Levitz & Nelson on DC Entertainment

Wed, September 9th, 2009 at 4:30pm PDT | Updated: September 9th, 2009 at 7:35pm

Comic Books
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

News broke Wednesday that Paul Levitz, the President and Publisher of DC Comics since 2002 and a chief architect of the publisher’s success in other roles since the 1970s, had resigned. Levitz saw DC through such publishing milestones as “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” the formation of its influential Vertigo imprint, and guided the publisher through the creation of the direct market. Once a hugely popular writer of such DC titles as “The Legion of Super-Heroes,” Levitz will return to writing comic books full time, beginning with next year’s “Adventure Comics” #7. Levitz will also serve as a multipurpose consultant as the company continues its restructuring, a process which includes hiring a new Publisher.

Concurrently, DC Comics parent company Warner Bros. Entertainment announced the formation of DC Entertainment, a new entity under which DC Comics will continue to operate. DC Entertainment’s stated mission is to strategically exploit the DC brand across all media, such as video games and feature film. DC Entertainment’s President is Diane Nelson, who most recently served as the President of Warner Premiere, WB’s direct-to-consumer brand responsible for the “Green Lantern: First Flight” and “Batman: Gotham Knight” DVD features, among other projects. Most auspiciously, Nelson has managed the Harry Potter franchise for Warner Bros. since 1999, turning JK Rowling’s best-selling novels into a multimedia empire.

To learn more about DC Entertainment’s plans for DC Comics and what role Levitz will play in the newly organized company, CBR News spoke with Levitz and Nelson about all the day’s big news.

CBR Staff Writer Andy Khouri contributed to this story.

Story continues below

Jonah Weiland: Paul, the news of your stepping down as President and Publisher of DC came largely out of the blue for the comics press and readership. When did you decide you needed a change?

Paul Levitz: The original plan was for me to get out of here before Jeanette [Khan, who stepped down as President & Editor-In-Chief of DC Comics in 2002]. Originally the plan was I was going to hire a replacement whom I would break in, and then that person would aspire to taking [Jeanette’s] job when she was ready to leave and I would go off and write and teach and do some of the things I wanted to do. That plan didn’t quite work out as originally intended, as you may have noticed, and I’ve been kind of wandering around ever since saying, “I want to get to the writing and teaching one of these days, guys! The hair’s gray now!”

Diane Nelson: I’m still not going to let him do it – it’s all been a façade of, “Sure, you can write!”

Paul Levitz will return to writing and also act as a consultant to Diane Nelson going forward

Jonah Weiland: Paul, as a consultant, how active a participant will you be day-to-day with DC Entertainment?

Levitz: I think time will tell how that all works. The goal Diane has espoused to me is really a multi-faceted one. One part of the role is to help her understand this business and get a team in place and a structure in place and watch the store until she has that team up and ready. That, obviously, will be a fairly active role.

The longer term thing is to be available as both a creative consultant and a consultant on those things in the business that have mattered most to me – how we treat the talent and what the relationships are like there. That, I think, will vary project to project. There are times where I’m sure I’ll be as welcome in the room as I have been with [“The Dark Knight” Director] Chris Nolan, who’s turned into a wonderful friend, Jonathan [Nolan, co-writer of “The Dark Knight”] and Emma Thomas [producer of “The Dark Knight”], the whole team there. There will be other cases where Diane will tell me, “This one’s under control, kid, we don’t need you. Come see the movie when it comes out.” That will be fine, too, and anything in between.

After 37 years, I love this company and I’m happy to help in any way they think I can be useful.

Jonah Weiland: Diane, you are the President of DC Entertainment, but Paul served DC Comics in a dual role as both President and Publisher. Will you be serving DC Comics in that same dual role or is a new Publisher going to be brought in?

Nelson: We will be looking, with Paul’s input, for a successor who will act as Publisher of DC Comics. I don’t presume to have that expertise and I will very much want to find someone to whom Paul can pass the mantle, as it were. My role is much more, as my background indicates, about how do we take DC and treat it carefully and productively across our company. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing. I have a whole lot of experts at DC Comics who will help me understand the creative and fan communities and so forth.

Jonah Weiland: It doesn’t sound like there will be any immediate changes editorially or across the various DC imprints like Vertigo or WildStorm?

Nelson: No, that’s not our intention. This announcement today is about the establishment of DC Entertainment and what we hope to do with our renewed focus and priority for the future. We’ll look carefully at the organization and how we’ll best integrate it into Warner Bros. and I suppose it’s possible there would be implications in that realm, but that’s not the intention going in. I don’t really see any reason for that to happen.

Jonah Weiland: Diane, what do you see as DC Comics’ greatest strengths and assets today?

Diane Nelson is President of the newly formed DC Entertainment, under which DC Comics will operate

Nelson: It’s a reflection, I believe, or at least it’s consistent with what Warner Bros. has cared about and stood for, that we are a talent-friendly company and are a place that values creators. I think the depth and breadth of the DC library and all of its imprints give us a real advantage over any competitor, however you define them. This isn’t just about the biggest or most well-known properties -- those will clearly be a part of our initiative -- but it can equally be about much lesser known properties that we incubate and build throughout the company, and it can be and should be about the acquisitions of new properties and characters. We are a content company and we’ll be even more focused on that in the future and that’s on a Warner Bros. and Time Warner level. I think recognizing the value of what our creators have created in this library and treating them carefully for the long term is the single greatest thing we have to work with here.

Jonah Weiland: Paul, what do you see as the greatest strengths of the DC brand as you transition out of your role and as Diane transitions into hers?

Levitz: I think the magic of DC is that we have a creative environment and a creative team that sees a kind of story that has moved to the heart of the culture that we’re in. We’re living in a generation where the literature of the fantastic and visual literature are both becoming more and more important to the culture. You can see it both in the success of our material, but also in the success of where the writer’s and artists from here have moved on to do other kinds of work in their lives. DC assistant editors have written for TV Shows like “Heroes” and “Sex & The City,” as well as dramas like “Law & Order.” That kind of cross-pollination happens because our style of magic is now at the center of the stage. I think the DC Entertainment move will, hopefully, only accelerate that process of connecting our guys to those opportunities – the characters, the creative people, the magic that is this place.

Jonah Weiland: Diane, what will your focus be over the next six months?

Nelson: Initially, over the first six months, it’s going to be about learning and listening and looking carefully at the DC Comics organization, which, again, remains a foundation of what DC Entertainment will be. So, DC Comics as a publishing company will remain intact. DC Entertainment, as a new company within which DC Comics sits, is a place I need to think through and I need to do that with the benefit of input from everyone who works at DC Comics. I see it being a time of listening, learning and finding that balance between what core fans want and what’s potentially available and of interest on a broader audience level, and then finding the process by which we can most effectively integrate DC and its characters and stories into the Warner Bros. machine.

I feel compelled to clarify that does not mean deconstructing DC. What I mean by that is how do we create a system and a way of working together where the experts within each of our Warner Bros. businesses – feature film, television, digital, video games, merchandise – all have the ability to do what they do best in connection with DC Comics and vice versa.

A popular writer of "The Legion of Super-Heroes," Levitz will return to the characters next year in "Adventure Comics"

So, with DC Entertainment, we’ll want to look at what is the portfolio of properties in what we’ll call Phase 1 – I’m making that up right now – but if we plan to announce some meat on the bone in January/February in terms of a theatrical slate, television initiatives and video game slate -- and that’s our goal, to give you more detail on what those initial priorities will be -- that will be a piece of it. But equally it will be about looking at the library and identifying priorities that may be smaller -- again, in the vein of incubation, where we move them within the company, perhaps on a smaller, more careful level. It’s going to be two-fold: the business and the process of how to set this up to be most effective for the future, and then it’s going to be looking at the library and picking priorities and initiatives to focus on. It’s sort of that simple.

Jonah Weiland: Diane, because this was an initiative you oversaw at Warner Premiere, will the DC motion comics library be expanded? Along those lines, are there any plans to make the DC Comics publishing library available for download?

Nelson: I’d like to start to answer the question and let Paul complete it, but having the benefit of having had responsibility and will continue to have supervisorial responsibility for Warner Premier, which as you know is our direct-to-consumer production arm, so Motion Comics as a category is something that Warner Premier, along with DC Comics and Warner Digital Distribution, really created. We branded it and started with “Watchmen” and other great motion comics properties and we believe that is something we can not only continue but expand upon.

