Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily has reported that Time-Warner has taken direct control of DC Comics, with the aim of using DC Comics characters throughout Time-Warner’s media empire: in video games, movies, and television. The new President of DC Entertainment, Diane Nelson, previously oversaw the marketing and development of the Harry Potter franchise, and will continue in that role. Nelson will report to Jeff Robinov, President of Warner Bros. Pictures Group. Paul Levitz, who had served as Publisher of DC Comics since 2000, will return to writing/editing.
Nikki Finke assures readers that this move was in the works for some time, and pre-dated the Disney bid to purchase Marvel Entertainment. Finke’s track record on these matters is excellent, so the move is likely not simply related to the Disney-Marvel deal. Rather, it comes as Time-Warner is under earnings pressure (just like Disney), with just a few hits, and seeks a franchise that can make money from the most under-served entertainment audience: men and boys. Tween girls, teen girls, and women are clearly not enough for long term earnings growth, at least, and everyone in Hollywood must be painfully aware of this reality as the “New Girl Order” faces an advertising cutback and general consumer spending cutbacks.
To succeed in making money from the target audience of men and boys, the new DC Entertainment must do five things:
- Get cheap, boy-oriented comics into the hands of boys (and young men).
- Develop new writing talent, with new characters, situations, and story-lines that appeal to boys and young men.
- Approach boys and young men as they are, not variations of tween girls and women.
- Co-ordinate creative content across all lines, so comic books, video games, television shows, and movies present the characters consistently within the same universe.
- Understand that Comic books don’t make much money, the proper function of Comics should be to develop new markets for characters, and developing of new talent for DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. / Time-Warner
It is almost dead-certain that DC Entertainment will do none of these five things. But someone, soon, will. Since technology allows much lower costs to compete with gigantic media companies like Time-Warner.
DC Entertainment and Warners face a number of challenges. In July that the estate of Joe Shuster and the Siegel family will regain ownership of Superman, without question the most important and popular DC character. As yet, there are no plans for a Superman movie any time soon.
While Time (and Newsweek) face ever declining sales, and magazines in general face declining readership, Time-Warner has the ability to get comics into places where kids can buy them, at prices they can afford (around $1 a comic book). This sort of price point requires cheap paper, short stories, few pages, and stories aimed at boys. But once upon a time, boys did eagerly consume comics, and people of all ages buy and read comics in Japan. Much of the comic book business’s wounds are self inflicted, like those of the coffee roasters. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, much of America drank coffee, not soda. However, coffee roasters facing shortages of quality arabica beans substituted cheaper, robusta beans (which taste far worse) and so gradually weaned America off coffee (and onto sodas). Until Starbucks, Peet’s, and other independent coffee roasters and coffee houses re-acquainted America with its love of coffee.
In the same manner, comic book companies craving “legitimacy” made stories “socially relevant” (examples being Green Arrow’s sidekick getting hooked on drugs) and thus a turn-off to the boys who read comics for adventure, not adult social commentary. Comic readers grew steadily older, comic companies made the deal with devil in Diamond Distributing, and like Maxwell House and Folgers before them, “accepted” a limited and ever-declining market share. Now comic books are found only in the 2,500 comic book shops around the country, or in collected (and pricey) “trade paperbacks” in places like Barnes and Noble and Borders.
Is there money in this marketplace (young readers?) Borders thinks so in relation to tween and teen girls. The Wall Street Journal reports that Borders is creating the “Borders Ink” shops inside Borders bookstores, taking the space previously devoted to poorly selling music and DVDs. Most of the space is taken up with tween/teen girl appealing “Twilight” and “Lonely Werewolf Girl” type of fantasy and young adult titles (the latter almost exclusively aimed at girls).
At a time when book retailing is slumping, young-adult titles and graphic novels are still delivering growth. Albert N. Greco, a professor at the Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business Administration who studies the book industry, estimates that young-adult fiction, fantasy and science fiction will generate $744.3 million in U.S. publisher revenue this year, up 13% from $659.1 million in 2008.
That compares with U.S. publisher revenue of an estimated $9.73 billion for consumer books as a whole, a 4.7% decline from 2008’s sales, according to Mr. Greco.
The teen category is now so attractive that Harlequin, the romance publisher, recently launched a new Harlequin Teen imprint, aimed at readers aged 12- to 18-years-old. Natashya Wilson, senior editor of Harlequin Teen, part of Toronto, Canada, based Torstar Corp., plans to publish three teen titles in 2009 and 17 in 2010, with the first, “My Soul to Take” by Rachel Vincent, coming out next month.
Note: nearly all of that young-adult fiction, fantasy, and science fiction is tween/teen girl oriented. Theoretically, there should be at least as much money available for boys and male teens, particularly since that readership is under-served.
