Appearances can be deceiving. Although the name "Top Cow" might connotes something more light-hearted, Top Cow Productions is anything but. Founded by Marc Silvestri in 1992, its first title sold 850,000 copies. And then things got better, with the success of titles such as Witchblade, The Darkness, Cyberforce, Wanted and Rising Stars.
Earlier this year, Top Cow President Matt Hawkins passed the title of Publisher onto then VP of Marketing and Sales Filip Sablik. Hawkins started with the company over ten years ago when he was brought in to help bring Top Cow's publishing back in line, and he continues that in the role as President as the company expands outside comics to movies, television and games. With the Wanted movie due this summer, a Witchblade movie on the horizon and the success of The Darkness video game, he's keeping busy.
Today Newsarama.com begins a two-day look at Top Cow, first through the eyes of President and former Publisher Matt Hawkins and then to current Publisher Filip Sablik.
Newsarama: Matt, from 1999 – 2007 you worked as President and Publisher. It's 2008, and with Filip taking the reigns as Publisher, what are you focusing on with just one job title?
Matt Hawkins: I still manage the money and all the legal crap. I’ll be coordinating and working with a new team that will be pursuing aggressively new business development for Top Cow. I still oversee Top Cow’s day to day functioning so will continue to be involved in the strategic publishing decisions I just won’t be approving covers anymore. And I’ll be focusing on being a better family man!
NRAMA: What do you think was the high points and low points of your time as Publisher of Top Cow?
MH: High points include Rising Stars, Tomb Raider, Battle of the Planets, Midnight Nation, Wanted, Witchblade with Ron Marz and the recent launch of The Darkness with Phil Hester and Michael Broussard. Low point was probably the whole 2003 year… that was a brutal transition year for Top Cow the stress of which took a toll on my health. Top Cow has been battle tested and is stronger now for the trials and tribulations. As a big video game player, probably my biggest high was popping the Darkness into my X-Box 360 and playing it for 12 hours straight when it was finally done. That was pretty cool. I enjoy movies and TV and the Witchblade TNT series, the Witchblade anime and Wanted have all provided some cool moments but playing that game that day was the highlight of my career.
NRAMA: Now that you have a couple less things to do, you've dipped your feet back in writing with Lady Pendragon in the new Pilot Season books. How was that?
MH: That has turned out to be much harder than I originally expected it to be. I did 18 issues from 1998-2000 and there was a lot of stuff I left unfinished. With Pilot Season and 22 pages to tell a story it’s tough to try and pick up some loose plot threads, educate readers on the story so far and get them to care about the character. I wrote several different scripts for this and we’ll see if people like it or not. I enjoy the writing process very much, I wrote some episodes for the Power Rangers TV series. That was quite an education. I sold a low budget horror script I specced out that was pretty cool. I will be writing more, but probably more as a creator and less as a scripter/plotter of individual comic books. Mike Renegar and I wrote up the treatment for Alibi based on an idea that Mike had and Joshua Hale Fialkov came on board to write the actual book itself.
NRAMA: Shipping hiccups have been a concern for Top Cow and comics retailers in recent years, highlighted by some lateness with last year's First Born miniseries last year. Overall, what do you think the cause of late comics is and how has in affected Top Cow?
MH: Well, I hate late books, I always have, but I’d rather ship a late book than a crappy one. There are so many different reasons books are late and every company faces it. I think Crossgen may have had a perfect record, but that model didn’t ultimately work. I loathe late books and understand how it erodes sales. I believe First Born was late because Ron Marz wife’s father passed away and that held him up (understandably so). So do we get someone else to finish the plots or do we wait for Ron? The correct answer is that we work far enough in advance that this isn’t an issue. The reality, especially for smaller companies, is this really isn’t economically feasible. We spend ten to twenty thousand a book on average in creative costs alone. Five books a month that can be $100K. That doesn’t include printing and freight, both of which have gone up dramatically in cost over the last few years (go oil). So getting ahead by six months overall could cost upwards of a million dollars. So when I tossed out my Hero challenge I did it in the knowledge that given our better cash position we should be able to fix this. Keep in mind, nothing is immediate, things take time to do. It’s the age old quality, quantity battle. Overall, we’re infinitely better with shipping today than we used to be. Sure that may be like saying I beat my wife less than I used to, but we’re doing what we can. Bringing Filip and Mel on board in their current positions was a big move on my part to staff up so we could more adequately address the problems.
NRAMA: You've passed the torch over to Filip Sablik at a time when Top Cow's in an upswing between video games, movies, anime and the core comics. How would you survey the comics publishing arm of Top Cow at this unique moment?
