Learning from King and Whedon, and getting out of the ghetto

If Spielberg joins the party, it's all over but the shoutin'. This is an ultra-oversimplification of matters -- matters of which I'll explain in a moment -- but I honesty believe that if my personal trifecta of the most-brilliant storytellers of the past 30 years can all hop aboard and support this "new media" thing, it'll legitimize online distribution in more ways than a thousand-thousand podcasting J.C. Hutchinses, Scott Siglers, Grammar Girls, Ask A Ninjas, Dan Klasses and Keith and the Girls ever could.

Joss Whedon is now in the new media entertainment space. Stephen King is, too. If we snag Steven Spielberg, I reckon a great many eyes will open, a great many hands will slap against foreheads, and we'll see some much-needed mainstream movement towards using the 'Net as a viable platform to deliver original content to audiences.

As the whole frickin' world knows by now, Whedon blew his savings account during last year's Writer's Strike to create Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a 45-minute serialized video send-up of superhero stories. It's a damned funny musical, and can only be found online -- initially for free at the Dr. Horrible website, and now exclusively for purchase at iTunes.

King, my personal hero (for reasons beyond his superb prose), is also involved in a serialized new media project. Titled Stephen King's N., this video series, adapted from a King story, is a fascinating animated comic book produced in a partnership between Marvel and Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS. The epsiodes will be distributed online via the CBS Audience Network and on mobile phones via the CBS Mobile platform. They will also be available for purchase on iTunes. It debuts July 28.

It would be easy for me to go on and on about how this finally gives me -- and a great many others -- much-deserved validation for pioneering the distribution of free digital serialized fiction ... but I won't do that. It's a boring angle, and it works from the assumption that Entertainment Money Men™ far away from the small (but growing) ranks of RSS-savvy audiences actually noticed what we were doing in the first place.

Maybe they did. Maybe they didn't. There's plenty of evidence to point either way. It's not important.

What is important is that it's finally happening: big-name, truly talented creators see new media as a viable avenue to release original content. These ain't Hulu re-broadcasts ... or ultra-truncated 1980s TV "minisode" reruns for Myspace tweens with hummingbird attention spans ... or any of the many other safe, cowardly, predictable ways to reapportion existing content. These are new stories, intentionally designed for Web release. That's some bold shit. In the eyes of traditionalists, it's crazy, risky, Wild West stuff.

Make no mistake: it is. The risk assumed by the independent Siglers, Klasses, Keith and the Girls and Hutchinses of the world is mostly time, more than expense. But for big boys such as Whedon and the mega-companies backing King, the risk is money. The way we indies justify the risk is by betting, despite the nigh-insurmountable odds, that we might one day get "discovered" and make a buck for our efforts. The way the Whedons and Kings justify their risk is by scoring an immediate monetary return on their investments.

They can, and will, do this because of the millions of existing fans who support their work. In fact, Whedon recently announced that a Dr. Horrible sequel will happen ... and you're naive if you think it's simply because he's acquiesing to fan requests. There's money to be made from this endeavor.

These creators deserve the compensation, as well as the mainstream and blogosphere buzz. They are proven world-class entertainers and audience-builders. They also deserve props for playing in this wily space in which the rules are still being written, and "first ever in history" bragging rights are as plentiful as wildflowers. Artists deserve to be monetarily rewarded for their work.

I've made two significant realizations from all this new media-friendly news.

The first is that I'm excited -- speaking truthfully, excited for the first time in at least a year -- about the landscape of serialized online fiction, and how this will enhance and improve the medium. Yes, we've seen a lot of game-changing projects roll into this space recently, including the Stranger Things vidcast, my OBSIDIAN anthology (I believe OBSIDIAN's author/audience role reversal is trailblazing), Seth Harwood's new CrimeWAV project (which, like OBSIDIAN, brings a much-needed Alfred Hitchcock Presents vibe to podfiction), Mur Lafferty's fan-created Stories of the Third Wave podcast, Matthew Wayne Selznick's recent anthology/live reading "webathon" and more. But the Whedon and King projects bring a level of money, professionalism, promotion and attention to this realm that we indies simply can't cultivate at present.

