The COMIC BOOK MOVIE DECADE: The Impact on Publishing
Hollywood Still Loves Comic Books
Some of the changes to comic book publishing are obvious since Hollywood started salivating over their wares. But a lot of changes influenced by the film industry have happened without most loyal comic book fans even realizing it.
The biggest and most apparent shifts within the world of publishing have happened just in the last year. DC Comics is now calling itself "DC Entertainment," reporting directly to Warner Bros. Pictures Group. Marvel now runs its own movie studio under the umbrella of Disney's entertainment conglomerate. And comic book's top writers, like Brian Michael Bendis and Geoff Johns, spend much of their time nowadays consulting on scripts for movie projects and TV shows.
But other changes to the comic book industry have trickled down to even smaller publishers in ways that are less noticeable to readers, but all-too-apparent within the industry.
"It varies from company to company, but most comic book publishers have some method of talking with Hollywood," said Stephen Christy, director of development for Archaia. "I think it's made all the publishers, in varying degrees, more aware of the fact that these aren't just comic books. These are ideas. It really then becomes a question of, 'Do we want to embrace the fact that these can be multi-platform ideas, or do we really just want to focus on the comics and let the rest of it kind of take its course?'"
Many companies and even some creators actually pitch movies to Hollywood based upon their comics, whether directly or through agents. For example, Erik Feig, president of production at the film studio Summit Entertainment, told Newsarama that Summit is now filming Red for release later this year because the Warren Ellis comic was pitched to him as a movie idea.
"[It] came to me fully formed as a potential movie. To be honest, I knew Warren Ellis, and I knew his other material, but I wasn’t super-familiar with Red until it was presented to us by DC and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, one of the producers, as a potential movie," he said. "Then I was able to see it as a movie, and look at the comic as really inspiring source material."
Christy pointed out that while some of the "packaging" of ideas for Hollywood can be seen as a negative, a lot of it is in response to the challenge of getting beyond the level of "option."
"There are a lot of film options out there, and that can get frustrating," Christy said. "So I think for a lot of publishers, dedicating time to working with Hollywood is really just a matter of them saying, "OK, what can be done to actually make these films come out, instead of just being another Variety article where it says this has been optioned by so-and-so?"
For smaller publishers, one of the reasons for working with Hollywood is that there's a real boost in sales of the source comic books when films are made.
"Anytime you have a mass market film or TV show or video game, you have a surge in sales of the comic," said Matt Hawkins, president of Top Cow, the publisher behind the Wanted comic book that became a hit film. "Anyone who tells you there's not is just lying."
Another reason publishers sometimes desire Hollywood involvement is the potential for owning licensed characters that can be used for merchandise and other media. From Sin City action figures to Watchmen T-shirts, merchandising of comic book characters gets a huge boost from feature films.
But Hawkins said that, despite many comics companies moving in that direction, it's not always easy to capitalize on licenses when the characters are unknown and less identifiable.
"You have to be aware of who your audience is when a movie or video game is made, and whether they'll respond to that license as merchandise," he said. "Like it's harder to get into licensing with Witchblade than it is with, say, G.I. Joe. That's a 30-year brand that everyone knows. Witchblade is more of a mini-icon and is less known in the average household. Everyone wants to get into the licensing market, but it's not going to be as easy as just getting a movie or TV show made to establish that license."
Another reason publishers have dedicated time to dealing with Hollywood is their desire to control the interpretation of their comics. After all, just because a comic has interest from filmmakers doesn't necessarily mean it has respect.
"There’s some movie producers that you have out there that really, really care about the comics, and that really means a lot to them," Christy said. "But there’s still a ton of producers out there that don’t care about the comics at all, really. They just like the idea, or they just might really like the character, or they just might really like the fact that it’s sold x-amount of copies, basically. So our job as publishers, when we partner with someone, is being able to work within the confines of those different things.
"It’s like, 'Okay, you really like this character in this book, and you really want to adapt it because of this character. Is that the right thing to do? Is that what we should be doing with this property? How are you going to do it? How can we do it in a way that remains respectful to the comic book?' he explained. "Those are the usual kind of questions and thought processes that you go through when dealing with stuff like that."
Ross Richie, publisher at Boom! Studios, said he thinks the success of comic book movies over the last 10 years has made Hollywood more understanding when comic book companies want to protect their creations from possibly detrimental changes.
"The attitude used to be that comic book publishing was a niche business and what made comics commercial to comic book fans also made them obscure. So if you bought the rights to a comic book, you had to change it to make it more accessible to a general moviegoing public if you expected to make a hit," Richie said. "Nowadays, the studios recognize that what makes them distinct is what makes them special and marketable, so they strive to be far more faithful."
Hawkins said it's tough to let Hollywood change the source material, but sometimes it's what is best for that medium, and there are often tough decisions that comic companies have to go through. "We have 13 different projects in various stages in Hollywood, but each thing has its own look and feel," Hawkins said of Top Cow's movie involvement. "If you look at the Wanted comic and the Wanted movie, they were different. If you look at the Darkness comic and the Darkness video game, they're different. They were sort of each suited for their individual mediums. And I think sometimes when you're too faithful to the core material, you get a film like Watchmen, and sometimes that just doesn't work."
Yet several publishers pointed a negative impact of Hollywood in comic book publishing: An influx of people who just want to sell ideas to Hollywood by making a comic.
"I think there are a lot of people out there thinking they can publish a comic and make it rich," Hawkins said. "To me, that's hogwash. It's certainly possible, but it goes back to The Rocketeer. I remember when Dave Stevens did that, he thought he was going to make a mint, and he very notably said over the years that he didn't make what he thought he was going to make. He thought he was going to retire on it.
"There have been a lot of people enter the market with creative ideas they want to see become a movie, and they don't know how tough the market is," Hawkins said. "In a time when most other industries are consolidating and cutting back and trying to go forward with fewer, better things, you see in comics where there's just more and more and more and more."
"You’re going to have a massive influx of people coming now trying to make comics because of the ability to get movies made has gotten so much harder, and because comics have become such a high interest sector," said Jeff Katz, who co-wrote Booster Gold before starting his own comics company, American Original. "I think people are going to get killed, because at the end of the day, and I struggle with this now, you’ve got a shrinking comic market that is based solely on a direct market. I don't think they understand the business, and it's not as easy as making a comic and selling it to Hollywood. You have to make something people want to read first."
But most publishers recognize that, no matter what kind of relationship is developing between comics and Hollywood, the focus in the publishing world still has to be making comics.
"It's made Comic-Con too damned crowded," laughed Chris Ryall, publisher and editor-in-chief at IDW, who makes comics like 30 Days of Night. "But any negative impact it's had depends on your approach to creating comics. Some people fear that one big bomb for a comic movie will kill Hollywood's enthusiasm for comic book movies. Others create comics for the express purpose of selling them as movies. Since we're not dependent on these things to survive, they don't adversely affect IDW. So positive or negative attention from Hollywood, it's really one of those sine-curve things that are just noise. Sometimes good noise, sometimes less good, but nothing that gets us too up or too down. We just like making comics."
"My own personal beliefs, and this is something we try to carry out in Archaia, is that if you’re a publisher, you’re first and foremost a publisher," Christy said. "You can never abandon the act of publishing, and you can never abandon the fact that you are putting together comic books, and you are selling comic books to readers. You’re not selling movie pitches to readers; you’re selling comic books to readers."More on the Comic Book Movie Decade: