Joss Whedon and Mark Harris: Getting art and commerce to finally hook up

This weekend at the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns at Wesleyan University, I was lucky enough to hear from some of the biggest movers and shakers in the entertainment business.

The weekend kicked off with Mark Harris, critic and author, who spoke about the need for both the producers and the consumers of media to raise the bar for pop culture.

To Harris, the relationship between consumers and producers of media is. . . a lot like a regular relationship – that when it works, it’s participatory, fun and meaningful – a lot like sex. As Harris actually put it, “I want better sex.” He observed that “We watch three things at once, and so we watch nothing at all.” The relationship has grown dysfunctional – a product of too many screens (he described getting distracted from writing his own speech by Hulu and Netflix), and and too little quality content on them. Harris challenged media makers to do interesting, edgy, inspiring work – and in return, he promised to pay more attention.

Screenwriter Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  JD Lasica / SocialMedia.biz

Screenwriter Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." JD Lasica / SocialMedia.biz

On Saturday evening, Joss Whedon also gave us a sex metaphor to describe the current state of the entertainment industry (what is it about Wesleyan University that inspires all this media lust?). Whedon described independent media and studio film as “. . .doing a very awkward mating dance. They’re coming together and they are going to have to have sex.” I’d say that is pretty apt. Some people in traditional media “get” new media (such as the clever webisodes from The Office) – but so far there’s a lot of flirting without anyone making a move. However, Whedon also insisted that “When the industry changes, as it can and will and must, the only thing left standing will be the telling of the story.”

Joss Whedon flew in for his talk after wrapping his film Cabin in the Woods, and before starting to shoot season 2 of Dollhouse on Monday. As he put it, the Dollhouse renewal is “Fine for you, but I had plans this summer.” Thank you, Joss Whedon, for forgoing the beach in favor of giving us something smart and funny to watch in the chilly months. Maybe the Actives can go on assignment in Hawaii?

Next up on the blog:

More from Joss Whedon’s talk: The future of Dollhouse, that pesky Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, and the creative process.

More from the Shasha Seminar: Why two esteemed TV producers would not buy a TV show about under cover cover models – aka, pitching is harder than it looks.

Battlestar Galactica’s Face of the Enemy: Evidently Quite Kissable

I’ve been waiting, quite nervously, for the return of Battlestar Galactica in January.  It’s been so gosh darn long since the end of the first half of season 4 – what if I don’t remember what happened?  Lucky for me I can still Catch the Frak Up.

We’ve also got webisodes to help us get through the holidays, this time penned by Jane Espenson.  The first two webisodes are already up. (Warning: this webisode contains spoilers for the last 4 seasons, so don’t watch if you don’t want to know):

At around the two-minute mark, I had to pause, take a few deep breaths, and restart the video.  Two men just kissed – in SPACE!  Hoshi and Gaeta are not particularly surprising choices as gay characters (Lt. Gaeta had a rather puppyish attachment to Gaius Baltar early in the series). My first reaction, after decades of waiting in vain for a gay relationship on Star Trek, or really anywhere in American spacefaring drama (I hear Torchwood is very progressive, but it’s still British), was pure joy.  Two actual male characters, one of whom has been integral to the storyline, kiss in a non-sensationalized moment on screen.  Can anyone think of another show that has done that?  I can’t even think of another male-male kiss in space, let alone one that uses existing characters.

But as with so many great gay moments in pop culture – there’s a little bit of disappointment mixed in with that joy.  The gay kiss isn’t happening on the show proper, but on a webisode that regular viewers can watch or not watch as they choose.  If the relationship had been a part of the intricate plot of the main show, it would be impossible to ignore, since it is nearly impossible to skip an episode of Battlestar Galactica and still get what’s going on.  It seems that from Jane Espenson’s commentary, the webisodes were some of the last scenes filmed on the BSG set, which leads me to believe that the relationship will not be portrayed at all in the final ten episodes.

So what do you think?  Historic moment in science fiction or a cop-out?

If Star Trek was on the air today, might they have unrolled a character arc much like this one on the web, and thus had the opportunity to test their viewers’ reaction before moving it onto the regular show?  Can webisodes, extended scenes, and other out-of-show content play in creating a more inclusive narrative – or do they make it too easy for producers to bury anything that might not sit well with audiences?

Hulu Business Model Meets Skepticism

Michael Learmonth of Silicon Valley Insider, speculates that Hulu is selling ads at $25 CPM (cost per mille), and that their monthly traffic of 5 million viewers would translate to $125,000 after revenue sharing. He doesn’t cover what numbers he thinks Hulu has on the expenses side of the balance sheet, but does say that $1.5 million annually is not going to cover the costs of a venture valued at $1 billion.

Of course Hulu will probably gain viewers over time, but the catch is that, as viewers increase, so do the costs of bandwidth and marketing. Silicon Valley Insider has another post about why Hulu will fail. Both of these articles raise valid questions for anyone looking to distribute their own content. Even for people not hoping to make a profit large enough to live on, the requirement remains to have a model where you can increase viewership without incurring incremental costs greater than the returns.

So what’s the business model for your content?