There is no “Twilight” for boys, no “Hannah Montana,” and no Harry Potter, either. Boys once loved Superman, Nicolas Cage took his stage name after “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire” and named his son “Kal-El” (Superman’s Kryptonian birth name). If boys once loved Superman, the Flash, and Green Lantern, they could do so again. There is just no competition for their attention (or dollars). Yes, boys and men are absent from television, movies, and bookstores. It will take time and money to lure them back. Time-Warner has the ability to spend both doing so.
Still, Comic books are unlikely to make much money, though it’s entirely reasonable to have them break even in the long run the idea is to develop new markets for the characters, by getting boys hooked on Superman and other DC characters, the way Pepsi and Coke and Levis all attempt to establish brand loyalty. Cadillac for years forgot this task and almost faded into Oldsmobile irrelevance until rappers re-discovered the brand and made it fashionable again. The function of comic books for DC Entertainment should be to develop new readership, all the classmates and brothers of the “Twilight Tweens” should be following Superman and Green Lantern the way the tween girls follow Edward Cullen.
Of course, just as critical is the use of Comic books, which don’t cost much to produce (compared to big-budget films) as the “minor leagues” for DC Entertainment, and Warners, and indeed Time-Warner talent. One of the most pathetic tales in Hollywood is the decades-long path to developing a Superman movie. Kevin Smith in his DVD “An Evening With Kevin Smith” tells the tale of how he briefly worked with Hollywood Producer Jon Peters on a Superman Script, and how Peters mandated that Superman not fly, that Smith make Jimmy Olsen (or a robot) gay, and that Superman MUST fight a giant spider in the end. A huge problem for DC Entertainment, Warners, and indeed the movie and television industry as a whole is that they do not have a formal development process for writers. The NFL, Baseball, and the NBA all have their equivalent of the Minor Leagues, where athletes can prove themselves before the considerable risk of signing to major contracts.
It is entirely understandable, and in fact logical, that major studios balk at hiring first time or even relative newcomer writers to develop scripts for movies or TV shows costing around $100 million and up. But without constant new blood and fresh perspectives, the creative talent in the writing (and eventually producing) pool becomes stale and tired, and you see situations where studios waste years and millions of dollars on people who have no proven track-record of writing material that appeals to young boys and men. Just as important as growing the audience for DC characters, is the task of growing new writers and editors/producers, who can step into the “Major Leagues” with a solid track-record. Otherwise, you get atrocities such as “Catwoman.” NONE of the listed screenwriters on that movie were bad writers, in fact their credits are pretty impressive,with the writers working on the criminally under-valued “the Others” along with “the Net,” “the Game,” “Married With Children,” and “the Cosby Show.” The writers were simply the wrong ones for the task, like putting an able game-caller, but slow-footed catcher, in as a pinch-runner.
DC Entertainment has the ability to develop such new talent, without much risk, and test drive new characters, storylines, situations, and plots that appeal to young men and boys. Currently, there seems to be very few writers and producers who know this audience, as Hollywood has become more oriented towards the female audience (in Television) and the adult art-film audience (as Oscar bait in movies). The few producers, directors, and writers who had the knack, seem to have lost it forever, as anyone who sat through “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” can attest. Michael Bay can reliably generate a large younger male audience (“plus” women, girls, and of course older audiences) but relies on big effects and/or built-in 80’s nostalgia (“Transformers.”) Comics because of their low risk allows DC Entertainment the ability to “try out” many new writers, and develop ones it finds compelling. Since this makes complete sense, however, I expect DC Entertainment to ignore the possibilities and focus on the same aging, shallow pool of comic book writers as Marvel does. With about the same results: a buying pool of comic book readers well shy of half a million, and creative stagnation.
The huge risk for DC Entertainment is that executive Diane Nelson and her team will approach DC Comics as being similar to Harry Potter. Young men and boys want fundamentally different things from entertainment than girls do. They have radically different views of masculinity, femininity, heroism, romance, and fitting in. Siegel and Shuster, after all, were two shy, nerdy, and un-assuming boys and men that wrote a science fiction fanzine, and who created characters as wish-fulfillment: the nerdy guy assuming powers that allows him to be a hero, save the day, and get the girl. This is far different than the female-oriented Harry Potter books. The pictures here and here are ample evidence of just who comprises the Harry Potter audience. Superman and all the other DC male Superheroes appeal to the powerless boy, and the nerdy guy in High School (and beyond) as the kind of man they’d like to become. Some heroes, like Captain Marvel, make that fantasy explicit. Harry Potter, “Twilight,” and “Lonely Werewolf Girl,” are all about tween girl and teen age girl fantasies of capturing the attention and desire of the most physically powerful and socially dominant male. The male characters have “a special destiny” and “soul-mates” of the central female characters, who wield emotional power over the males who act as protectors as well as romantic objects of desire.
