Top Cow Talks Witchblade Film, American Original, and More

Witchblade #125 Marc Silvestri Emerald City Comic-Con cover

Its been 12 months since the Hollywood trades broke news of the development of a Witchblade movie, based on the flagship Top Cow Productions' property – a production that was aiming for a September 2008 shoot. No, you haven’t missed any casting announcements or publicity stills. The film did not begin principle production last year or as of yet.

How come? We talked with Top Cow's Matt Hawkins about the film and where it currently stands, Top Cow's involvement in Jeff Katz's new 'American Original' venture, and the difference between a "comic book" movie and a "graphic novel" film in the eyes of Hollywood…

Newsarama: Matt, we spoke almost exactly one year ago following the announcement of a Witchblade movie with your partners Platinum Studios and Arclight Films and at that time you were targeting a September 2008 production start in Australia. Now at lot has happened since May of last year, including a weakening economy getting downright anemic and now rebounding slightly, so we thought it might be a good time to check in with you regarding the productions status…

Can you update on us where things stand with Witchblade, and how much, if any of it, has to do with the economy and raising production capital at this time?

Matt Hawkins: The best laid plans of mice and men! I could sit back and blame everything on the economy and it would of course be believable…but not true. We simply do not yet have a script yet that we all like. We had a window to go into production that has clearly passed but the project is very much alive and kicking. I don’t think I’ll lay out any dates at this point given the delays but we’re in the process of working with a new writer.

Ultimately Witchblade is a very important project for Top Cow and to date we’ve had successful and critically lauded turns in both live action TV and anime. We’d rather there not be a live-action film than have one we’re not proud of and 100% behind.

Having said that, we’re working on it. I should follow my own advice and not give dates on stuff, but if we had a script that we all liked we had the financing to make the film in that window. We still have all the elements for production with the money being the most crucial, but we need a script!

NRAMA: Without giving away a trade secret, how does this process work? Is there a writer out there penning a 120-page script right now? Is he or she working on plot outlines or treatments?

MH: First time around we had some meetings with the writer to discuss the project and then she went off and wrote the script. This time we’ve developed a treatment/outline with a little more specificity of what we’re looking for that a writer is now writing a script for.

NRAMA: How often would you say there is some sort of development (good or bad) in terms of generating an acceptable script? This something you meet on every few weeks? Months?

MH: Depends on the project and how much control we have and how involved we feel we need to be with the writer to get what we want. Which is just something good! Something character-driven with a solid arc and entertaining … harder than it sounds. Marc [Silvestri] and I discuss development of stories daily. It’s an ongoing process that you have to be on top of or things will go not necessarily awry but maybe in a direction you don’t want.

NRAMA: Since you're openly avoiding it, I won't try to pin you down to a date, but what’s the best-case scenario for when a fan might see a Witchblade film?

MH: Best case we could go into production by the end of the year but that’s overly optimistic with no script at this point.

NRAMA: You say all the elements are still in place for a production, awaiting the right script. I think even a casual Hollywood observer knows financing deals can be very tenuous, even during the economic salad years. How long will this window be open?

MH: I believe the financing deal with Arclight is up for renewal/extension sometime next year but would have to go back and check. They’ve renewed it once already they believe in the project and see it as a viable franchisable film character. We just need all of the elements to click in place.

NRAMA: How about the status of superhero properties in general? While last summer was the summer of the comic book movie, the winter and spring hasn’t been overly kind to the genre. How do you gauge the appetite for films right now among studios, distributors and financiers?

MH: It seems right for the right project but with the volume of content flooding the system they are certainly getting more choosey.

There is an amusing distinction between a “comic book” movie and a “graphic novel” movie with the former being your popcorn film and the latter having more critical and intellectual credibility. It’s all BS in my opinion, but whatever.

I think comic books still get categorized unfairly but for now that’s working to our advantage. The difference in Q2 2009 and Q2 2008 is that the studios have cut their development budgets and a lot of the cheap option deals that were getting tossed around aren’t there anymore. There used to be projects bought all the time that whatever producer/studio had no interest in making but to get them either off the market or to prevent someone else from making them. This could be a defensive move to prevent a potentially similar film from going into development or just hubris, who knows.

NRAMA: Really? So the stigma attached to “comic books” and “superheroes” in the general population has mutated in Hollywood circles, even with the great track record of both “categories” at the box office?

MH: Yeah in many of my meetings when you talk about a comic book movie they automatically think about blowing s**t up and big, expensive effect films. Graphic novels on the other hand have this mysterious allure and can be more broadly interpreted. White Out and 30 Days of Night are graphic novel movies, but Iron Man is a comic book movie. It’s less a stigma I would say and more a stereotype/classification. Comic book movies are doing well and it’s a very viable category.

Keep in mind, I’m a bit of an outsider looking in so my point of view is distorted by that.

NRAMA: Moving into to other properties, a month or so back the long-standing rumor that Megan Fox was attached to a Fathom movie production was finally confirmed, and lest we forget, Michael Turner was also the co-creator of Witchblade. Any thoughts on that production and any relation at all to Witchblade? Do you see it as competition? A welcome sister-type production to increase the appetite?

MH: Fathom was created and initially published during Mike’s tenure at Top Cow and we could not be more proud of its potential.

NRAMA: How about Berserker? From the looks of it that property began life as a screenplay and it looks like the ambition is to bring that to the big screen as well. May we assume that’s accurate and can you provide any insight into the current possibility of that happening?

