New Exec Peter Phillips Talks MARVEL's Digital Future

One of the most pressing issues every comic book publisher is dealing with right now is how to properly manage the future — and current — implications of the digital landscape, from distributing comics on devices like the iPad to spreading the marketing message on social media.

Marvel, the industry's current No. 1 in terms of market share, announced earlier this month the hiring of Peter Phillips to help them deal with all of the above. Phillips, who has prior work experience at Fandango and Paramount Pictures, comes to the company with the mouthful title of "Senior Vice President & General Manager, Digital Media Group."

The digital landscape at Marvel continues to be a busy one — at Comic-Con International: San Diego this past weekend, the publisher announced that both the Spider-Man and X-Men lines would be released digitally on Marvel's apps the same day the print product hits stores. Shortly after the news of his hire was made official, Newsarama talked with Phillips about his new position at Marvel, what exactly it entails, and what areas he's looking to grow.

Peter Phillips.

Newsarama: Peter, obviously you've got a diverse background, and have worked for a lot of different places — given this new job at Marvel, do you have much of a background in comics, as a fan or otherwise?

Peter Phillips: Yeah, definitely big fan, of both the books and the movies. That's one of the biggest draws for me, just the love of the characters and the stories, and that sort of thing.

Nrama: So beyond what's in the press release, what does your job entail exactly within the digital realm of Marvel?

Phillips: My role is going to be to continue building the brand via the digital world.  That includes strategic ownership of the websites, of all our extensions of the websites — platform products, applications, social networking, things like that — and then customer acquisition. I don't mean that in a sales-y sense. I want to get more people interested in digital comics. I want to make the natural transition. A lot of people, I believe, are very familiar with the franchises, but they're familiar with it through Hollywood — which is fantastic. I want to extend that continuity out, leverage that, so people can enjoy it 24/7 through all mediums. My role is to build the digital business continuously off of a fantastic brand that's been around a long time.

Nrama: What you're noting is sort of an ongoing curiosity and kind of a vexing problem — more people than ever are interested in these comic book characters through the movies, but it hasn't translated in terms of greater awareness of the actual comics. And it seems like quite a challenge to be taking on.

Phillips: I think that part of what is so exciting about the technology that's out there now, for example the proliferation of tablets,— if you look at the projections that some of the experts have put out, they're staggering, and they keep revising them upward — it's just a great way to enjoy content in a very different way. The print world has had its publicized struggles in general. I think this is a real opportunity for younger generations to understand how exciting comic books are, and this medium is.

Is it a challenge? Of course it's a challenge. Every job's a challenge. But for me, it's exciting, because it's a great product, and it's a fun product, and I think it's just new generations enjoying things in a new way. I'm not denigrating the print business, it’s the bread and butter of the comics world. Part of the research I did was I went to a lot of comic book stores and talked to a lot of people, and sort of re-acclimated myself. Fans are as hardcore as ever, so it's pretty exciting.

Nrama: And there's definitely a democratization factor with digital comics — not everyone can get to a comic book store, and even if you can, there's always a chance the book you're looking for might not be in stock.

Phillips: Absolutely. I work in New York City, so you walk down and there's a ton of great comic shops. But what about hardcore fans that live in the more remote areas? They don't have the same type of access, or maybe they don't have access to nearly the depth of inventory. I think this is another great extension of one of the powers of the web.

Nrama: The biggest debate in the industry surrounding digital comics is the merits of releasing digital comics the same day as in print, with one side saying that it'd be handicapping traditional retail outlets. Marvel has been experimenting with same-day digital releases, and DC announced a little more than a month ago that all of their books will be available online the same day as in stores starting in September. It's obviously early in your tenure, but could you see Marvel heading in that direction?

Phillips: Well this is my first month, so I wouldn't even be able to say. I would note that Marvel as an organization will prioritize its fans, but also keeping in mind what makes the business run. It's a complicated question, so we have no announcement in that regard. I heard and read about what DC is doing, and it's going to be interesting to see how that pans out.

However, we have announced our Spider-Man and X-Men lines going day & date with the "Spider-Island" and Schism events, respectively, so we’re certainly not shying away from day & date. I should also note that we’ve had our Ultimate line day & date since the beginning of year.

Nrama: At this point, what do you see as the areas for growth in the digital efforts at Marvel? What are you looking to nurture and expand?

Phillips: We've got the Digital Comics Unlimited on the site, and our mobile comics applications, and those are great offerings. At heart, I'm a product person, so I want to figure out ways we can continue to enhance  what we offer to delight the fans. Obviously there's distribution we talked about, but then there's how do we continuously innovate and improve. The consumer is king, and we want to make sure that we find him or her opportunities to continue to enjoy our products and grow the business.

Nrama: And when talking about digital efforts at Marvel, it's not just the publishing side, but you'll be working on the whole slate, including movies, video games and TV shows, correct?

Phillips: Correct. And I think part of why I'm here is that I have the background, especially from the movie side.

We're a very integrated company, people work well together. The Marvel Studios part of this business is obviously a critical one for me to work with. It's a nice family here.

Nrama: Obviously between the website and social networking efforts there's a lot going on with Marvel's digital efforts already. Is there anything specific you're looking to focus on in the near future?

Phillips: My focus in the beginning probably won’t be to come up with something completely brand new that turns everything on its head, but rather taking a good, hard look at what the offerings are from Marvel for its consumers and continuing to innovate and improve on them.

I use social networking and I know the power that it has, and I looked at some of the comments because it's such an active community of fans, and a lot of people responded to the press release today by saying, "OK, Peter, welcome, now you've got to this. You've got to do that." I took a lot of notes, because I want to hear what people think. I think what I'm going to focus on is really learning what the consumer wants, that's my background, and figure out ways to continue to excite them.

Nrama: This being your first full-time job in the comics world, it's definitely a very vocal and passionate consumer, so if you're looking for feedback, you'll surely get a lot of it.

Phillips: Yes! I know there will be no shortage of feedback, and I'm excited about that. I don't mind constructive — or maybe constructive isn't even the right word — but I don't mind the criticism. I want to hear what people want. This is a consumer brand, so that's what's important.

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