The comic book business could do with a superhero right about now, a caped crusader who could use his or her special powers to revive an ailing industry. And many people believe that savior may be the Web. Faced with a rapidly aging fan base, comic book publishers and artists are turning to the Internet in hopes of winning back a younger audience, but as many are finding, the trick is making it pay.
‘The comic book business is shrinking. Every company is trying to find ways to appeal to people outside of the existing fan base, and the Web is another way to hopefully achieve that,’ says Michael Ring, on-line marketing coordinator at the Internet division of Milwaukie, Oregon-based Dark Horse Comics.
According to trade pub Comics Retailer, today’s typical comic-book reader is 25 or older, up from the 12- to 16-year-old demographic group which has comprised the heart of the medium’s readership for most of its history. And as the readership age has risen, profits have fallen, diving from US$850 million in 1993 to US$275 million last year. The villain most publishers and artists cite is a stifling distribution network, which has favored the small comics store rather than the mass retailer. ‘Kids aren’t reading comics today, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know that they exist,’ says Randolph Hoppe, a partner at Hoboken, New Jersey-based Lemon Custard Comics (lemoncustard.com), which produces Webcoms for Dark Horse.
The Web, with its unlimited distribution and audience pool, publishers and artists believe, is a way to bypass retail and go directly to the consumer. But getting your comics on the Web is a lot easier than making money off them.
In keeping with dot.com economics, the majority of companies currently offering Webcoms appear to be subscribing to the same business model: Build an audience first, and figure out how to make a profit later. Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of ideas, from licensing to syndication to charging subscription fees, on how to make a buck.
Perhaps one thing working in favor of the Webcomics is their ability to transcend the 2-D limitations of their print predecessors. Many are created using Macromedia’s Flash or Shockwave software, allowing artists to include motion, audio and other cinematic touches, like fades and wipes. While they may retain a comic sensibility, these Webcoms have more in common with animation than traditional comics, and that, say proponents of the art form, means they hold a greater appeal for a generation of kids that grew up watching cartoons and playing video games. Still, getting kids to check out the Webcoms on your site is not the same as getting them to fork over money.
Dark Horse, which launched an eComics section last January, is hoping to generate revenue two ways: By licensing out its proprietary titles for T-shirts and other merchandise, and by charging for banner advertising, once it builds up a larger audience. On that score, things are looking promising. In May, its 11 eComs were averaging 8,000 hits a day and rising steadily, says Ring, who adds that 40% of those who visited were in the 12 to 18 demographic.
For now, Dark Horse is using the eComs primarily as a promotional tool to guide visitors to the print comics and related licensed merchandise. At the end of each eCom episode there are links that take users to Dark Horse’s e-stores, which feature various related licensed products, like T-shirts and hats. Though sales of related merchandise haven’t soared since Dark Horse introduced the eComs, Ring says they are inching upwards.
Ten of the 11 Webcoms that Dark Horse produces are based on its print comics, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which has proven to be the site’s most popular title with younger visitors. The situation was reversed for the 11th title, the company’s only exclusive eComic series, in that the Webcomic was first and spawned a print offshoot. The pulp series, about a Hal-like PC that feeds cookies to its owner to transform him into a human cyborg, failed to catch on with the public and has since been canceled. In the future, Ring says Dark Horse will develop Webcoms only from its catalog of franchises that already have one foot in the print media, such as Nevermen and SpyBoy, both of which go live this summer.
Another potential revenue source companies are eyeing is syndication. Similar to the TV syndication market, on-line content producers and content hubs like Toonscape.com and Shockwave.com can sell a Webcom to other sites hungry for eye-catching content. Andy Kaiser, CFO of San Diego-based Toonscape.com, predicts that syndication will account for 60% of its overall revenues by year’s end, with the majority of its remaining revenues coming from fees it charges consumers for digital downloads of its comics. Launched in April, Toonscape bills itself as an artist service provider, and features comics and animation for a variety of demographic groups, including kids. At press time, Kaiser says the site was averaging 23,000 unique vistors a month, one quarter of which were kids in the eight to 15 demo. Toonscape posts the works of artists who can’t get published in the traditional comic book world, and acts on their behalf to broker syndication and licensing deals. In return, Kaiser says, Toonscape takes a cut of any moneys from agreements that may result.
Well-known artist Rich Moyer, whose strips have appeared in newspapers across the U.S., is hoping to get a cut of the Web syndication pie for his site, Bunnygrenade.com. Launched last May in partnership with prodco Celluloid Studios, the site features about 10 Webcoms based on Moyer’s strips. The Far Side-esque comics, which Moyer says appeal to early teens and up, are essentially animated one-gag shorts.
Moyer says he plans to develop some of his strips into longer-form Webisodes, which he’ll try to sell to animation hubs like Atom Films and Shockwave. Bunnygrenade’s business plan also involves attracting dollars through merchandise sales and banner advertising. Though Moyer expects advertising to account for the majority of revenues, as of mid May the site had no advertisers on board, and wasn’t actively pursuing them.
Corporate sponsorship of Webcoms, similar to the corporate underwriting of TV shows seen in the `50s, is another model sites are considering. For Macromedia’s Shockwave.com, sponsorships contribute significantly to the coffers, according to Michael Yanover, VP and GM of shows and series. Though there aren’t yet any corporations bankrolling the site’s kid-skewing offerings, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man or Stan Lee Media’s The 7th Portal, sponsorship still represents the second largest revenue source for the site, behind banner advertising, which accounts for 60% of revenues.
While it’s apparent that most Webcom sites can only theorize about revenue at this stage, most parties working in this emerging industry hope the big payday will come when consumers agree to pay to view comics on the Net. Outside of adult content, however, consumers haven’t shown a willingness to pay for any type of entertainment content, and Dark Horse’s Ring isn’t optimistic about the prospects of a subscription-based model taking root, nor its ability to grow the popularity of comics. ‘There’s so much free content out there on sites like Atom and Shockwave, that it would be difficult to attract people who aren’t already die-hard comic readers to pay,’ says Ring.
Kevin Tsujihara, EVP new media, Warner Bros., disagrees with Ring’s assessment, and believes some version of the pay-per-view model will eventually become a reality.
‘As the quality of on-line animation we can offer gets better, and the user experience gets better, that kind of business model is not far behind it,’ says Tsujihara. Warner Bros. Online, which relaunched its site in June with new animation based on DC Comics properties Lobo, Batman spin-off Gotham Girls, and a flat-panel Webcom based on the theatrical actioner The Matrix, currently draws the majority of its revenues from banner ads and e-commerce.
Shockwave’s Yanover is also confident that a subscription-based model will hit the Web sooner rather than later. ‘Right now, people have been getting short-forms of entertainment on the Net for free,’ he says, ‘and there’s this mindset, just like you had at the start of broadcast TV, that it should remain free. But the history of entertainment has proven that if you have something compelling enough people will be willing to pay for it. When HBO launched, people said, `I’m not going to pay for TV, I already get it for free’. Lo and behold, HBO worked.’