MH: I’d have to defer that one to Russ Cundiff and Milo Ventimiglia over at DiVide. Berserker would certainly make a cool film, but we’re 100% focused now on making it a cool comic book. Unlike other actors I’ve worked with over the years, both Milo and Seth Green are big comic fans and genuinely dig this medium. They both want cool comics made. That was the primary goal. If something else happens cool. We’re developing a couple other properties with Milo and Russ that are not comic books and are intended for film/TV.

NRAMA: Is Berserker’s gestation from a screenplay to a comic book idea brought to you by a production company becoming a more common occurrence these days? What affect – if any – do you see this as having on comic book publishing? Is this a good thing, the Hollywood community actively developing publishing projects, rather than the traditional reverse model?

MH: Yeah it’s happening a lot now. We’re getting pitched a lot of stuff. Initially I thought this was really cool but after dealing with it for about six months I’m starting to no longer think so.

I think it’s cool if it’s a project that you develop with a writer from scratch or from an initial idea that the writer has. What is happening a lot though is that 'writer X 'specs out some script or screenplay. He then sends it out through his agent to the film/TV buyers. No one jumps at it, so agent then tries to dump it off as a comic in hopes that 'comic company X' can breathe new life into it and they can try again.

It’s weird now to have agents taking percentages of writers' page rates for comic books.

In some cases I think a project can benefit from a comic treatment if it’s got a super high-concept or needs a lot of visual to really tell the story and get someone on the buying end to understand what it is. Honestly, this is one of the chief reasons I’ve bought into Jeff Katz vision.

NRAMA: Perfect segue. That news broke today. Since you brought it up, can you give us more insight into Top Cow’s role in Katz's American Original?

MH: We’ll be developing projects with Jeff under his American Original brand and publishing his books.

NRAMA: What is Katz adding to the landscape and can you expand on what Top Cow’s role will be?

MH: Jeff is a fun guy and loves this business. He has strong ideas on the direction of entertainment for the future and when he outlined his vision for it I knew we wanted in. He’s physically been in Top Cow’s offices for the past several months and his office is right next to mine so we see a lot of each other.

NRAMA: How is this different than what you were already doing for projects like Wanted?

MH: Wanted was a one-off project and part of a Millarworld “line” that involved multiple publishers and the common bond was that Mark created and wrote them all. Jeff is creating a line of books where we are his publishing partner for all the projects. He’ll be writing some of them but he’ll be working with other writers as well. The development process creatively won’t be all that different.

NRAMA: Not to put words in your mouth Matt, but given some of your earlier comments, you seem somewhat … perhaps jaded isn’t the right word, but bear-ish on the current comic book/Hollywood climate?

MH: Oh no, I’m very bullish. I believe that a ton of comic book/graphic novel movies and TV shows will get made over the coming years. It’s become a category and no longer a fad. I’m just not the hugest fan of the way it’s done. It’s one of the reasons I dig that Katz is trying to shake things up.

NRAMA: Given some of the insight you’ve given us, is this right time for someone to be launching a venture like this?

MH: Turmoil is the perfect time for innovation and change. Obama ran on a change platform everyone is taking a new look at the old way of doing things and seeing if there is a better way. Americans might actually have a positive savings rate in a few years, who would have believed that 5 years ago? I can’t actually think of a better time.

We were in a recession when Image launched, definitely not as bad as this one. Ultimately people want to be entertained. The comparable value of that entertainment is more important than ever.

NRAMA: Circling back to Wanted… Of course that’s a creator-owned property and Millar has made it clear any Wanted sequel will be on film and not in a comic book. What role – if any – will Top Cow play on the potential continuation of that movie franchise?

MH: We’re still active producers on the film and involved in development of the franchise. We’ve met with the writers and the execs. We worked hard on the marketing end for the video game and DVD launch. We have a great working relationship with Universal licensing on the merchandising end. We involve ourselves where we can help the process and stay out of the way where we don’t.

NRAMA: Okay, so wrapping up, what other properties do you have out there you can give us updates on? Aphrodite IX and Magdalena are both in development, right? Any new info?

MH: On my tracking sheet I have 13 things in active development (meaning either a studio, production company, writer or actor attachment), but that doesn’t mean f**k all. I’m always leery to get into iffy stuff. I’ve said it before but I get a chuckle every time I see someone’s huge announcement about 'Option X' by 'Joe Producer/Studio Y'. Magdalena we’re close to having a screenplay on. They'll be several Darkness related announcements in the next few months.

NRAMA: Finally Matt, given all your experience, can you briefly give us some insight on where you see this market going in the next 5 years. Should comic book fans worry an often fickle Hollywood will find a new belle of the ball soon? Or do you see the market being a more permanent fixture?

MH: Anything is possible but it’s my personal opinion that comic book films are here to stay. It was called a fad in the early 90’s when so much stuff was put into development. Now almost 20 years later it’s still going stronger than ever.

Part of the attraction of comic books is that it is very cheap development compared to other methods. To buy a screenplay from a decent writer costs at minimum $100k+ (some guys make millions) and with a screenplay you still don’t have the look and feel you get from a comic book.

To do a demo for a video game costs upwards of $500K. Even in today’s reduced number scenario, worst case you lose a few thousand dollars an issue. So you do 6 issues and it costs you say $10K out of pocket. You can sell the trade forever if it’s good. I’ve seen companies pay design artists ten times that for a few key art designs for a movie. There is no faster, more cost efficient way to build a new intellectual property than via a comic book.

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