The question of motion comics versus other digital initiatives, whether it’s what I would refer to as “digital publishing” -- and what I mean by that is the digital distribution of existing comics as they are designed for the physical format -- that’s a more complicated issue and one I think we need to look at together internally and make sure that if we think there’s a business opportunity for that, that it doesn’t compromise the integrity of how the comics were originally designed and intended to be experienced. It is a balance here. There is clearly a need to look at what the future of our business is going to look like and where fans are consuming content and how we are adjusting that without moving away from or in any way cannibalizing the core publishing business. Paul will be guiding me on that and I will be looking to others to evaluate so we can make careful decisions.

The short answer is yes and yes – digital is a huge part of where comic stories will live in the future and we need to be really very focused about looking at it.

Levitz: What I would add to that is we’ve been looking at the whole issue of how you offer comics through methods like downloads continuously since that began to evolve. Any way that people want to get our material, ultimately they will be able to get it, that’s the nature of a consumer society. In order to do that well there are creative challenges, as Diane said, in terms of how you present the material. There are business challenges in terms of how you treat the freelancers who created the material, which is always something that’s been important not only to me but to the overall company, Warner Bros., and how to deal properly with the talent. The good news is we now get some additional and fresh minds looking at that.

Diane Nelson is most famous for managing the Harry Potter franchise for Warner Bros., turning JK Rowling's novels into a multimedia empire

One of the downsides to being in a job as long as I have been – I ran across a quote in “The Coldest Winter” [a history of the Korean War by author David Halberstam] a few months back where one of the generals was being asked how in the world could MacArthur, the youngest General ever in the history of the U.S. and the youngest medal winner, considered one of the most brilliant Generals of his time, how did he blow spotting the Korean War coming? The General’s answer was, “He wore his stars too long.”

When I read that it had a certain resonance and I don’t want to be in that situation of wearing mine too long. It will be great to have some fresh eyes looking at some of these problems, while hopefully listening to the old eyes as well when they say, “That cliff over there? It’s not going to feel good if you jump off.” It becomes a healthier balance and I look forward to some of that dialogue going on and hopefully some of the brilliant solutions to come out of it.

Jonah Weiland: Diane, many of the biggest DC icons such as Superman, Wonder Woman, the Justice League and others aren’t in production as films, at least as far as the public knows. Will the formation of DC Entertainment take back control of these icons for film and television, and will production be accelerated?

Nelson: It’s a good question. I think the answer is this: Accelerated? Yes. Take control of? No. The culture of Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment is about cooperation, integration and focus. I think via focus you will see it’s not acceleration, but again a prioritization and a real focus on the properties you just named and a whole lot of others. We are also, though, a company that is about quality, so there will not be a rushing of our product for product’s sake. That’s not what Warner Bros. does. But I do think what you will see by virtue of all of this is a renewed prioritization and a real passion amongst all our businesses to bring more and more of these properties – both the big ones you mentioned and a whole bunch of others – to fans.

Jonah Weiland: Paul, what is your proudest achievement as an executive at DC Comics?

Levitz: When I look back on it, there’s so much in all the years I could mention, but of things I am particularly proud of is having been one of the people who both wrote the first broad contract for talent as a written contract, bringing us out of the old back-of-the check era [whereby cashing your check was tantamount to signing a contract], and having played a major role in the first royalty plans to apply to all the talent in the field. I think those were pivotal steps in opening the opportunity to creativity. When you look at how the dominoes fell, our decision to treat talent better in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s leads directly, I believe, to the creative flourish in the field in the mid-’80s. And the generation of people that brought in were the generation of people, much like yourself, who have grown up to be our advocates across the media, making the field more respectable and raising the expectations of what is possible in comics today.

So, the role I’ve had to play in all of that, whether it be the original deals or the distribution structure that I helped build in the process, all were steps, from an executive standpoint, that I can look back on proudly.

As I said, though, in my note on the blog, I learned long ago that the stuff that lasts isn’t the executive work, but the creative work.

TAGS:  dc comics, dc entertainment, paul levitz, diane nelson

 
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