by Gamal Hennessy
Last week I talked about the difference between copyright and trademark. I wanted to explain that first so that this post would make more sense. The development of comic book properties as major licensing programs has implications on the way comics will be produced going forward. It will also impact the way creators should look at their properties and their creator owned contracts.
The list of mainstream cross over comic book properties is familiar to everyone in the industry. The list includes the X-Men, Batman, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, the Avengers, and Superman. It will soon include Guardians of the Galaxy and maybe even Ant Man and the Justice League. Everyone in the industry is aware that there is more potential for explosive success now than any other period in the industry. What does this mean for comic creators? What do you need to do if you want to thrive in this new golden age?
Comics as an Independent Business
There was once a point where the comic book business was purely about selling physical print copies of single issue comics. When I was a kid (back before TV had remote controls and everyone rode in a horse drawn carriage) a comic book was $.25 and it had very little competition in terms of entertainment. There was no cable TV, no cell phones, no home video game systems, no DVD’s and no internet. People read comics because there was little else to do. As little as 15 years ago, the top 300 comics sold 6.64 million units. Very little money that the comics industry makes actually comes from selling comics. Monthly sales figures have risen in recent months, but the revenue from this activity is dwarfed by the “ancillary market.”
Comics as a Mainstream Springboard
Several factors helped comics evolve out of a purely print model to a more integrated business. The most significant factor is the jump to movies. When direct market comic book shops became an economic liability to publishers, there was a move to gain more access to major bookstores. This led to a higher volume of graphic novels (because a GN could survive on the shelf of a bookstore where a flimsy comic couldn’t). Works in this medium, most notably the Dark Knight Returns helped spark interest in Hollywood to create a major motion picture in 1989 with Batman. That began a push for more films based on comics. Now the summer movie schedule has 2-4 comic movie releases almost every year. Major comic book conventions that used to focus on buying rare comics and meeting artists are now more about upcoming film trailers and meeting actors. As of this month eight of the top 25 grossing films of all time are based on comic books. Comic properties have clearly developed from an insular type of entertainment to widespread popularity.
The Secondary Market
Comic based properties can generate money in several ways when they are associated with a movie. A film creates a retail environment where there is a higher demand for licensed merchandise. Merchandise is a broad concept here that covers everything from clothing to household items to food to games and many other consumer articles. Depending on the film, the merchandise deals can generate more money than the movie itself. When I was with Marvel in 2002, I worked on the licensing program for the Hulk. The film made two hundred and forty five million. By comparison, the licensing program made more than one billion dollars. A single issue of the Hulk comic in 2012 comes in a distant third generating less than $184,000.
Your Comic in the World Beyond Comics
As film, television and video game producers look for new properties with strong stories and an established audience they will continue to look to comics for inspiration and opportunity. It is not just DC and Marvel capitalizing on this trend. Since the mid 80’s, independent comic properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 300, Spirit, Spawn, Hellboy, Scott Pilgrim and Kick Ass have all found producers willing to transfer the stories from the page to the screen. Comic creators need to be aware that the potential for a wide market is possible for any property. It is true that the vast majority of comics will not get big screen exposure but it is prudent to consider the life of your property beyond the comic when you are considering a deal with a publisher. This means not agreeing to contract terms that do not compensate you for exposure of your property in the world beyond comics.
I am aware that the main focus of fledgling creators is getting their work out there and closing a deal with a publisher. I know that many creators do not have a great deal of negotiating power in their dealings with large publishers. But as the owner of a potentially profitable property, you need to weigh the benefit of short term exposure and financial gain with the potential for film, TV and merchandise revenue. You will be able to make a prudent decision about your property once you take all the factors into account.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS BLOG POST IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEGAL ADVICE. IF YOU HAVE A LICENSEING OR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY ISSUE, DISCUSS IT WITH YOUR LEGAL ADVISOR OR CONTACT C3 firstname.lastname@example.org FOR A FREE CONSULTATION.