A tale of two movies

3 Jan

Like an awful lot of Americans, I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day gorging on filmed entertainment. In between fistfuls of unhealthy popcorn, I started to think about the lessons two of the movies can teach entrepreneurial journalists.

Avatar sceneThe first: Avatar, in all its 3D glory at the local cineplex. James Cameron spent at least $230 million – and maybe as much as half a billion dollars.

The second: Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog, a DVD gift from a hip brother to my 15-year-old. Dr. Horrible cost around $200,000 in up-front cash, maybe double that when you factor in all the donated services. 

Yes, less than one-1,000th the cost of Avatar. (Put another way: Dr. Horrible cost less than six minutes of a mediocre hour-long scripted TV drama like Numb3rs.)

No, the point isn’t whether Avatar is 1,000 times more entertaining than Dr. Horrible. The point is that these two works are terrific in their own way; have vastly different economics; and are producing nice profits for their creators.

Avatar is a stunning piece of visual story-telling. Film geeks will be talking about it for the rest of our lives, in the same way they talk about Star Wars’ visual effects, or The Wizard of Oz’s use of Technicolor.

Poster for Dr. Horrible's Sing-along BlogDr. Horrible is delicious example of musical story-telling. It mashes together superhero tropes, sharp song-writing and Whedon’s warped world view. (Yes, this means somebody dies, in a particularly gruesome and bizarre way.)

Each exploits its economics: Dr. Horrible used cheap online distribution and Whedon’s built-in base of fans from Buffy, Angel and Firefly to become a viral phenomenon. (To steal the words of an acquaintance: “Who knew Doogie Howser could sing?!”)

All those free online streams and downloads have generated millions in DVD and t-shirt sales. (Conor got the Capt. Hammer t-shirt, too – to cries of “Where’d you GET that?!?” from friends.)

Avatar plays the popcorn-blockbuster game to the logical (if expensive) extreme: video games, fast-foot tie-ins, months of carpet-bombing TV ads for trailers. The IMAX screen at my neighborhood AMC has been packed – at $14 a pop.
The lesson for entrepreneurs: Understand the economics of what you’re trying to do. Exploit them to your benefit.

More on this in another post, about the similar lesson Sears, Target and Nordstrom can teach us. But it’s time listen to Commentary: The Musical! on the Dr. Horrible DVD. Heh.

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