It seems like every day we read a press release about a new comic book project being optioned for film. And, it’s no wonder, with the critical & box office success of such properties as 300, Wanted, and Watchmen. For better or worse, Hollywood is going to keep mining the comic book industry for creative property until it has nothing left to give.
What does this mean for the future of the comic book industry? Is Hollywood helping to create a financial model where independent creators can make a fortune off of their small-time properties? What exactly IS an option?
I spoke recently with three different comics creators who are all in the thick of this discussion to get their honest take on these questions:
B. Clay Moore is the writer of Hawaiian Dick (published by Image Comics and previously optioned by New Line Cinema), the Leading Man (published by Oni Press and optioned by Universal Pictures), and Billy Smoke (soon to be published by Oni Press and optioned by Warner Brothers with Matthew Fox set to star).
Robert Venditti is the writer of the Surrogates (published by Top Shelf and optioned by Disney. Directed by Jonathan Mostow with Bruce Willis starring, set to be released this fall.) Venditti also works a day job in the Top Shelf mail room.
Kevin Mellon is the artist and co-creator (along with writer Dennis Hopeless) of Gearhead (published by Arcana comics and optioned by producer Gale Anne Hurd for Valhalla Films.)
Clay, you’ve got Billy Smoke, Leading Man, & Hawaiian Dick all set up at various studios. Am I missing anything?
MOORE: As of now, no, although Hawaiian Dick’s option was renewed and then expired, so it’s technically on the market again as a property. I have other things in the works (some comic related and some not), but those are the announced options.
Is there any “secret” to you having so many projects optioned?
MOORE: I don’t know about that. I know that I tend to write stories centering around a strong protagonist, building a world around that character. That appeals to Hollywood, and, particularly, to actors looking for meaty roles.
In comic book terms, I try to make the “hook” clear and engaging, and I try to build a unique and entertaining world around the characters. Those things seem to translate well to other media.
Two of your projects are set up at Closed on Mondays (The Leading Man, Billy Smoke), Oni Press’s sister-production company. How does working with this company, which has closer ties to the comics industry, vary from your experience with other companies?
MOORE: I love the guys at Closed On Mondays. Eric Gitter and Peter Schwerin, along with Oni Publisher Joe Nozemak, were some of the first guys to realize that they were sitting on a virtual catalog of ideas that were marketable to other media, almost all of which also happened to be fantastic comic books. I think Hollywood now understands that Oni (much like Image Comics) produces a broad range of material that works in a broad range of genres, and that the new spin comic books put on old ideas is often a lot more fresh than most ideas generated exclusively with film in mind.
When I work with Eric, Peter and Joe, I’m working with guys who have gone out of their way to help me push my career in new directions, and not always to the benefit of their companies. They value talent, and do their best to set projects up with actual hope for development. I’m not officially attached to them in any capacity. I’m just a freelance creator who trusts them to take care of his properties.
Robert, Tell me a little about your experience getting the Surrogates optioned: Was the option as a result of your self-promotion? Top Shelf? An agent/manager?
ROBERT: I’d say it was in part a result of all three factors, but mostly it was just the circumstances of being in the right place at the right time. I know the property ended up on Hollywood’s radar because of some of the positive press the early issues of the series received, and I was able to meet a lot of producers because Top Shelf has such a consistent presence on the convention circuit. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to the story resonating with its audience, and the team involved in the film production having an honest appreciation for the material.
MELLON: The first Gearhead option was on the table before the first issue even shipped. A small Canadian production company that Arcana had been trying to develop some things with over the years became interested, and ended up optioning the book on the basis of a director/writer/producer there wanting to make the film. That was in early 2007.
They basically sat on the project for a year until the option ran out, and we were in the middle of discussing renewing the option when the possibility of working with Valhalla came up. I, personally, wasn’t too keen on renewing with the first company due to their lack of development and my complete disinterest in the producer and the director’s vision of the film, so we let that option lapse and worked out a producing option with Valhalla in the fall of 2008.
MELLON: Valhalla has a long track record with comic book properties, and I think they saw the same things in Gearhead that made Dennis and I do the book in the first place; a strong female lead on a quest to find herself amidst the crazy world she lives in. Plus she kicks the shit out of a bunch of stuff. What’s not to like?
How do you think the current “comic book option frenzy” is affecting the comics industry as a whole?
MOORE: Positively. I mean, companies that are producing bad comics in an attempt to get things optioned would probably be producing bad comics regardless. But for creators such as myself, it puts us in the enviable position of being able to make ends meet, and to further publicize our work and our “brands,” all while creating our own books.
MELLON: I don’t hold a lot of stock in the movie side of things, Hollywood being the snooty bitch at the party everyone wants, but is only giving out handjobs to a handful and the full vag to a few, and anal to Frank Miller [NOTE – conversation conducted before “the Spirit” did less than stellar at the box-office]. I have to treat that shit like it means nothing because if you let yourself get too caught up in it, it takes your head away from the things that matter in life, making the books.
VENDITTI: I worked in book retail when the comics-to-film trend started, and the increase in the number of customers buying comics was very noticeable. Even if a customer only buys the book that’s been adapted, I still think that’s a good thing because they’re being exposed to the comics medium, whereas otherwise they might not have. Where the “option frenzy” can become a problem, however, is with creators and, worse, publishers who base they’re entire business model on the hope that their properties will make it to the screen. When that becomes your primary goal, the material suffers.
