Paul Levitz on the Watchmen Effect

Comic Book Virgin: Watching the Watchmen

Yesterday, we spoke with DC Comics Publisher and President Paul Levitz about San Diego Comic-Con and some recent DC announcements. Today, it’s time to talk about the Watchmen effect. The trailer for the coming film, directed by Zack Snyder, has caused a stir, to put it mildly. Released in front of The Dark Knight, the trailer showcases characters and a handful of iconic moments from the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic series (heretofore referred to as a “graphic novel” as it is now only available as a collected volume), all very true to the original work.

The coming movie (and the Owlship) were the buzz before and during San Diego Comic-Con, where Warner Bros hosted a Watchmen panel, and DC played the trailer almost continuously at its booth. Heck, the week leading up to Comic-Con, Entertainment Weekly featured the cast of Watchmen on the cover.

To say that there’s buzz about the movie, thanks to the trailer….yeah, that’s an understatement.

Interestingly, the trailer is having a noticeable effect on sales of the graphic novel as well, with over 200,000 copies of the perennial best seller for DC being ordered by the bookstore market in the past few weeks, and the title climbing the USA Today bestseller list.

Not bad for a work that’s been out for over 20 years.

What effect has the trailer had, and is continuing to have from DC’s point of view? (check out the trailer here - select "Movie Trailers")

That’s what we asked Levitz.

Newsarama: Moving things from the convention side of things to the Watchmen side of things, the trailer for Watchmen was playing and playing at the DC booth throughout the con, and each time, you could see heads turn – even after four days, the novelty of it was slow to wear off. You’ve seen large orders and sales of the Watchmen trade since the trailer showed up. From your view – why? We know it within, as you say, our “tribe”, but why is this catching on with a larger audience?

Paul Levitz: I think you have the confluence of some extraordinary events. You get this moment where the mass audience has really enjoyed a run of superhero movies that almost, one after the other, upped the ante. I think it’s fair to argue that Iron Man is the best of the Marvel movies, if not ever, at least since the first Spider-Man movie, and surprised people at that, because they didn’t know Iron Man well. You then top that, in my humble opinion, with The Dark Knight, and then, at the moment that you’re doing that, you toss in a brief taste of the Watchmen in the trailer, which looks like nothing we’ve ever seen on the planet before.

If you separate yourself from the “tribal” reaction of, “I know who this big blue guy is; I know what the shifting Rorschach mask is.” But if you see it from a distance, and you don’t know it, your reaction is going to be more along the lines of “Who the hell is that?” and “What’s going on here?” The richness of the visual imagination in that very short trailer is so deep and so surprising …that 15 second bite of Dr. Manhattan’s origin where John is being disintegrated is as vividly different a special effect as we’ve ever seen in a comic book movie.

I think that if you’re a civilian looking at it, it’s almost as though, for the very first time, you’re being invited in to a banquet of Japanese food. It’s colorful, and you sort of recognize it, and you’re drawn to it, so you want to pull yourself up to the table to try some. Combine that with the fact that the media has been celebrating Watchmen a lot in the last few years – with Entertainment Weekly and Time recognizing it for its merits – there’s a certain amount of Watchmen buzz in the ether where people had heard the title and the word…and then they see the trailer, which is topped off with the tagline that it’s the most acclaimed graphic novel of all time. One of our guys said it best, I think – “We couldn’t have cut a better commercial for the graphic novel if we’d tried.” I think that’s a very fair statement.

Clearly, it’s worked beyond any recognition in history. We had a dinner of the buying teams from all the major bookstore franchises, and no one there or on our Random house sales side could remember a trailer from any film having the kind of mathematical effect on book sales that we’re experiencing with Watchmen. And it’s coming at a time where, thanks to the transition to Random House, our baseline sales of our whole line of graphic novels are just rocketing up every month to start with. Put this on as an accelerant, and we’re reprinting four to eight titles a week. The numbers are just going up phenomenally.

NRAMA: Speaking of the trailer as a commercial, and now being in the “late-early” stages of Watchmen movie buzz, is there any way to predict in terms of sales, where this increase will end?

PL: I’m told that there are still a lot of trees left that we can cut down. [laughs] I think it’s fair to us to say that we have the best system in the comic business for keeping our titles in print, watching and managing our inventory and moving our books around. We have the experience of dealing with phenomena like this, so if anyone can keep this rolling, it’s probably us.

That said, it’s an exciting roller coaster. I have no idea how many copies we may sell when this is all said and done. I have hopes, but we’re already achieving some of what our hopes were before, so we just keep lifting the goal numbers.

NRAMA: Speaking more broadly of the movie side of things, What does the success of a Dark Knight, or the initial surge in interest for the Watchmen do for DC Comics? Is there a direct benefit to DC when a Warner Bros. movie based on a DC property does well – or in the case of Dark Knight, really, really well?

