TCS Daily

Hollywood's Idea Factory

By Joshua Elder - January 23, 2004 12:00 AM

The term "comic book movie" ranks as one of the most vitriolic epithets in the lexicon of film criticism. Critics use it to describe cinematic efforts filled with cornball dialog, simplistic plots of good versus evil, and an emphasis on action and special effects over story and characterization.

Those critics are idiots. Comic book movies, in this case referring to movies based on comic book properties, are consistently among the most well received by audiences and (to their never-ending amazement) critics alike.

The golden age of cinema saw a superhero star in the most successful movie serial of all time with 1948's Superman1; while legendary directors Orson Welles and Federico Fellini cited comic artist Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates fame as a major influence on their own work.

And as it was then, so it is now. Superhero movies dominate the box office at home and abroad with X2 being one of the biggest hits of the past summer and Spider-Man currently holds the distinction of being the fourth highest-grossing film of all time. The six Academy Award nominations bestowed on Road to Perdition (adapted from the graphic novel of the same name) have also done a great deal toward giving comic book movies true cultural legitimacy.

So it should come as no surprise that Hollywood has begun to look upon the comic book industry as an idea factory; a source of cheap research and development wherein film studios can spend a few thousand on a project in order to find out whether or not it's a viable property before investing the millions necessary to see that project realized on the big screen.

Movies cost a lot. The budget for a typical Hollywood production is approximately $54 million. When the field is narrowed down to special-effects heavy summer blockbusters, the budgets balloon to over $100 million on average. Even the ultra low-budget horror film The Blair Witch Project cost a not-insignificant $64,000 to make. Then there's marketing and distribution, which will often add upwards of $10 million onto a movie's overall costs. Of course for every movie that actually gets made, another half-dozen end up languishing for all eternity in development hell. Books are optioned but never adapted; screenplays are written and sold but never produced; actors and directors sign pay-or-play contracts wherein they get paid whether the cameras ever start rolling or not. Untold millions are spent every year on these phantom projects that no audience will ever see.

A small press comic book, by comparison, costs only a few thousand dollars to print and distribute around the entire country. These books are often published in black and white on substandard paper stock, but a shoestring budget is not nearly as crippling to a comic book creator as it is to a filmmaker. A comic artist can draw an epic space battle high above the forest moon of Endor as cheaply as he could a talking heads scene where two foulmouthed, sardonic convenience store clerks philosophize about the morality of blowing up the unfinished space station orbiting the aforementioned forest moon. If the artist can imagine it, he can make it real. There isn't a director alive who wouldn't kill for that kind of creative freedom.

Below the line production costs on comic books and graphic novels are such that even publishing companies DC and Marvel Comics, with their substantial fixed expenses and more lavish production values, can finance hardbound, full-color graphic novels for about what the typical movie executive spends on power lunches over the course of a year. Also, even modest film shoots require dozens of cast and crew whereas even the most elaborate comics utilize the services of only a handful of creators and are often as not the product of a single writer/artist.

Marketing costs are substantially reduced as well since successful comic properties already have a dedicated fan base that helps build interest in the property via word of mouth long before the film arrives in theaters. Certain comic characters -- Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, etc. -- have become such an integral part of the pop culture landscape that their films are virtually guaranteed success at the box office, especially for that all important opening weekend. After all, even the execrable Batman and Robin still managed to turn a profit.

Using comics as source material can also help cut the amount studios spend on development because the comics finance themselves. Unlike unproduced screenplays which are the cinematic equivalent of blueprints for buildings that were never constructed, comics are unique works of art in their own right. They can earn money even if the movies based on them never go into production, thus ensuring at least some return on a studio's initial investment.

Nor do comics need restrict themselves to being an idea factory for the movie industry. Due to their quick turnaround time and low overhead, comics are the perfect medium for creating additional revenue streams for a motion picture property through sequels, prequels and spin-offs of every variety. Case in point: In 1989, Dark Horse Comics published Aliens vs. Predator, a comic book mini-series that pitted the two titular movie monsters against each other in a fight to the finish. Since 20th Century Fox held the rights to the Alien and Predator franchises -- and Dark Horse was already publishing licensed comics based on both -- the pairing seemed so natural that the members of the Dark Horse writing staff were amazed that none of them had thought of it before2. The comic went on to become a huge success, spawning numerous sequels and a line of successful video games. Now over a decade later, Fox has appropriated the comic-book concept for the big screen in the Paul Anderson-directed Aliens vs. Predator which is due in theaters in August. The movies begot the comic, which begot the video game which in turn begot yet another movie -- the very definition of synergy.

