The times, they are a-changin'.
As Hollywood's love affair with the comic book continues to change the face of the entertainment industry, one studio executive is taking his love of comics and creating a new way to do business in both industries.
Jeff Katz, who launched a comic book writing career on Booster Gold while still vice president of production at 20th Century Fox and New Line Cinema, has announced a new venture he's calling American Original, which will partner with comic book publisher Top Cow to make comic books while also developing them for other media. Katz claims that the company, which he's calling a "nerd machine," will put financial and creative power back in the hands of the people who deserve it – the comics creators.
"I'm in a unique position where, because I was a studio executive for a decade, and at the same time now have done several things in comics and been part of this scene, I recognized that I could cut out the middle-man and basically pass the savings to the creative," Katz said. "Because I'm in this hybrid position that nobody has really been in, it was a chance to create a new model."
The timing of the announcement isn't random. While still working with Fox and New Line, Katz oversaw production of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which just opened with a promising first weekend at the box office. The success of that film only echoes what Katz has been saying since he left his prestigious job at Fox in September, when he told Newsarama that the comic book fans had "won" and it was time for them to leverage their power in Hollywood. "The geeks have inherited. And it's time to start acting like it," he said.
With American Original, Katz is helping geeks take advantage of their new-found power by borrowing a deal-making structure from Hollywood. In the film industry, it's common to hear about deals called "first-dollar gross after cash break-even." In comic books, that kind of deal is non-existent. But according to Katz, that model will be the basis of everything American Original does.
"What that means is, all I have to do is recoup my up-front nut on the print side, be that in print or through an ancillary deal, and those creative talents, once that hits break-even, their corridor kicks in for them for the next, hey, hundred years for all I care. They get to collect a piece of gross. They can sit in their underwear and make money," he said.
"Through the life of the intellectual property, I make a toy deal, I make a video game deal, I make a movie deal, I make a toothbrush deal – through the life of the IP, they see that property; they get that gross. All I have to do is break even on my initial print run."
Katz said he also hopes to teach comic book creators how to do all this by themselves. "My ambition is that by the time I'm finished working with these guys, they can tell me to go screw myself because they don't need me anymore," he said with a laugh. "It behooves everyone in the system to keep the status quo and keep everything the way it is because you don't want your talent learning how to fish. I say screw that, because the future is in us learning how to fish for ourselves."
The publishing part of Katz's new company –American Original Press – will publish up to 10 titles per year via a strategic partnership with Top Cow, with a goal of building a print library to develop those properties across film, television, internet and video games. Katz will own and produce all titles under the American Original label, with Top Cow's Matt Hawkins and Marc Silvestri serving as executive producers on select titles.
The second division of Katz's new company – American Original Entertainment – will focus on developing original and adapted properties for film and television. For this side of the business, Katz will have the help of Ben Austin, another Fox and New Line executive who will be Director of Development for American Original.
It's basically the business of producing a comic book, then developing that intellectual property across several media – something that's already being done behind the scenes in the industry, but not usually by one company.
"The current system works where these comic companies – I'll take DC and Marvel out of this because they're part of different organizations – but all these other comic publishers may or may not have an in-house development guy, but they have to use an in-house guy who goes to the junior guy at a production company who has to go to his boss, who then has to go to a junior guy at a studio who has to go to his boss," Katz said. "You ever play the game of operator or telephone when you were a kid? Where you start out saying, 'The dog is brown,' and it comes out on the other side saying, 'The cat is yellow?' You see how that works just playing a kindergarten game. Is that really how you want to run your business? At the end of the day, the creatives who generate this stuff have no say over the execution of their material and are usually not even kept in the loop in the execution of that material.
"I would argue that development is development for a reason; these things have to change sometimes. But in today's environment, the creators are given lip service at best in most cases," Katz said. "And in my space, what I think is unique about this, is that not only is the economic deal new and no one's done it, but more importantly, your publisher is your producer. And that means, if you have a question about what's going on or what's the latest, you know who you're talking to. There is no middle man. It's me.:
Katz said that all of entertainment is cutting redundancies, and this new business model is a move in that direction. "The age of conglomerates operating like oil tankers is over. We have to be fleet. We have to be cigarette boats. And I believe that a more stream-lined model can enable that," he said.
Along with this new model helping out the "geek" side of the business, the company also has an advisory board with some names that hold some geek cred of their own. Serving as advisers for American Original are director/producer Richard Donner of Superman fame; Ralph Winter, producer of X2; and former New Line distribution chief David Tuckerman.
All these big Hollywood names and this new streamlined comic book/production company may sound slick to most people in the comic book industry, but what about the grumbling that will likely occur when comic book fans see someone wanting to develop comic books only to turn them into movies?
"I would suggest that it's naive to think that's not going on already. These are symbiotic businesses now. That toothpaste is already out of the tube. It's not going back in," Katz said. "Other producers try to come into this space claiming to be huge fans of 'graphic novels,' wanting to get in here because they realize that pre-awareness of this industry is the only way for them to sell projects and get their jobs done.
"So the choice for us now is, because it's going to be done anyway, do we want to be the arbiters of our own fate and make sure that the creatives are rewarded in a fair way, or do we let the outsiders come in and pay us lip service and control what we've created?"
Katz said he also wants comic book fans to know that he's not creating the company just so outsiders can come into the industry and make their own comics. "I want to make the point that, basically, I'm not Virgin," he said. "You'll never see any non-comic person with their name above the title. The books will stand on their own. I don't care if five people buy them, they'll have bought them authentically. I'm not doing vanity projects. I'm telling cool stories that other publishers won't tell."
And to that end, Katz already has projects in the work that will be announced in the coming months. "We have projects in a variety of genres including a few I would argue are woefully under served in the current marketplace," he said. "The point is not to undercut the current comic marketplace. The point is to leverage Hollywood's need for our material into improving both marketplace and talent conditions, while teaching talent the skills to own, develop and produce their own material across all mediums. I'm looking to change the game entirely."