Master Of The Obvious: Issue #15

Wed, November 10th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I dreamed a BATMAN movie last week. A new one. No idea why; I don't spend a lot of time thinking about Batman. But there it was, scene for scene, start to finish. Batman movies must be in the air this month. The next afternoon I got an e-mail saying Batman's back on the Warners burner, with what currently passes for a plan being to crib either BATMAN: YEAR ONE or BATMAN BEYOND, I guess so they can sign Leonardo DiCaprio to play the Caped Crusader and maybe convince teenagers it's a date movie franchise again.

If there has been a single unifying theme for the comics industry in the 90s, it's Hollywood as holy grail. Of course, DC has long been (officially, in the Time-Warner corporate structure) an offshoot of Warner Studios, while Marvel played footsy with one-time owners New World Pictures for years. (The seeds of Marvel's bankruptcy were sown in the sales to and from New World, which triggered a cycle of ridiculous overvaluations - at one point Marvel was claimed to be worth well over two billion dollars, roughly ten times what an optimistic analysis of sales and licensing trends might have suggested - and editorial was constantly and unfairly pressed into trying to meet those expectations.) Dark Horse has opened their own production company, and the majority of their comics line is now material licensed from or ultimately intended for Hollywood. Image was barely born when the participants started cutting cartoon, movie and other licensing deals. The only time you hear of any other company these days - including Archie Comics and the independents - is when they announce a media deal. In San Diego last August, virtually every self-publisher I spoke with focused not on sales or even storylines but on prospective movie options, with bated breath and fingers crossed. Many projects are now conceived specifically to do double-duty as comics and option fodder.

"If there has been a single unifying theme for the comics industry in the 90s, it's Hollywood as holy grail."

And why not? A successful media tie-in can dramatically raise a company's market value. For publishers, media deals can potentially balance the bankbooks in this fiscally-depressed comics market, and quite a few comics have been sustained by the threat of an impending option when the publisher would otherwise have cancelled them. They can buy talent time and some freedom from the monthly drudge of production, and that's a luxury difficult to come by in the best of times. It makes sense for Hollywood, which, as an entity, voraciously devours material, most of which vanishes into its dark maw and is never heard from again. Comics are perfectly suited to feed that maw.

I'm not complaining, mind you. I've cut my share of deals, taken my share of paychecks. I can always do with more. I've got absolutely nothing against money.

But Hollywood's a trap. A navigable trap, but a trap. Ask Marvel, which has suffered through decades of "adaptations" like Roger Corman's ultra-low budget FANTASTIC FOUR, and a CAPTAIN AMERICA movie where they had to threaten to sue to get the producers to show something even vaguely resembling the trademark costume. A long running complaint about Marvel movies - hopefully remedied with the upcoming X-MEN feature - is that Marvel never demands any quality control over them, but guess what? It doesn't work that way. To Hollywood, everything's just "source material." Meaning: if our star wants the character to be named David Banner instead of Bruce Banner, we don't give a crap what's in the comic book.

Which is just a reprise of the experiences of generations of authors. The producer is a curious beast who's motto is: it's my money. They love "the standard deal," which means "as little as I can get away with offering." There is no "standard" deal in Hollywood, but you'll never hear that from them. It's a rare producer who wants the author of the source material anywhere near the production; option money is what authors (and comics companies) are paid to go away.

It's hard to argue with them, though. A producer/studio investing between $5,000,000 and $100,000,000 in a movie is quite a jump up from a publisher investing $75,000 in a six issue run of a comic book. If the material is changed in adaptation to the screen, it's to maximize profits (theoretically). Leo wants a bat tattoo on his forehead instead of a cape and cowl? Hey, Batman's got a brand new look. Because Leo as star will put butts in the seats (theoretically), so what Leo wants, Leo gets. What pleases a comics audience is irrelevant to producers, who will say they can't afford to cater to 25,000 people when they have to reach an audience in the tens of millions to turn a profit.

This can lead to some strange mutations. My creation WHISPER was optioned in 1987 from First Comics. For those who haven't read WHISPER, it starred a white chick up to her eyebrows in covert operations. It was set extremely present day. It was optioned specifically as a vehicle for Vanity, the Prince spin-off who was briefly in line to be a minor star. First publisher Rick Obadiah told me he'd make sure it was a film we could all be proud of. Uh-huh. Next thing I knew, Whisper was a singer. In a BLADE RUNNER-type future. Uh-huh. I read the screenplay, which wasn't bad, but it wasn't Whisper. The screenwriter was a nice guy. All of them were nice guys. I was glad when the project aborted.

This isn't to say producers aren't interested in art. Many of them are. Most want to be known as creative people in their own right. In my time around Hollywood, where I was peripherally known as someone who knew something about comic books, I'd occasionally get a phone call or get called into a meeting with some producer who'd gotten a great "comic book" idea. Inevitably, the idea consisted of taking some noun - "rock," let's say - and putting the word "man" after it. Rockman.

"I've got this great idea! Rockman! I'm going to develop it as a


movie."

"Great. What's the idea?"

"I just told you! Rockman! You deaf?"

"But what's the idea?"

"Rockman!"

"But what's it about?"

"That's what I wanted to ask you. What do you think it should be


about?"

"Are you asking me to co-create this?"

"No, I created it. I just need to flesh it out."

"So you're hiring me to develop it into a property?"

