Thursday, April 7, 2011

Joss Whedon and the Artistic Community

The artistic community is as strong as ever, and Joss Whedon proves that. From cult television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse to the writers' strike independent -and totally awesome- web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog to the new high of his career as the director of every comic fanboy's dream, The Avengers. Whedon's career not only shows us how encouraging and simply artistic the artistic community can be when rallying behind someone who cares, but also that Hollywood notices and isn't afraid to boost him even higher. While I'd love to do a full profile on Joss Whedon's career thus far, admittedly I haven't seen a lot of Buffy or Angel (though I'm a big fan of Dollhouse). Instead, I'm going to talk about the community he represents and how cooperative and successful it can be.

I'm not anti-indie or pro-studio, but I'm also not pro-indie or anti-studio. I feel that today's film industry, since the new millennia started, is a fresh mix of the two and most of the best projects coming out are independently produced, whatever that means, with the backing of major studios. When people start to look at the billions of dollars in revenue brought about by the film industry and compare that against the stereotype of poor, slums of Harlem artists working hard to get their talent out, it makes it seem as if film has done just that: turned into an industry instead of an art form where profit margins matter. True. Film is an industry, but that doesn't mean the art is gone. Take, for example, Dr. Horrible.

When the Writer's Guild of America went on strike in 2007, Hollywood, in many ways, shut down. Television shows stopped airing new episodes and a lot of films were put on hiatus. It sucked, but it didn't mean contractual arguments were going to halt the production of all visual art. The three Whedons (Joss, Jed, Nick) got together with a bunch of friends and associates and decided to prove you could put together good material outside of the union system at no cost. No one working on Dr. Horrible was paid until months later when its success started bringing in soundtrack and DVD revenue. Instead, they put in hours of work for a project not because they needed the job but they enjoyed the premise and wanted to put it in front of audiences across the nation. Cameras, lights, props, sets were all rented out at no cost, and when the final project was released on the web as a three part series it was absolutely free (I think you have to pay for it now, on iTunes -- worth it!).

This post isn't so much about Joss Whedon's projects as it is the atmosphere in which they were created, but I've yet to see something bad by him (even Serenity was ok). Dr. Horrible is absolutely fantastic, from Neil Patrick Harris to Nathan Fillon to the incredibly catchy songs. It's great. I actually just saw a stage production of it, and watching it really made me appreciate the scope of Horrible's success. If you haven't seen it already, I highly encourage you to, along with anything else Whedon you can get your hands on. Almost all of his material is available on Netflix Instant streaming.

At the same time, though, Whedon isn't, or maybe the better word is wasn't, big bucks material. He was, as the term goes, a cult filmmaker. There were select groups of college kids who go gaga over Buffy and Angel and Firefly, and all of his works are critically acclaimed. Yet Firefly was cancelled after one season and Dollhouse only lasted two. Some might say its the profit-seeking networks not being able to recognize a good show when they're so blinded by crap reality television, but at the end of the day if a show isn't bringing in viewership and ads it can't be financed. That's just how things work. (And networks do recognize when a show is loved, as shown by the recent renewal of Fringe for a fourth season despite low Nelson ratings -- Fox took note it was still doing well on DVR.) For me, Whedon has been one of those filmmakers who was literally too good. You know his stuff is great, but it appeals to such a niche that it can't gain mainstream viewers.

Yet here we are in 2011 and Joss Whedon is co-writer and director of next year's The Avengers. This movie is huge, there's not much that needs be said there, and Marvel has entrusted it to a man who is not known for huge numbers but instead for faithful projects and adoring fans. The artistic community, here represented not by individual tech guys lending equipment but by a company built upon trending the balance between niche and mainstream appeal, is not blind to artistic genius. Marvel is willing to take Whedon and place their hundred million dollar project in his hands. He's not just directing a Hulk movie that can be revamped. This is the Avengers, the top of the top. The success of this film will determine the future of Marvel movies and just how complex and intertwining the plots can get. Marvel movies have to appease fans who have been reading the comics for years while also bringing in non-comic readers who just want to be entertained.

Joss Whedon knows how to do these things. He is an artist in every since of the word. He knows how to make a product that his long time fans will devour, but he also knows the commonalities of movies and television and what is expected of him if he is to bring in the everyday weekend movie watcher, age 18-24 (as if that demographic is hard to grab for superhero movies). Film is an art form, and when a project comes along that is in every way original and creative and all-out awesome, the people of film, the people of Hollywood get behind it.

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