The success of “Iron Man” shows that male-oriented action-adventure characters, proven by decades of character development, plotlines, and stories, can appeal beyond just young boys and men, to women, girls, and older audiences. Indeed, it was precisely that appeal that made “Iron Man” a hit. BUT the appeal must start at young men and boys. The danger for DC Entertainment is to assume that boys and young men will follow any implementation of DC characters. The tepid response to the Bryan Singer version of “Superman,” with the anorexic, married to someone else, Lois Lane, shows that this assumption is not true. If any further doubts occur, the receipts for “Batman and Robin” and “Catwoman” should prove thought provoking. However, habit has a force of its own, and I fully expect Diane Nelson, able though she was in marketing the Harry Potter franchise, to have no understanding of what young men and boys want, and offer a reprise of the Harry Potter franchise. One specifically oriented towards tween/teen girls, with Superheros who have already “become,” and are nothing more than love/lust objects. For boys and men, South Park’s “Return of the Fellowship of the Ring” at South Park Studios [Episode 6.13] offers perhaps the best commentary: “Harry Potter is gay.” Perhaps commenter “Nurf?” on Deadlinehollywooddaily.com is correct in that Warners merely wishes to strip-mine DC characters for the ability to pump out “pre-written” movies and exploit the characters more fully in video games and toys. If so, that’s a strategy doomed to failure, since the failure of the last few X-Men movies, the Fantastic Four movies, the Ghost Rider movie, and the Punisher movies shows that it takes more than just a comic book character and intellectual property to make money from an audience. Particularly a tight-fisted audience in a lasting recession.
I do expect DC Entertainment to create a consistent storyline and set of characters, situations, and plots across their video games, comic books, television shows, and movies. However, DC Entertainment is quite likely to make Superman “gay” and as attractive to boys and men as a double feature of “Twilight” and “New Moon.”
There are other competitors out there for DC Entertainment (and Disney-Marvel). Valiant Comics has been resurrected (much like “Dr. Mirage”) in the form of Valiant Entertainment, with a movie version of “Harbinger.” While lacking fan favorites such as “Solar Man of the Atom” and “Magnus, Robot Fighter” (both Gold Key Comics characters), most of the other characters are now owned by Valiant Entertainment. Turok, Rai, Bloodshot, Ninjak, and other Superheroes sold between 1.75 million and 5oo,ooo copies a piece, during the comics craze era of the early 1990s. Now, The Flash sold 83,000 comics in June 2009 which equates to a mere 33 copies per 2,500 comic book shops (discounting direct sales which are generally very small).”The Authority” (imagine very PC/Multicultural superheroes as dicators of the world) sold 9,204 books in June 2009. Which amounts to .3.7 books per comic shop.
Clearly, there is not much of a readership for “edgy” or “hip” comic books, Vertigo titles do not do much different than the Authority in terms of sales figures.
Valiant, or Dark Horse Comics (“Comics Greatest World”) with characters such as Ghost, X, Hero Zero, Barb Wire, and Motorhead, can beat both DC Entertainment and Disney-Marvel to the punch. The success of “District 9” in producing amazing effects and images for very cheap, outside of Hollywood (the movie was shot by New Zealand’s Peter Jackson, “Lord of the Rings” mostly on location in South Africa) means that large amounts of capital are no longer needed to make films, as long as no expensive stars are involved and cheap location shoots are used. Anyone can construct cheap Linux-based render-farms, which Jackson used for many digital effects in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Nearly all the CGI work was done in WETA studios in Wellington, New Zealand, not Hollywood.
The key to success in making money from men and boys in entertainment, is no longer vast amounts of capital. Mostly, it’s vision and ability to produce towards the vision, of what men and boys want from entertainment. The vision is not the “bi-curious” storyline of Heroes, with the cheerleader character “experimenting” to draw prurient viewers (which never pays off, see “the OC,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and many more). The vision is not a replica of Harry Potter with boarding schools for “special” kids with magic powers and who-kissed-whom. The vision is not vampires and the tween girls who love them (or the tween girls mothers). Rather, the traditional, tried-and-true stories of toughness, endurance, heroism, sacrifice, honor, loyalty, friendship, and romance, wrapped up in the Superhero sense of wonder and possibility.
Whatever company executes this first, the best, will win and take most of the money “left on the table” by boys and men. Those who offer a watered down feminized version of that vision will be looking at “Catwoman 2: the Revenge” and a chance at the Razzies.