It’s not often a single deal can so perfectly illustrate what is wrong with Hollywood, so you have to hand it to Sony Pictures. Earlier this week, the studio triumphantly announced that it had closed a deal with Wizard World to “discover new talent” and hopefully find “an unmoored piece of intellectual property that could become the next big thing.” If only it were that simple.
Wizard World, it should be noted, is one of the world’s largest and foremost organizers of pop culture fan expos, more commonly known as comic book conventions. At these conventions are areas known as “Artists Alley,” in which some bigger industry stars will set up shop to sell their wares, but which are primarily populated by aspiring and over-the-hill creators, all of whom are trying to get some attention. This, in fact, is how talent is often discovered, which is something I fully support. I am all for creators being recognized with both fame and fortune. It should happen more. That’s not the issue.
This is the issue: In case you were not able to decipher the Press Release Speak quoted in the previous paragraph, it means that Wizard World will help Sony find comic creators whose work has not yet found mainstream publication or been optioned by a production entity, since you never know where the next Men in Black is lurking. But, see, the continued emphasis on intellectual property — even unknown and undiscovered IP — at the expense of developing original stories that could reinvigorate a flagging movie business far too dependent on that IP, is why we’re in this mess in the first place. The thinking continues to be that even unknown IP is worth more than new and fresh content, despite the fact that some of the best movies we see each year are just that.
Doubt it? Just look at this year’s Best Picture nominees. Of the nine, five are original stories, three are based on historical events (and not, I think it’s important to point out, on any previously published material), and only one, Call Me by Your Name, is adapted from another medium — in this case, a novel.
This isn’t just about comics, either, because one of the Adapted Screenplay nominees is Logan, which is of course a comic book movie that brings to a close the 17-year cinematic journey of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. That screenplay, also important to note, is only in the Adapted category because the title character and others in the film had been previously created. The story itself, while containing elements of previously published stories, was otherwise almost wholly original.
But since it’s the Sony-Wizard World deal that has put the bee under my bonnet, let’s come back to that. Just because a story was originally a comic book doesn’t mean it’s worth anything, and this is from someone who grew up reading and loving comics, and still does. I know at least one indie producer who oversaw the conversion of a screenplay into a comic book some years back so as to more easily sell it to a buyer and turn it into a movie, despite the fact that the story was riddled with holes and had some unfixable problems. The thinking was that, while people might have turned up their noses at a screenplay that could best be called mediocre, they would flock to option the comic and worry about any issues later. Spoiler alert: The rights are still available.
But that thinking is sort of the norm in Hollywood, in spite of the fact that there is very little evidence to support it. Let’s take the most successful example ever, for instance. Did you even know Men in Black was a comic book first? How many people do you think went to see it and helped turn it into a billion-dollar franchise because they loved the comic and wanted to see it translated to the big screen? Seriously, how high could that number possibly have been?
Same thing with last summer’s Atomic Blonde, one of the rare non-DC/Marvel success stories in this genre. I’d be willing to wager that maybe a thousand people went to see that movie because it was based on the original graphic novel, The Coldest City, as opposed to the rest of us, who went because we wanted to see Charlize Theron kicking some serious ass. Even if I’m being conservative, and we multiplied that number tenfold, that’s still only ten thousand people, which translates to roughly $100,000 of the movie’s $95.7 million worldwide gross. In fact, I don’t even recall the movie’s marketing focusing on the source material at all, but somehow, that IP part of it was pivotal. Never mind that an original story also featuring Theron in action would have been just as easy to market — since the movie’s title wasn’t even the same as the comic’s — and might have had a stronger story. IP is IP, and that rules all, regardless of how logically deficient that thinking might be.
Sony is not without its comic book properties, most notably Spider-Man, but that doesn’t lend itself to an annual release, as the Star Wars universe does. It’s for this reason that we’re going to get the Tom Hardy-led spinoff Venom in October, and another spinoff, Silver and Black, has picked up steam by hiring writers and setting a release date for 51 weeks hence. There are also the Valiant Entertainment properties — the Vin Diesel-led Bloodshot is up first — but with the change in ownership at that company, there’s no telling where that deal will go. So it’s not the most ridiculous idea that Sony would go looking for more of these, but the way it’s going about it is what feels so misguided.
The list of hit movies based on non-DC/Marvel comics is extremely short, and includes Wanted, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Red, 300 and its sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, Sin City, and The Mask, but each has extenuating circumstances (like the technical brilliance of Sin City and 300, and the participation of major movie stars like Angelina Jolie in Wanted, Bruce Willis in Red, and rising comedian Jim Carrey in The Mask), were made by popular creators like Mark Millar, Warren Ellis, and Frank Miller, and cannot possibly be cited as standard examples. The number of these entries that either barely make money or, more often, lose a lot of it, is far longer, and includes, but is not limited to, 2 Guns, two Hellboy movies, Ghost in the Shell, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Surrogates, both Judge Dredd and the Dredd reboot, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Losers, I, Frankenstein, The Spirit, and Snowpiercer.
There are at least a couple really good movies in there, but that actually once again begs the question of what possible value “an unmoored piece of intellectual property” really has, especially when the outcome is far more likely to be R.I.P.D. (perhaps 2013’s biggest flop) than MIB?
I’m not at all opposed to the use of comic books as source material for movies. Nor am I opposed to the very idea of intellectual property. Far from it. What is disconcerting to me is the laziness of the thinking at work here. It’s the kind of thinking that suggests there is somehow less work involved to develop, make, and market a movie based on an unknown but pre-existing story than to do the same for what is probably a far more interesting original idea, therefore making the former worth more than the latter. That’s the part that simply doesn’t add up, and until someone explains to me the value of an IP that has no name value or popular recognition, it will continue to baffle me.
It’s this continued philosophy that is helping to kill the film business and bore the heck out of audiences, even as studios and the people running them keep wondering why the industry is in so much trouble. I have said before in this space that Hollywood is no longer making the kinds of movies that made us fall in love with the medium in the first place, and this is just another example of that. Taking the easy road almost never works. It’s a lesson most of us learn pretty early, though obviously, based solely on the reasoning behind this deal, not all of us.