Studios get framed

The comic book industry is fertile ground for development deals at the moment, as TV and film producers are aggressively listening to pitches and formulating pitches of their own centering around pulp properties. 'We come to them and they come to...
August 1, 1999

The comic book industry is fertile ground for development deals at the moment, as TV and film producers are aggressively listening to pitches and formulating pitches of their own centering around pulp properties. ‘We come to them and they come to us,’ says Avi Arad, president and CEO of Marvel Media. Despite recent public financial troubles at Marvel, Arad rattles off half a dozen Marvel character-based movies currently in production, including Sony’s Spider-Man; Twentieth Century Fox’s X-Men; Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer; The Hulk and Prime at Universal; and Damage Control at Village Road Show-plus The Avengers and Spider-Man Unlimited, two animated series being produced by Saban Entertainment and Marvel Studios for Fox.

The list of big-budget event films is particularly impressive considering the only other film spun off from a Marvel comic in the past decade was New Line’s US$45-million Blade in 1998. Marvel is working to develop nine additional movies, including a Black Panther feature with Wesley Snipes and movies centering around comic book characters Iron Man, Thor, Dr. Strange, Captain America, Namor and Daredevil.

Arad has a one-word explanation for the boom: CGI. While comics have always been known as a source of great stories and compelling characters, special effects such as those introduced in The Terminator opened the door for comic character’s superpowers to be realized on film. Heavy reliance on special effects also effectively ruled out lower budget indies for comic-based movies, according to Arad. ‘It is very difficult to take our kind of movie-which is not inexpensive-into an indie genre.’

Marvel’s burgeoning slate is echoed by smaller comic book pubcos, which have benefited from the runaway success of 1997′s Men in Black, spun off from an obscure title from independent Malibu Comics. (Malibu Comics is owned by Platinum Studios chairman/producer Scott Mitchell Rosenberg.) Vying for ‘me-too’ status is Dark Horse Comics’ Mysterymen, which Universal Studios released July 30. The movie is based on a little-known comic title, as are Dark Horse spin-offs in production, including DreamWorks’ Cowboys & Aliens and New Line’s Million Dollar Heroes.

‘Comic book [properties] are starting to be viewed as one of the best ways to get into the studio structure,’ says Platinum Studios’ Rosenberg, whose big-budget Dead of Night is in production at Dimension Films. Platinum recently joined the ranks of a number of comic book concerns landing output deals with major studios, signing on with the Miramax label to make a host of comic book-based features starting with Dead of Night. Other comic publishers to gain first deals at the studios include Dark Horse (Universal) and DC Comics (Warner Bros.)

What are studios looking for? Publishers large and small agree that interest has grown beyond the traditional superhero. At Marvel, softer characters such as the comedic mutant superheroes of Fantastic Four and female characters like She-Hulk and Spider Girl are generating studio interest, Arad notes.

When trolling Dark Horse Comic’s substantial library for titles to pitch, VP of creative affairs Steve Gilder evaluates the longevity and potential of the comic. ‘Is it a good story and is it easily translatable? A lot of times when a comic book and a movie are too close, it is bad,’ Gilder notes. He cites Barbed Wire as one Dark Horse Comic-based property that the publisher did not consider a success because it had the one-dimensional feel of a comic book. ‘We are now very selective about which books we turn into movies,’ Gilder notes.

Dark Horse titles currently slated for film development are Hellboy, about a character who comes up to earth from the depths of Hell, and The Lords of Misrule, about a young man who is the sire of a 10,000-year-old demon. Television projects include action-adventure toon Monkey Man and O’Brien and Columbia TriStar-produced Dark Horse spin-off Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, which debuts on Fox Kids this fall.

‘Somebody has to set the trend,’ says Ben Dunn, president of indie comic book company Antarctic Press, describing the studio scouting activity. The publisher of teen comedy title Ninja Highschool, fantasy title Warrior Nun and kids title Mighty Tiny notes: ‘Producers are looking for comics with imaginative appeal to kids with quality attached.’ Dunn adds that lesser quality comics still carry a stigma in Hollywood. Interest in Antarctic’s properties has been growing steadily, but so far all producers’ nibbles have been just that. For instance, Antarctic title Warrior Nun received a rash of inquiries after receiving press coverage in USA Today. ‘Nothing ever came of it, probably because Warrior Nun is a controversial figure,’ he notes.

Dunn cautions that the current trend of developing pulp frames for the big screen leaves publishers in a vulnerable spot. ‘If comic-based event films like Mysterymen fail at the box office, people might say Men in Black just got lucky.’

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