MH: Well, Filip is getting dealt a better hand than I was that’s for sure! I think our publishing arm is the strongest it’s been since 1997. The sales don’t quite reflect that yet but we have a lot to prove to fans and retailers to show them that we’ve learned from past mistakes and have turned a permanent corner for the better. Witchblade and Darkness are both kick ass books again and that excites me. First Born did very well for us last year and really showcased Ron Marz and Stjepan Sejic’s talent and collaborative genius. Their start on Witchblade #116 and set up for a long run is a good thing that fans can get on board that will be consistently good. Isn’t that what comics are supposed to be? Darkness has picked up a lot of new fans from the video game and the comic itself is amazing. I’m a huge, huge fan of Michael Broussard’s work and I think Phil Hester is doing a really good job with the stories. We should publish his layouts alone he almost draws the whole book out in stick figures it’s cool! With Marvel and DC doing these sweeping, epic hundred issue cross-overs I think we offer the bite size version of this for fans with First Born and this summer’s upcoming Broken Trinity. We’re in a great position. 2007 was a banner year for Top Cow in multi-media and a strong building year for us on the publishing side. Pilot Season was a resounding success with over 4 million votes. We learned a lot from that. One thing I want to point out to fans and retailers is that we have maintained our $2.99 price point on Witchblade and Darkness (and arcs like First Born and Madame Mirage). Top Cow has in the past always had its prices at about $1 over Marvel and DC. Most independents have moved to $3.99 but we’ve stayed the course on the price point despite increasing costs in shipping and paper.
NRAMA: And how would you describe Top Cow as a whole, in it's business model?
MH: I think the intellectual property business is a good one, but a lot tougher than people think. It takes years in some cases to effectively position some of these properties to properly insert them into other media. I’ve always appreciated Marc’s attitude of “he’d rather not have a Witchblade movie than have a shitty one.” That has dictated the model for me since day 1. There are countless situations where we could have taken the quick cash to get something made, but it probably would have sucked balls. A lot of creators don’t think long term. If property X comes out as a bad movie chances are property X is dead. There is so much competition to get these things done, the odds are nearly insurmountable. It’s the relentless people and the sell-outs who get stuff made. Sell-outs can get a quick buck but are usually the ones years later complaining about the billion dollar franchise they helped build and sold off for $25,000. Back to point, I think Top Cow’s business model is solid and we’ve proven that over the last two years.
Publishing revenues are relatively consistent year in, year out and we’ve seen growth in the trade paperback business. We’ve tried some new things, some have worked, some were ignored, it’s all part of the process. The longer I work in this business the more jaded I get, but I also get a more realistic understanding of what matters. Stuff that would drive me ballistic ten years ago I tend to just roll with these days. To sum up our business model, we create, co-create or purchase ideas from people that we develop as comics then try to set up in other media. Pretty much what everyone else is doing, I think where we’re different is we have, arguably, two of maybe five characters created in the past 15 years that actually matter and are known to the public at large with Witchblade and The Darkness. We maintain and support brands on a long term basis like Marvel and DC do, but we also create properties and file them away in a library like other indie companies do. I think our desire to stay small is where we differ from most other companies. We don’t want to do more than 5 books a month. I said that last year and we still hold to that for the next couple years. At some point we may reevaluate and expand a bit, but it doesn’t make sense for what we’re doing now. We’re content building brands the way we do it.
NRAMA: Since you're now focusing on Top Cow's efforts outside of comics.. what's on the horizon for Top Cow?
MH: There are a lot of possibilities, almost ten different things that are being pursued but nothing announce able either for contractual reasons or simply that it’s too soon to. I get kind of tired of the constant announcements of people getting movies made that are actually just another option deal. I get the hype of it, but a list of “comic book movies” that haven’t been made that were optioned would be a long list. I’m not saying people shouldn’t option things, that’s part of the process. It’s the elusive green light that is the magic part. We’ve done a lot of option deals over the years and most of these have never been made. Just to give you something, I will tell you that internally we feel that Witchblade, Darkness, Hunter Killer, Freshmen, Magdalena, Aphrodite IX, Wanted, Rising Stars and Midnight Nation have the most immediate possibilities of being developed into other media (or more than even what they have now). There are a few other properties we’re developing that no one has seen anything on yet, some of these may surprise people how we unroll them.
NRAMA: Let's end this on a high note… The Wanted movie is coming out in June, and is a culmination of a lot of hard work on the creators and Top Cow's behalf. Looking at the project as a whole, how do you view Wanted?
MH: I view Wanted as the perfect model for how things can work right in our business. It was the most expensive book we’d produced in years, but you get what you pay for. Mark Millar and JG Jones delivered big time! Mark is simply one of the most gifted writers of this generation and understands the importance of marketing and branding. That is very rare in most creators I’ve come across. The process of getting the film made was a blur and looking back I still don’t entirely see how it all came together. There were so many people involved that needed to make this work it boggles the mind. All in all, it teaches me one thing more than anything; you simply need to stay in the game and opportunities will eventually swing your way. Luck is definitely a factor, but you can’t get lucky if you aren’t playing the game.
Join us tomorrow as we continue our look at Top Cow, through the eyes of Publisher Filip Sablik.