PL: I think you have several layers – some of which I touched on in my Blog@ piece recently. The most important thing in the Watchmen situation is that in the last 20 years, any retailer that you talked to would tell you that they used Watchmen as one of their key gateway drugs. A new customer, who’s in their late teens or early 20s comes in store, says they’d like to read a comic book, they’re handed a copy of Watchmen, and in many cases, tell them if they don’t like it, they’ll give them their money back. The customer comes back a week later saying, “That was good – can I get more?” and you’ve got a graphic novel reader, or maybe in the best case, a regular customer for the periodicals as well.

If that works that frequently over that long a period of time, and we just handed 200,000 copies of Watchmen to new people…if 50% of them fall for it and come back a month later and says, “More please…”? We’ve just increased the audience for graphic novels in this country by a very meaningful percentage. And we’re not done. Where else are they going to go from there? We’re going to sell a lot of V for Vendetta…and then – do they go back to Dark Knight Returns and flow into superheroes? Do they move into Sandman? Do they go into Vertigo? Do they come back to the store and fall in love with something that Top Shelf has published? We’ve created a possibility that we’re really raising the tide for everything that we’re doing. That happen in 1989 with the first Batman movie with Tim Burton, and it feels like it’s happening again now. We’re in much better shape to take advantage of it with broader distribution and more sophisticated marketing, better inventory management – everything we’ve been working on for the past 20 years. This could very easily be a giant game-changer for the entire industry, and we’d like to think that DC is better positioned than any of our competitors to take advantage of it.

NRAMA: Is the buzz of Watchmen and the excitement the trailer has generated helped to change how Warner Bros. sees movies based on non-superhero comics? That is, and this is asking for some speculation, thanks to Watchmen, are we going to see a Sandman or a Death movie come along more quickly now?

PL: The movies that we’ve made, that have the DC logo in front of them, are a set of movies that we can be very proud of. You can back-seat drive any of them, obviously, but when you look at the run of them – the two Batmans, Superman, Constantine, V for Vendetta – the quality has been very, very high. I believe Watchmen will continue to expand on this.

If you want to do it right, you’ve got to do it right. Certainly the success of Dark Knight, the buzz about Watchmen, the success of other films based on other publishers’ material all increases the potential hunger for doing more of these. So I hope that continue to every one that we can do right as fast as we can do it right.

NRAMA: I spoke with John Cunninghman [DC VP of Marketing] at the DC booth and he said that, for the first time he could remember, people were coming into the booth and asking if they could buy Watchmen trades there…it seems that the buzz, at least at San Diego was all around in every way…

PL: We’re at an inflection point, and honestly, I think it will cost us some of the things we love in this business. It’s been a relatively easy business to be in casually. I think that the standard of how to do it is ratcheting up very, very quickly right now, but I think we’re going to see some very cool stuff happening in the next few years – it’s a moment of wonderful opportunity. I think the field is ready for it, and I like to hope that DC is proportionally ready for it.

NRAMA: With all this buzz for Watchmen, and for those of us who’ve been around comics for a while, we understand why Dave Gibbons is the creative spokesman for the film and property – but if we extrapolate the buzz of the Watchmen trailer into phenomenon level in a few months, could it spur on a reaching out to Alan Moore by DC? Is there a desire there to be reached out to, even, on his part?

PL: I have the greatest respect for Alan and his work. We’d love to work with him again some day, in any fashion, if he chose to.

NRAMA: Going back to the changes and the pressures that are coming in the industry, over the years, you’ve described yourself as the bridge between DC and Warner Bros., in the sense that you aid in making sure the properties’ translations to other media are as accurate and as true as possible. If Watchmen’s trailer buzz translates into a very strong box office, what do you do when they call on the Monday after the opening weekend and says, “Franchise! - We want Watchmen 2” and all the requisite spinoffs that they could make money off of?

PL: Warner Bros. has a pretty good track record with our properties in all of the different businesses, of trying to expand the use of them, but trying to expand the use in a way that makes sense. There’s always a morning that somebody wants to do something that doesn’t fit, but the organization as a whole usually comes to a set of pretty sensible answers. I’m not saying there hasn’t been a dumb Superman product, or a case where you look at something and say, “Why did we say okay to doing that one again?” But overall, if you line them up, what we’ve put out in the media is stuff that we can stand behind pretty proudly, and I believe that will continue to be the case.

The desire to do the work right pervades all the different business. There will always be discussion about what “right” is, but when you get someone like Zack Snyder driving Watchmen – Zack is as passionate as any creative person can be, that what he does and what comes out be of the essence of the property, and the things that he is working on as side projects to it are things that add to it and are things of great creativity that relate back to the original work.

In the end, you hope the combination of good intent, very high creative and business standards for doing things that are worthwhile, important, and valid all triumph over the odd morning when somebody gets a bright idea that they really should have gone back to sleep about.


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