This is a great thing. It pulls TV-addicted norms away from the "glass teat" (as Harlan Ellison deftly put it) and all the passivity that comes with that experience ... and puts them in an active role, questing for new content online. That makes for adventurous consumers. Maybe someday they'll find content like mine. Or MINE.

While we indie creators can't compete with King or Whedon in terms of production quality, audience size or exposure (though I'd like to think we can give them a run for their money in the strengths of our narratives), we can compete for people's time and attention. I'd like to think Stephen King's N. will inject new, curious, fiction-hungry audiences into this new media space. That's also a great thing, because it desperately needs it.

The math is simple: mainstream creators experimenting with original online content will bring more awareness to the space, more investment from producers, more enthusiasm from audiences, and more original, professionally-produced content. The belles have finally come to the ball. It's cool to be here. Others will follow. Independent creators will benefit from this, either through the muchly-cited Long Tail, or by entertainment companies seeking new creative blood in this thriving online talent pool.

The second significant realization I've made is that we new media creators -- the folks who cut our teeth in this space, nearly all of us amateurs -- are making grave mistakes in the way we perceive ourselves.

As the recent works of Whedon and King illustrate, the Web is the new frontier for storytelling. More than that, Web-based, time-shifted content is the future of entertainment and distribution. The scene is small and fragmented now, but in the upcoming years, mainstream companies will finance more online-exclusive entertainment -- and then, one day, the entertainment won't be "online-exclusive." All entertainment will be online, piped through very smart television sets and handheld devices.

Some of this content will be free. Some will be pay-to-play. A great deal will be ad-supported.

Working from this eventuality of ubiquity, indie creators must unlearn words like "blogger" and "podcaster" and "netcaster" and "vidcaster" and "podnovelist," and they must do it soon. These are stupid words that ghettoize what we do. They create artificial boundaries, and provide stunted perceptions to the public and perhaps ourselves (and our audiences) of what our art is capable of.

Put more pointedly: Joss Whedon is not a vidcaster, and Dr. Horrible is not a vidcast. It's a serialized film released online. Stephen King is not a podcaster; his N. project is an adapted short story presented in serialized, animated video form. These writers transcend the monikers partly because of their existing bodies of work -- but also because they wish to.

Scott Sigler is a novelist. Keith and the Girl are comedians. Ask A Ninja is powered by brilliant filmmakers. Annalee Newitz is a writer. Grammar Girl is a renowned grammar expert.

We are far more than the method we choose to release our work.

Understand that podcasting is a complicated, ultra-niche distribution method. Understand that the creative world -- and the impact your work can make on it -- extends far beyond this postage stamp-sized realm on the 'Net. We are entertainment producers above all else, and should perceive ourselves as such.

View the world through this lens, and the wisdom of King's and Whedon's experimentation -- and yes, monetization -- becomes not only appreciated but imperative. Their miniseries models and business plans are the future of online entertainment. Pro creators and Entertainment Money Men™ are learning a lot from us trailblazing indies, but we must also watch them keenly, should we want to profit from the fruits of our labors ... because artists deserve to be monetarily rewarded for their work.

We must ape the very best of the big boys' executions, while remaining faithful to our audiences and our personal ethics. And if we want to acheive our creative dreams, we must not intractably wed our art with our distribution vehicles. You're never just a blogger, or a podcaster, or a YouTube Director. If we mentally adhere to these labels, we willfully paint ourselves into creative corners. If the fumes don't kill you, the frustration will.

Be more than your RSS feed, and do it soon. You'll want to be ready. Because when Spielberg starts to play in our backyard, things will get mighty interesting mighty fast.

What do you think about these recent developments, how it will affect online distribution, and the new media "ghetto" I've described? I'd sure like to hear from you in the comments.

--J.C.