With kid readership numbers having long since fallen prey to the encroachment of new entertainment outlets (see ‘Webcoms to the rescue?’ page 44), the comic book industry has been forced to come up with a drastically different strategy for launching its rich stable of properties. Feature films, animated series, video games, rejuvenated comic book series, videos, the Internet and licensed merch all figure into the new plan to harness as many media as possible for a carefully-timed, integrated event launch that builds sustainable interest in the property over the long term. ‘In order to breed the kind of longevity we need to tell comic book-based stories, the property must be developed into several media incarnations that roll out gradually,’ says president and CEO of Marvel Media Avi Arad, adding that profitability is dependent on the multimedia nature of the model. ‘This kind of incredible effort is obviously an expensive vehicle, so it needs different profit centers like the video games, the DVDs and the licensing.’
X-Men is serving as the guinea pig for testing Marvel’s new strategy for relaunching decades-old comic book properties for modern audiences, and a big-budget blockbuster feature targeting a broad audience of parents and kids is the linchpin of the plan. ‘The movie is like the ignition key; it starts the engine and makes it possible to go into first gear,’ quips Arad. This analogy will be put to the test this month with the July 14 launch of X-Men: The Movie, a co-venture between Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox that features a liberal splash of Matrix-esque special effects. The pic plumbs the early days of X-Men lore, when a small population of genetically-superior mutants in their early 20s divides into two groups-one peaceful and the other violent-to deal with a faction of jealous and frightened humans who seek to wipe them out.
Marvel’s publishing and new media division will help fan the hype generated by the movie by offering a prequel comic book premium with X-Men feature admission that tells the back story of popular mutant character Wolverine-from birth through adolescence and early adulthood, right up to the start of the movie. The 32-page book is designed to trigger interest in a November-launching monthly X-Men comic book series for tweens and teens that will be published under a new banner called Ultimate Marvel, which aims to reintroduce the comic company’s core superheroes as modern-day teenagers. Bill Jemas, president of the publishing and new media division at Marvel, explains the initiative: ‘Marvel has always been very good at speaking to smart kids and teens. But as our core creators and our 1960s readers have gotten older, our characters have aged too, so our books don’t speak very well to teenagers right now. With Ultimate Marvel, we’re going to catch up a little with society and take a fresh look at teen life in the year 2000.’
Tying into the release of the new comic book series and the movie’s video debut in November, Marvel Studios is working with Film Roman on a 13 x half-hour X-Men TV series for Kids’ WB! ‘The television show should serve to broaden the property’s audience even more and make the characters more kid-relatable,’ says Arad. The 2-D animated series is set to air on Saturdays at 11:30 a.m., likely starting in mid-November.
Senior VP of Kids’ WB! Donna Friedman says she’s attracted to comic-based show concepts because they have an established fan base and a depth that can be tapped for multimedia development. ‘Even though it’s sometimes small, comic book properties bring a built-in audience to the series,’ she says. ‘Also, when we’re evaluating concepts, we look at whether they’ll make sense on-line, as a book, as a video game, etc. The depths of these properties make them really conducive to a broader approach, and we’ve learned from kids that that’s how they want their entertainment these days.’
Taking its lead from the Ultimate Marvel comic book series, the animated X-Men show will focus on the growing pains of Professor X’s mutant prodigies as they struggle through adolescence with superhuman powers that set them apart from other kids. Friedman says this struggle was what clinched the deal for her. ‘The core idea of X-Men, which is growing up and feeling different, is a fundamental theme that resonates with today’s kids.’
In order to modernize X-Men, Marvel Studios has added a Latino character to the mutant crew, as well as weaving hip language, music, fashion and an array of Y2K technology like the Internet, beepers and cell phones into the mix. Arad says the next step is to kickstart an X-Men licensing program that will include video games and all manner of toys. The property will also be featured on the www.marvel.com Web site.