That kind of synergy is not easy to come by. Transferring the essence of a story from one medium to another is extremely difficult because each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. Just look at what poor Charlie Kaufman went through when trying to make a movie out of Susan Orleans' non-fiction bestseller The Orchid Thief. As Charlie's fictional stand-in opines at one point during the film: "I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcome obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn't like that, and life isn't like that. It just isn't." Perhaps life and Ms. Orleans' book may not be like that, but movies certainly are. Film is a visual medium; thus, it requires a story that can be told primarily through actions and images rather than words. Flowery exposition and lengthy interior monologues that bring a tear to one's eye when read on the page will similarly bore one to tears when heard on the screen. "Show, don't tell" has been the mantra of every filmmaking guru in history for good reason.

Which is why graphic novels are inherently superior source material for film adaptations than those that limit themselves purely to prose. There is never any question about whether or not a story will work visually because the visuals are in many ways already there. In fact, comics are a more fundamentally visual storytelling medium than film since comics lack movement or sound, forcing the images to carry a heavier share of the narrative burden. This inspires comic artists to take chances and experiment with their visuals in ways that most filmmakers would do well to emulate. In fact, seminal comic texts like Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns are often taught in film classes so that students can learn from Miller's bold, iconic shot composition and graphically intense editing style.

The comic book aesthetic has become increasingly popular in Hollywood as of late, with many comic artists moonlighting in Hollywood as storyboard artists and conceptual designers. The Matrix, for example, owes its groundbreaking visual sensibility to visionary comic artists Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce, friends of the Wachowski brothers from their days writing horror comics for Marvel. The Wachowskis understood the power of the comic book aesthetic and harnessed it to create one of the most revolutionary and oft-imitated visual extravaganzas of the last decade.

As Hollywood has embraced the comic industry, so has the comic industry embraced Hollywood. More than half of industry leader Marvel Comics' 2003 earnings came directly from film and television licensing, prompting close rival DC Comics to hire its own "Hollywood guy" to help put its numerous properties on the fast-track to development with parent company Warner Brothers. Both companies have also been scaling back the serial, "soap opera" storytelling approach common to most of their long-running series in favor of shorter, self-contained story arcs that are more accessible to casual fans who come to the comics via the movies. In order to please movie fans, Marvel and DC have even begun altering the characters themselves. In anticipation of this summer's Spider-Man 2, Marvel gave Doctor Octopus a movie makeover that has left the multi-armed bad guy looking remarkably like his live-action counterpart Alfred Molina. Meanwhile, DC has retooled Superman's entire origin so that it aligns more closely with the one presented on the WB's mega-popular Smallville.

Still, no comic company has embraced the "Hollywood idea factory" concept with quite as much enthusiasm as Platinum Studios. (Full disclosure: I am currently developing a romantic comedy concept for Platinum.) Founded in 1997 by Scott Rosenberg -- whose previous company Malibu Comics was the original publisher of the Men in Black comic book that would later be adapted into the highly successful film of the same name -- Platinum publishes graphic novels for the sole purpose of adapting them for movies and television. In keeping with this mission statement, most Platinum projects are not what one would typically think of as "comic books." More mainstream fare such as spy thrillers, police procedurals and romantic comedies outnumber superhero tales by a large margin. "Our core business is as a film and TV production company, and we're developing a very specific -- if potentially broad -- range of editorial products to suit our needs," explains Platinum's executive editor Lee Nordling. According to Nordling, this business model is swiftly becoming the norm for the entire comic industry: "[E]xisting publishing companies will either expand their businesses to become more vertically integrated ...or do whatever is necessary to develop book/product/whatever lines that will have as wide a number of licensing venues as possible to [compete with] companies that are vertically integrated." In other words, comic publishers will have to achieve a mutually beneficial symbiosis with Hollywood or watch their already slim publishing margins slowly dwindle down to nothing.

2004 looks to be another excellent year for comics-cum-movies. The highly-stylized adaptation of Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comic book American Splendor made several critics' "Top Ten of 2003" lists and looks to be a serious Oscar contender this year. Sony is placing high hopes on its horror/adventure film Hellboy adapted from the comic by Mike Mignola. Finally, Spider-Man 2 is expected to equal -- if not surpass -- the box office success of the original.

No doubt about it, comic book movies are here to stay. Which is good, because Hollywood could certainly use all the help it can get.

Works Cited

1. Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. 1st ed. Canada: Little, 1995. Pg 82.

2. Stradley, Randy; Phil Norwood and Chris Warner. Aliens vs. Predator. 1st ed. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Comics, 1991. Pg 169.


TCS Daily Archives