The hits just keep coming—which is to say that there seemed to be even more wildly successful Hollywood movies based on comics released in the past year. There was Iron Man, the Hulk, Wanted and of course, The Dark Knight, which has somehow managed to raise the ante by receiving an Oscar nomination for Heath Ledger’s singular performance. Hollywood has long focused its attention on the comics medium—periodically and sporadically—but the current love affair seems to have no end in sight.
Scott Agostoni heads up the comics division at the William Morris Agency, representing a wide range of comics publishers and creators to the film industry. He’s placed such film projects as Capeshooters at Warner Bros. (to be produced by Bryan Singer) and Harbinger at Paramount with Brett Ratner attached to direct. He represents such publishing houses as Avatar, Tokyopop, Viper Comics, Devils Due and Archaia Studios Press. Among individual creators he represents Rob Liefield, Phil Jimenez, Joe Casey, Geoff Johns, Larry Hama, Percy Carey and Marv Wolfman. PWCW had a chance to talk to Agostoni recently about the ongoing love affair between Hollywood and comics.
PW Comics Week: How long has the William Morris Agency had a comics division?
Scott Agostoni: 1½ to 2 years. It’s something that has just been formalized but I’ve been doing it for a while, about 4 years. I started by signing up indie comics publishers and repping their catalogs and their content to film, TV and digital production companies. I mushroomed out to individual creators. I represent creators who work for Marvel and DC and I help them do stuff for independent publishers and also take their projects to the studios.
PWCW: Why are comics so attractive to Hollywood studios?
SA: This has been occurring over time. Comics went through a kind of death knell in 1997 after the Tim Burton Batman but by 2000 there was a shift at the studios in terms of looking at comics material that is outside of the superhero genre. Films like Road to Perdition, Ghost World, all based on [nonsuperhero] comics, did well. They realized that films don’t have to be based on the superhero genre and that crime, history, comedy or fantasy could work just as well.
Superhero movies took off again with the Spiderman films. Marvel started to get their films right. They lucked into the success of the X-Men; the Spiderman series just took off. DC spun its wheels for while and along came the rise of the indies: Dark Horse came along, Boom! Studios, IDW, Devils Due and Virgin Comics came along with a new model. All of them looking for content that would help turn publishing houses into film producers.
We’ve gone through 2 Golden Ages in the comics-to-film business. The 1990s—the age of speculation in the comics marketplace and the time during which Image Comics started. Now it’s flipped. Instead of trying to make money off comics, you try to make good comics and get money from film and TV sales. The comics are a loss leader and the book can breakeven while the publisher keeps his eye on the prize—TV and film projects [based on the comics].
This past summer of 2008 is a reflection of how things have changed with the Iron Man and Dark Knight films. Marvel and DC realized that any film they make must cater to the [hardcore comics] fans and must be what the fans want. The films need to have a connection to the comics. Films like Batman Begins or Dark Knight show how films have to use the [originating] comics as source materials. Robert Downey Jr. was perfect for the film. [In Iron Man] Downey is a rusted out party boy and he embodied the character of Tony Stark from the comics.
Also independent comics showed they can work as films. Films like Wanted from Top Cow have a nascent fan base but are not overwhelmed by 40 years of continuity. Casting Angelina Jolie was perfect for getting fans invested in the film. Hellboy II is based on an indie comic and got the visual aesthetic of the comic right. Hancock showed that you don’t have to be Marvel or DC to do a superhero film well. The summer of 2008 was a perfect storm of films based on comics. The releases were randomly strategic. Most movie scheduling is not science and the way these films were scheduled to be released—well you wouldn’t expect it to work. But it did.
PWCW: How will the distressed economy affect all this?
SA: The economy will not affect this at all. Comics fans will continue to come back for more. Marvel and DC are raising the prices on their [periodical] comics but this is an industry that is not as affected by the economy. It’s essentially escapism and it takes people’s minds of the job market. The audience will return if the films are rendered correctly.
PWCW: Are you a comics fan yourself?
SA: I’m a big fan. My first job was in a comics store in Pittsburgh where I grew up. Some of my favorites were G.I. Joe (and now I represent G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama), Transformers; Robotech. Then I started reading DC stuff. This material goes with the audience. A lot of people assume that you age out of superhero comics but now these comics are written for adults. The bigger problem is how do you attract a younger audience; how do you capture an audience in their late 30s? What is driving kids to read comics today? The G.I. Joe comics that I used to love were written to age-up to the kids, that doesn’t seem to happen anymore. Most kids don’t want a kids-based version of comics.
PWCW: Are costumed superheroes a dead genre to younger readers these days? It seems that at least part of the success of superhero shows like Smallville and Heroes is that they’ve done away with the costumes.
SA: Costumes will always be a part of the mix but you can’t tell the same kind of story you would have in a silver age comic. You have to present what it means to be a superhero in this day and age.
PWCW: Will manga ever make it to the American film screen?
SA: Dragonball Z is up to be a film and that will be a big litmus test. Manga is hard. It’s a form-based category that caters to an audience that eludes the big two comics publishers. Its ‘tween girls and there’s this manga lifestyle. And there’s really no signature title; no marquee character. It’s all on a lifestyle basis but it's still doable and offers untapped potential, especially on the Korean scene. There can be a bit a licensing problem with manga, because most of the companies here in the U.S. are the American arms of the Japanese parent company. Everything has to go back to the mothership in Japan for approval and there can be byzantine rules covering that. The Korean publishers can be easier to deal with and you can send people direct to the source, the parent companies in Korea, to setup a beachhead there with management and put out titles aimed at American audiences.
PWCW: What do you look for when you’re trying to decide whether you want to represent a client?
SA: I don’t want to get involved in compromising by putting out something just to fill a hole in what’s available in the marketplace. I want to work with people who love the medium and publish stuff they believe in. I don’t want paint-by-numbers products just to fill a perceived need in the marketplace. It doesn’t work out. I like to work with publishers and, if they’ve got good content and don’t have delusions of grandeur, help to grow them from publishers into film producers.
PWCW: Do you also represent individual, self-published creators?
SA: Without a doubt, self-pubbing is tough. It’s better to go with an indie press or someone like Image Comics. But I look for new voices and unproven artists. Most of the titles I rep are not household names. They trust me and have great material.
PWCW: How long can this Hollywood fascination with comics continue?
SA: It’s still there and it’ll take a string of big failures to slow it down. Superheroes are polling well at every turn. The market will probably level off at some point but it won’t go away. I think it’s here to stay. Executives like to have story-boarded content. Pictures and words help them visualize and get the story out. [The fascination with comics] may not always operate like it has in the past but a young executive can sell the project to their bosses if they can lay it all out visually for them. It’s just easier.