MOORE: One of the best things about seeing Hollywood poke around comics for new ideas is that ideas and concepts one wouldn’t normally associate with a film have been snapped up, and some are in development. Scott Pilgrim is a great example of that. And it is spreading awareness of the medium. Whenever a film based on a comic book gets a lot of press, the comic’s sales leap upward. We saw that with Hellboy, Sin City, 300, and even the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I was on a flight back from an authors event in Milwaukee last month, and a (female) television reporter was explaining to the guy next to her how she’d never read a comic book before in her life, but was really curious about Watchmen, which she had on her lap. I’m hoping the Scott Pilgrim film makes Bryan Lee O’Malley a gazillionaire.
MELLON: It’s a double edged sword. It’s good in that it can provide much needed exposure and a little bit of money that just doing the comic books alone won’t provide.
MOORE: And it never hurts to have your name attached to projects associated with other media.
What about you personally? When writing a project, are you considering Hollywood at all?
MELLON: Dennis Hopeless and I talk about those aspects on our projects in development, but those conversations usually consist of the phrase “will go over like a lead balloon in Hollywood” and “this will never work as a movie” being bandied about over and over. It’s something we’re aware of, but don’t tailor anything we do towards.
VENDITTI: I never thought about The Surrogates in terms of Hollywood viability—I just wanted to tell the best story I could. That’s still my focus, but if Hollywood continues to come calling, so much the better.
Has it changed the way you look at your own career?
MOORE: It has, to some extent. I’ve enjoyed working on the work-for-hire projects I’ve tackled, and enjoy writing and putting my spin on existing characters, but I don’t feel a desperate need to sell a billion copies of a “hot” character’s book to qualify as a success. I’m open to conversations with anyone about any project, but diversifying my income streams and shifting the focus of my work from one project to the next is pretty gratifying.
A lot of young creators now look at the Hollywood option as having “made it,” as if it’s this magical doorway to fame and riches. Is this true in your experience?
MELLON: Contrary to what I’m sure other people will say, it’s not a lucrative or consistent way to make a living. It’s very hit and miss, and the guys that hit tend to do well, in a fashion, but there’s thousands of other comic people who never see a dime from dealing with Hollywood.
Publishers tend to dislike creators talking about this shit, so do movie studios, but here’s the dirt from my very limited experience. The money in options is with HUGE studios. Most comic books are optioned by producers or production companies for very little to no money and those options rarely mean anything of substance is taking place with the property. The first option for Gearhead, with a Canadian production company, was for no money. This is so fucking common in comics it’s ridiculous.
VENDITTI: In a lot of cases, having a property optioned doesn’t really net the creators much because the bulk of the money comes when a studio makes the final purchase of the property, usually on the commencement of principal photography. If you get to that stage you can do alright for yourself, but it’d be a mistake to think that all you have to do is sell one property and then you can retire. Literally, the day after I received the purchase check from Disney, I was back in the warehouse at Top Shelf.
MELLON: Most of the announcements you see are just option announcements, which rarely mean anything other than that company has signed a contract giving them the sole rights to make that film for a certain amount of time. When a film studio makes a movie, they’ve usually bought the rights to make that movie outright and own that property forever. There’s a huge difference in meaning and in money in both of those things.
Most people don’t understand the nature of an option. When you option with a producer or a film studio, it’s less money and you (usually) get the rights back after a set amount of time. When you sell it to a studio, you (usually) are selling them the rights in perpetuity and you get a lot more money for it. Sometimes enough to buy a car, in the best cases enough to buy a few houses and live off for a while. There’s no formula, and there’s no hard rule. Everyone and every deal is different.
MOORE: And you can’t just short-circuit the art of producing comic books and just go to work selling options. The reality is that what works well in comics, and comes across as a unique and engaging concept, might work in film, and you might be able to attract the attention of a studio or a producer, and you might sell an option and see some money, but that’s a lot of “mights” to rely on. What you’d better be doing is producing a comic book you’re honestly proud of, and one that you’d be perfectly happy with even if Hollywood never came knocking on your door. And, you know, producing comics is really, really hard work.
MELLON: The thing about Hollywood from my POV is that you either have to earn someone’s trust in order to just sell the idea before doing the book, or you have to do the book in full so they can visualize the project and also know that it exists in some other form. There’s a long discussion to be had about the way Hollywood works when they’re developing original material versus adapting something from another medium. It seems (from my vantage point) to be a lot cheaper for them to adapt from another medium than to spend the money needed to pay people to generate new ideas.
VENDITTI: Having your story get translated into film is a good way to get your name out there, though, so it can lead to more writing work and help get your career off the ground.
MELLON: Those press-releases are fucking gold for young creators. Your name begins to mean a lot more to a lot more people when every comics news site is running your press release about your option being announced. You just have to make sure you can back up the hype with good product or you’re just another shmuck whose name comes and goes in a bullet point on newsarama and cbr.
I don’t count on it for anything and will be shocked if any of what I have “in Hollywood” at any time amounts to more than a press release or two. For me, personally, it’s better to remain distant and cold to it or you can fast end up on the roller-coaster of diminishing returns both creatively and emotionally. I make comics, not movies. If they never make the Gearhead movie my life changes not one bit.
Thanks so much guys! I love your comics and can’t wait to see the films adapted from them.