By Michael Harris
This site was re-launched amidst the release of Man of Steel, and for my second score review, hopefully to be posted this weekend or early next week, I’ll be reviewing the score for Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, written by the director. Within these two scores, and films, we have an interesting case study about the current state of Hollywood. On the one hand you have a big studio effects film designed to draw in large crowds with a score by one of film music’s biggest names, and on the other, you have a nearly no budget, passion project done by one of Hollywood’s biggest directors and writers, but also one of its biggest rebels. Leaving the subject of big Hollywood and Team Zimmer aside for now (this will hopefully be the topic of The Temp Track’s first podcast next month), let us ponder the case of Team Whedon and what he has done that points the way for what I feel is the future of creativity, the internet, and the new idea economy. (Warning: This is a much larger discussion then I do not have room for here, so look for these ideas to be expanded upon in future posts.)
First, let me just state the obvious, Joss Whedon can afford to be a rebel in Hollywood. He has the money to take chances and pay for projects like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog or Much Ado About Nothing. He paid for both films out of pocket and used his actor-friends who worked for little or no money, though I’m sure all had options for a percentage of profits should they make any. Now, neither you or I, most likely, have thousands of dollars lying around to make something that looks or sounds as nice, but what is accessible by many people is not far off. Again, I’m not going to get into specifics here, but I would like to discuss some of the deeper social and philosophical forces/ideas at play here.
Let us, for a moment, ponder the democratizing power of the internet, which has been stated many times over, but it bears repeating. One of the most exciting part of the times in which we live is that the web/internet allows us, the common folks, the power to reach millions with our ideas and easy access to the accumulated knowledge of humanity, which has created a content driven internet economy in which anyone can participate. This is why government legislations that would seek to regulate internet speeds, effectively creating a class system that would allow those with more money better access to bandwidth, goes against something fundamental that was built into the internet itself: open and equal access for all. This blog and my goals for it are just one example of the power of the web at work. I paid $30 to register the domain name for two years, I am using free software (the WordPress system) to build and manage the site, and a good friend of mine is allowing me to host the site on his unlimited Dreamhost account for free. And when I get the podcast running, I’ll probably host the audio on another on-line service (most likely Soundcloud). As of right now, my current financial outlay is $30 total. That’s it.
With so little money spent, I am not looking to actually make money with the site, at least not as it is now. My hope is that it will turn into some sort of profit generating service in that it might help me land future jobs, be they teaching, criticism, journalism, or what-have-you, but if that doesn’t happen, I’ll keep running the site because I enjoy it and enjoy writing.
This is the power of the time in which we live, and what so many older people fail to grasp about it. It’s not about money, it’s about content. The internet has turned us all into content creators. And while this has a dark side (bad content, bad information, fast spread of rumors that somehow turn into faux-truth, etc.), on the whole this is a good thing, because creativity is something that was in danger of being lost, and still is. As an educator teaching at a major university, I have worked to integrate the idea of writing for an internet audience into my curriculum.
At the same time though, not everyone has access to this tool. While people like me and my equally educated and financially secure enough friends who use the ‘net crow on about things like “open access” and “creative commons” and the need for “copyright reform,” there are millions if not billions of people who do even have access to it. The closest thing I can think of that is a good metaphor is when mass produced books came about and promised to revolutionize education by giving cheap access to knowledge for everyone, but literacy rates were such that only a handful of people could actually take advantage of it.
However, fast forward a few decades past the invention of the printing press in the West, and you see that it actually helped to spur a rise in literacy and dissemination of knowledge and was the foundation for the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Likewise, the spread of the internet across the globe could equally, and to some extent has already, find a new way for we humans to live and interact with the world. In a much longer version my ideas that I hope to post someday, I argue that our old way of thinking about our relationship to “work” has to change in such a world, and that the strongest argument for universal health care that I can think of is that it frees us from the shackles of jobs that we keep solely for benefits. If all of a sudden we were free to leave a job and take a chance on something new or even creating a new business, utilizing the tools provided by the web, think of how radically our economy would change. New businesses, new jobs, excitement and innovation created by people from all walks of life. Of course, we would also have to make sure that the benefits of this new world extend to all, not just those who can afford a computer and broadband connection. This is why such initiatives as Google Fiber give me hope. Indeed, while Google might seemingly be taking over the internet, and the world, I for one welcome our primary-colored, android overlords.
So to bring this back around to Joss Whedon, which is where it all began 1000 words ago. With Dr. Horrible and Much Ado he has shown us what a person can do with a powerful idea and a little help from his friends. With Dr. Horrible he broke the Hollywood/film mold and showed that you can create original content and even distribute it on-line and make a few bucks, circumventing the studios entirely. Yes, people were already doing that, Whedon friend Felicia Day had already created The Guild beforehand and helped to inspire his superhero comedy, but Whedon was an established name with a huge fanbase. He didn’t have to do it, or anything. But he was bored during the Writer’s Strike and had an itch to scratch, so he did. With Much Ado, he was burnt out after shooting Avengers and wanted to take a break from that large studio, effects laden picture. He was going to take a vacation before editing Avengers but instead decided to invite his friends over to shoot a Shakespeare comedy in his house. The reason he scored it himself? Costs, plus, as was demonstrated by Dr. Horrible and the Buffy musical, he can actually write music (how successful he is with the music in MAAN, I will write about later).
I believe that it is not too much of a stretch to say that on-line steaming sites like Hulu and Netflix would not be creating original programming had it not been for Whedon and others showing them that it can be done. Though again, people cry that you need millions of dollars to do it. No you don’t, look at on-line series like The Guild or Space Troopers (both on Geek and Sundry) or Video Game High School (on Rocket Jump) and you see people creating content on shoe string budgets. And many of these began quite small and cheaply and only later started having the ability to upgrade equipment and means as they attracted fans and advertisers, or were created after earlier shows by the same people became popular. Or consider the granddaddy of them all, Red vs. Blue, which has spawned the entire Rooster Teeth empire (I still like the early seasons the best, when it was just a bunch of guys making movies with Halo).
The technology that is available to all of us with access to modest means can do things like Whedon or the sites above. Video cameras are cheap, even iPhone video cameras are not that bad, and audio recording equipment is equally coming down in price. And with the ability to host long videos on YouTube and other sites, distribution is a cinch. Had Whedon not found a distributor for Much Ado About Nothing, it is easy to imagine him releasing it himself via the web or iTunes.
There is a lot more to be said on this subject, but I will save that for a later post, though I feel that the biggest statement will be made by how this site grows in the coming years.
Good night, and good luck.