Like Marvel, DC Comics is gearing up for an integrated animated show and comic book series launch this fall when Static Shock! hits the airwaves on Kids’ WB! and the shelves of specialty comic book retail outlets. Based on a comic book series published under the Milestone banner from 1994 to 1996 and relaunching this September, the 26 x half-hour Static Shock! stars a street-smart black kid who talks a lot of jive. The 14-year-old motormouth is exposed to an experimental mutagen and develops electro-magnetic superpowers, which he uses to help stop crime in his urban neighborhood. ‘The fact that he’s the first African-American teen superhero on TV is really breakthrough,’ says Friedman. ‘Also, the humor in the comic book, which we describe as Chris Rock at 14, was one of the things that was most appealing to us.’ Friedman adds that this humor provides the perfect tone for tackling issues like racism and the death of a family member in a smart and contemporary way. Produced by WB Animation, Static Shock! debuts this September on Saturday mornings at 10:30 a.m.
The Zeta Project, a spin-off from the comic-based Batman Beyond series, is also making a fall debut (likely in November) on Kids’ WB! in the net’s 4:30 p.m. Friday afternoon slot. Also a product of the WB Animation studio, this 26 x half-hour series is set in the year 2040 and stars Zeta, an anti-terrorist robot who’s hiding out from his evil-minded government agency creators. To escape detection, he holographs himself into the image of a 15-year-old boy and is befriended by a hapless teenage girl named Ro. Joel Ehrlich, senior VP of advertising and promotions for Warner Bros. Consumer Products and DC Comics, says both Static Shock! and The Zeta Project were easy comic book spin-offs because they feature contemporary/futuristic contexts that don’t require any updating. ‘The challenge now is to stay way ahead of current technology,’ he adds.
Speaking of staying ahead, Marvel already has several other comic book properties pegged to follow the same multimedia development path as X-Men. The farthest along is Spider-Man, which Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment will spin into a family-targeted feature film for Thanksgiving 2001. Directed by Sam Raimi, the pic will be followed by a Spider-Man animated series in 2002. The Ultimate Marvel Spider-Man comic book series will launch this September to create some early buzz for the action-adventure flick.
Sony Picture Consumer Products formed a joint venture with Marvel to launch a massive Spidey licensed merch assault next fall that hopes to attract hundreds of licensees, agents, promo partners and retailers. Under the agreement, Marvel gets master toy, apparel, accessories, collectibles, gifts and novelties, while SPCP will take care of back-to-school, food and beverage, health and beauty, home furnishings, domestics, housewares, party goods, stationery, sporting goods, ancillary toys and video games. Publishing activities will be split between the two companies, as will all revenue.
Slated for production early next year is Ghost Rider, a US$75-million feature film about a motorcycle stunt man who, to avenge an attack on his sweetheart, makes an evil pact to take on superhuman powers and hunt down those who hurt the innocent at night. Talent on this co-pro with Crystal Sky Entertainment will likely include Johnny Depp to star and Jon Voight to produce. Revenues generated from the movie, as well as any licensing and merchandising profits, will be split between Marvel and Crystal Sky.
Also tagged for film development are The Incredible Hulk with Universal for 2001 and The Fantastic Four with 20th Century Fox.
Marvel also recently signed an expansive deal with Artisan Entertainment for the joint production of features, TV series, MOWs, DTVs and streaming Web entertainment based on 15 more Marvel comic book properties. Under the deal, Marvel will develop merchandising programs for the projects and Artisan and Marvel will split entertainment revenues down the middle.
According to Arad, the slate of new projects could include a Captain America feature film, as well as a live-action TV series based on Black Panther, a `70s spin-off from The Fantastic Four that features a South African warrior king who fights crime in New York City by night. Other family-skewing properties included in the deal are: Power Pak, which stars four kids who are given superpowers by a dying alien; Mort the Dead Teenager, a cheeky series about a kid killed in a car accident who comes back to life; and Antman, featuring a scientist who can rearrange his atomic particles to drastically change size.