While major publishers/film producers like DC Comics and Marvel dominated the headlines at this year's San Diego Comic-Con International with blockbuster superhero films, mid-size independents, smaller presses, and even self-publishers still benefit from the Hollywood presence, as it gives them the chance to ink their own movie, TV, and licensing deals and use them to drive support for publishing books.
Oni Press, publisher of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, is the latest example of a small press property turned major media phenomenon thanks to the combination of a great book and a carefully managed movie deal (the sixth volume in the series has just sold through its 100,000-copy first printing). The first thing visitors at this year's show noticed was a mammoth promotional Scott Pilgrim mural clinging to the sides of the Hilton hotel. Image Comics, meanwhile, had its own public relations coup as its booth was mobbed by fans buying copies of Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead series in anticipation of the new AMC TV series, set to debut in the fall.
Old-school Comic-Con attendees lament the impact of Hollywood on the show, but the invasion of the studios is a measure of how critical Comic-Con has become to Hollywood and in turn shows off the importance of a film and TV relationship to an independent comics publishing program. The combination of tens of thousands of knowledgeable and passionate fans makes Comic-Con the promised land for generating media buzz and for film media and licensing deals of all kinds. For publishers big and small, meetings with agents, producers, and directors are now as much a part of the San Diego Comic-Con experience as the Eisner Awards or a visit to Ralph's.
"Every studio is here. There are directors and actors, and they're all here looking for material," said Joe Brusha, publisher of Zenescope, an independent comics publisher in Philadelphia that has several of its works in development as well as deals to create comics based on TV shows. "I can't tell you how many meetings we have with TV and film people during Comic-Con," Brusha said.
He isn't the only indie house looking to develop films, lure investors, or sign licensing deals based on other media properties. Independent houses like Top Shelf (investment and first-look deal with film producer Likely Story, although it did not come out of Comic-Con), as well as Oni Press, which also announced a first-look deal with CBS TV during this year's show, are just two indie houses benefiting from the Hollywood connection. And large indie presses like Dark Horse have long had their own movie production units. While longtime Comic-Con veterans blame the Hollywood invasion for the show's overcrowding, long lines, and a news media indifference to actual comics at the show, publishers tell PW that a carefully managed relationship with film and TV production is a requirement in today's comics market.
"It's the biggest show of all for us, and part of coming to San Diego is meeting with producers," said Chris Staros, publisher of Top Shelf Productions, which publishes Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Andy Runton's kid comic, Owly. "Meeting someone once at Comic-Con is the equivalent of 10 meetings in L.A.," Staros said. "We've had about a dozen meetings this year and they can all lead to stuff." Independent houses like Archaia, Oni, Top Shelf, and Zenescope have become more targeted by TV and film studios, Brusha said, "because the studios are looking for more diverse material, more than just superhero stories."
Based in L.A., Archaia (co-development deals with the Jim Henson Co. and Gene Roddenberry Productions) is probably one of the few indie comics houses that does not spend Comic-con meeting with film/TV Studios, said editor in chief Stephen Christy, laughing. “When you’re based in L.A., it’s like Comic-con everyday. Producers are always coming by our offices and we’re always talking.” Christy makes it clear that while the film studios can provide a boost to a publishing program—“as long as you’re clear that you’re not chasing options”—the focus should be on creating quality books that will attract the studios, not screenplays. “Our focus is the development of books, options are a blip on the screen. Most publishers in movie deals make a lot more money from selling the book than from the movie,” Christy said, “if the movie can help you sell 250,000 or more copies of the book, that’s crazy money. And If you’re coming from the heart—from comics—you want to create books that bring more people to comics. "
Zenescope—which publishes a series of classic-but-twisted fairy tales (Grimm Fairy Tales), horror (The Waking), as well as licensed TV properties (Charmed)—has three properties in development, two of which (the supernatural detective crime series, Stingers, and The Waking) grew out of meetings at previous Comic-Cons. Brusha said that while "the money isn't as great as people think" options can run between $10,000 to $15,000, a finished film—if that ever happens—can still pay off. But Brusha issued caveats: he doesn't do "reverse engineering," i.e., take scripts rejected for movies and turn them into comics, and he emphasized the importance of a genuine publishing program that attracts comics fans who want to buy his books and periodicals. "If you're just trying to make a movie and not sell comics and build a fan base, you won't be in business very long," he said.
Staros agreed, noting Hollywood's attention is "a doubled-edged sword. It puts a focus on some books which can become huge and creates excitement on the floor. But it's also made Comic-Con so crowded that it's completely sold out. That prevents first-time fans, fresh readers, from visiting on the weekends." But the Hollywood connection is a fact of life for Comic-Con, no matter what size publisher. "Otherwise, the impact is all upside," said Staros. "Everything is more integrated these days, and you have to think big picture. You can't just think only about print."