good proportion of people who dropped whatever they were doing to go watch it were obviously going to buy it on ITunes or DVD anyway. Meanwhile, everyone who comes late to the party has to buy it from ITunes - where it’s cheap enough to be an impulse purchase. Generates buzz for no cost, maximises potential revenue. And, because it’s well known that a deadline will force people to act (it’s a standard sales tactic), it may well have increased total viewership and blog activity on the subject.

The cost’s a bit startling, frankly, for a Machinima/ultra-indie guy like myself. Bits of Doctor Horrible (noticably anything approximating an action scene) still look darn cheap. There are a lot of sets and characters (meaning actors), though, which will have eaten through the cash fairly fast. It’s an interesting demonstration of the power of Machinima.

Using motion capture and creating all sets and characters from scratch, with the same actors being paid the same rate, the cost would have been considerably lower (my rough back-of-the-envelope calculation says about half to a third of the cost, maybe less, assuming cel-shading, everything created from scratch, union rates, outsourced 3D modelling, and cheapish mocap).

However, if someone like me had taken exactly the same script and made it with no-name actors, a lot of corner-cutting, and basically the same approach I used on BloodSpell, the cost would have been orders of magnitude lower. That’s an interesting calculation, particularly given that using Moviestorm or Second Life, we’d have been able to sell the work in just the same way as Joss Whedon.

So, could a Machinima producer use the same model? Should we all start expiring our videos after five days then selling them on ITunes? Maybe.

The big problem for a Machinima producer is the matter of pull. We are, let’s face it, not Joss Whedon-level famous, and that springs a bunch of leaks in the biz model. Or are we?

The article I link to estimates that Joss Whedon has between a couple of hundred thousand and a million fairly hard-core fans. That’s an interesting number - it’s lower than I would have estimated it. However, the rest of the article seems to be reliable.

Having a look at Alexa.com, Whedonesque, which is the nearest thing to an “official” Joss Whedon site, has .003% of all Alexa users visiting it. RedvsBlue.com, by contrast, has 0.002% of all Alexa users - pretty darn close. Strangecompany.org has 0.00005%. So, that’s two orders of magnitude down - which is interesting when comparing the budgets I’m talking about above, which could also be pushed to at least one order of magnitude down.

What’s even more interesting are the viewing figures. Apparently, Act 1 of Dr Horrible was streamed 1.2 million times over the five days it was available. Now, that’s a lot, but compare it to Oxhorn’s viewing figures, say (which I don’t have right here, but I seem to recall were in the order of 100,000 in first week of release for “Inventing Swearwords 3”), or the figures for When We Two Parted (60,000 views in a week). 1.2 million streams is not out of the question for a Machinima release by any means.

Of course, there’s also a stickiness factor - the conversion from viewers to buyers. But the numbers suggest that a popular Machinima producer like Oxhorn or Phil Rice might be in the right ballpark to employ the same tactics Joss Whedon is using.

Would that work? We don’t know. We’ll have to wait for Joss Whedon to say how well it went. But there’s some powerful psychology at work here that fits with conventional sales tactics. And the numbers for budgets seem to suggest that a less-popular Machinima creator would be able to offset lower sales with lower budget.

Against that, few Machinima creators have the rabid level of devotion from their fans that Joss Whedon does. Obviously, any commercial project would have to use a non-game engine or have a license. Given there are well-known issues with viewing numbers outwith games, and most Machinima creators with a following tend to have that following within a single game engine, it’d probably be wise for a known Machinima artist to negotiate a license with that games company (which is doable, if tricky). Selling video online is a pain if you don’t have the clout to persuade ITunes to work with you (anyone know any companies that will work with smaller producers?) And if you don’t have a following already, this approach isn’t going to work for you.

Interestingly, these tactics are very similar to Red vs Blue’s approach to distribution - at any one time, it’s impossible to download all the episodes of Red vs Blue from their site. Only a few are ever available at one time.

Is this a new model? It’s hard to say, yet. But, if you’re a popular Machinima artist who’d like to make some money, it might be worth trying the “Dr Horrible” approach on a short series.