Which is where conversations generally ended, at the point where money entered into it. Despite Writers Guild rules against such things, a lot of producers only want free ideas. Preferably something they can take to a bankable screenwriter. I'm far from the only writer this has ever happened to. Every screenwriter I know has gone through this, often many times. Paul Dini tells similar stories in the latest issue of CREATIVE SCREENWRITING. It's part of the business.

A specific problem for comics is that few producers really understand what makes them tick. They really do think comics are just a matter of adding a noun to "man": crappy bits of paper that don't require any sort of respect or fidelity. Look at even arguably the most critically acclaimed comic of the last 20 years, Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN. Neil could write a book about Hollywood's approach to that and DEATH. A screenwriter friend happened to be pitching at Warners last year when a junior executive went to the head of production to tell him some producer was very interested in Captain Marvel. (The Shazam! variety.) The head of production was annoyed by the interruption, and told junior to tell the producer to call the character's owners, Marvel. My friend then pitched, among other things, CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, knowing Warners already owned the property. "We considered that," the production head said, "but it sounds like a reality show."

"A specific problem for comics [in Hollywood] is that few producers really understand what makes them tick."

Enemy

I was lucky with ENEMY, my only property that got to production as a Fox pilot. Written and produced by David Goyer and exec produced by Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson, men who genuinely love the comics medium, it made a few changes (Enemy's distinctive flag sunglasses turned into ordinary shades; an FBI agent named Heller was renamed Halme, presumably for reasons of taste; various adjustments converted a closed-ended mini-series into an open-ended TV series) and kept story and characters remarkably close to the originals, even lifting a number of my best lines. Fox eventually turned it down in favor of Chris Carter's MILLENIUM, but it wasn't half bad.

But ENEMY was sheer luck. Usually the best you can get out of an option is money; demanding creative control (or, frequently, any kind of input) is a good way to kill a deal, which is why companies rarely demand it. Walking away from a project potentially worth millions of dollars is very difficult. Frank Miller killed a deal to write and direct a SIN CITY movie over issues of creative control, but I don't know of any other comics talent who did anything similar. In this case, what's right or wrong depends on what you want. Is it worth more to get your brand name out there on a major motion picture or TV show, regardless of the end product, or to maintain the integrity of the creation?

Unfortunately, that's rarely up to the talent to decide. Even on creator-owned comics, publishers routinely insert contract clauses giving them say over licenses and options, and increasingly demand more and more of the profits. I hate to say it, but publishers just can't be trusted on these things. Let me rephrase that - they can be trusted to pursue their own interests over those of the talent, and assume their interests are the talent's interests. Ask Jim Hudnall and Andrew Paquette if they think Harris Comics had their best interests in mind on the now-moot HARSH REALM deal. I'm sure Harris Comics thinks it did. One company inserted themselves into a deal on one of my properties when the producer called them to contact me, and they tried to cut a deal with him first and then represent it to me that they'd gone out and sought the deal and deserved a big piece of the action for it. It was important to them to get one of their properties in the movies. (While there's never been much evidence that a media tie-in bumps up comics sales significantly, though it has been known to happen, adaptation of one property can attract Hollywood attention to other properties. A truism of Hollywood is that no producer wants anything until another producer is interested, and then they all want it. If a company sells one option, it's not unusual for other producers to sniff around other company properties.)

Worse, some producers insist the comics must reflect the media production, not the other way around. Most publishers are all too willing to agree to that, if it means a movie or TV show, regardless of the wishes or intent of the talent.

If publishers are so hot for media deals, why do they willfully stay so ill-prepared for them? Yes, there are Batman and X-Men movies, but by and large the properties that make it to the screen (except in cartoons) aren't the big names. The Human Target. Tank Girl. Blade. Judge Dredd. The Mask. Barb Wire. Men In Black. Mystery Men. Night Man. These aren't the big guns. These are quirky little comics, and producers keep snatching up books just like them while Superman movies stagger and fumble into non-existence.

"If publishers are so hot for media deals, why do they willfully stay so ill-prepared for them?"

In the book world, many publishers and agents automatically circulate manuscripts to studios and producers prior to publication, and many novels are optioned before publication. There's no reason comics publishers shouldn't do this too, if they insist on pushing those buttons anyway. No sweetheart deals with specific producers or studios. Diversified mini-series seem a smart way to attract attention (of course, that would require either a shift away from the superheroes that Hollywood by and large disdains - at best they seem to prefer the mock-superheroes like MYSTERY MEN, since they can't take the concept seriously - or the introduction of superheroes who are a hell of a lot more interesting). At minimum, a company should at least publish the property in question. (Marvel ignored the NIGHT MAN TV show along with most everyone else.) But so far no company besides Platinum Studios, maybe Dark Horse, seems to want to think in terms that broad.

Media deals aren't going away. Given the current state of our economy, we don't want them to. But let's stay clear on what we get out of them. Sometimes we get opportunity, but mostly the best we can hope for is money, and it has gotten to the point where that may not be enough. We need more control over the output, whether that means cutting better deals or comics professionals pushing their way into Hollywood markets to tackle the problems creatively. There's a theory that adaptation to the media lends comics respectability, and brings them into the mainstream of American life that movies and TV occupy, but that's just not so, and won't be until movie and TV versions get a lot better, at least as good as the comics they spring from.

I'm not sure if it's this week or next, but STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN #2, from Chaos Comics, should be hitting the stands any day now. By the way, I don't have any information that Leonardo DiCaprio has anything to do with any future BATMAN movies. It was just an example for effect, and I'm curious to see how many websites post Leonardo-Batman rumors today because they didn't read this far.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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