Hollywood does comics
There was a great deal of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth when word leaked out of Hollywood that Joss Whedon had left the Wonder Woman film project and David Goyer would no longer write and direct a Flash film. Similarly, people reacted in horror at the notion of Joel Schumacher having anything to do with a Sandman movie.
Here’s the thing: none of this is shocking. Disappointing, yes, but we long time fans have gotten our hopes raised and dashed countless times through the years.
For those less familiar with Hollywood’s inner workings, the studios are always looking for the next great thing, uncertain of what it might be and where they may find it. So, in addition to buying original stories from screenwriters or ideas from producers and stars then assigning the stories to screenwriters, Hollywood goes shopping. They will receive yet-to-be-published books in galley form, they will scour the news for stories to dramatize, and they will see what their kids are listening to, and so on.
For example, Lord of the Rings is a hit so where’s the next great fantasy trilogy? Phil Pullman’s Golden Compass and Naomi Novik’s Tenmerie series are the next hopes. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is a smash success; get Hollywood more comic book properties, stat.
Next they spend. They will outbid one another for the rights to turn someone’s story into a movie or grab adaptation rights to printed works. With the current cyclic success of comic book movies, starting with Spider-Man and X-Men, Hollywood has included graphic novels on their shopping list.
Once an option is placed, then some serious work begins. The producer, director and/or screenwriter spends time with the licensee and immersing themselves in the property. Back in the 1970s, Mario Puzo spent days at the DC offices reading comics and talking to writers Elliot Maggin and Cary Bates. Even though he read comics as a kid and was actively writing for DC at the time, David Goyer spent serious time in the library boning up on Batman for Batman Begins. I’ve been pulled into several meetings to lend my historic knowledge on DC characters for interested parties. While there, some of the fun has been cherry-picking the themes or most visual elements that would work well on the big screen. One particularly fun meeting was knocking around Aquaman ideas with some writers, Paul Levitz and Marty Pasko.
Now, Paul is credited for making Aquaman a viable character back in the 1970s while Marty did a handful of tales in his wake. Each have their own thoughts and ideas of what would work, so I’m sitting there, having edited Atlantis Chronicles which provided some back story, and being a little more aware of the current stuff being done, and still I wonder what I can contribute. The process of breaking down his iconography and the common elements of his many incarnations was a fascinating glimpse into reverse engineering to find the core of the character. Neither writer knew much about him before arriving and you could see the wheels turning as ideas flew back and forth, ways to make filming underwater work or be limited for budget.
Comic books turned into movies is nothing new, dating all the way back to the Saturday matinee serials of the 1930s. Then, they would adapt anything at all, starting with comic strip stalwarts Flash Gordon and The Phantom and including the comic book heroes Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Blackhawk, Congo Bill, and so on. As comic books gained some renewed interest in the 1970s, Hollywood began sniffing around. After all, Marvel’s heroes were cool and had college cache but none had made it the big screen. Everyone got very excited when Steranko’s Mediascene mag announced a Silver Surfer movie was going to be made with Olivia Newton-John attached as Shalla Bal. Never happened.
Since then, comic books, web comics and comic strips continue to be mined for film treatment and Hollywood will pay the owner (DC, Marvel, Terry Moore, whoever) option money. The money grants the studio (or producer) exclusive rights to develop the material for a period of time, usually 18 months. Additional option periods can be purchased for more cash. Eventually, though, either the film goes into production or the rights revert. The most famous case of this happening was Roger Corman’s rushed Fantastic Four film that got made seemingly minutes before his option expired and Marvel was ready to re-sell the option rights to 20th Century-Fox. As most know, the film got made, and then got buried, never officially released. Bootleg copies can be found at conventions and fans can see for themselves why this remained off the screen.
Sometimes film options get renewed repeatedly and the film finally gets made many years later. In the summer of 1980, Jenette Kahn, then president of DC, announced that there would be a Batman movie with former staffer Michael Uslan holding the rights. It took Uslan and his partner Ben Melnicker until 1989 before a movie hit the theatres. (Uslan has gone on to option a plethora of comic book properties starting with Swamp Thing and continues to develop many for the screen, currently including The Spirit, now with Frank Miller attached to write and direct.)
Rights can get garbled in legal tangles as option holders sometimes cease to exist. Dan Raviv’s history of Marvel’s bankruptcy, Comic Wars, also does a solid job reporting just how sticky the Spider-Man rights got and what it took to sort them out, which delayed any movie from being made.
Other times, options come and go with blinding speed or producers change the personnel as the current climate changes. Stars get hot and properties get twisted out of recognizable shape to appeal to the celebrity du jour. That’s how Green Lantern, for example, spent the last 20 years being turned into a vehicle for Michael J. Fox, Eddie Murphy and Jack Black. That Aquaman project I sat in on? Never even got to a screenplay. There have been several unproduced Flash and Plastic Man scripts sitting in the files and no doubt other companies have similar collections of aborted ideas.
New Line was all set to move forward with their Iron Man movie, something they held the rights to through several option renewals. Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, the brains behind CBS’s late, lamented Flash TV series, wrote a screenplay for director Stuart Gordon. New Line seemed to be nervous over the budget and effects throughout the 1990s. A few years back, Nick Cassavettes signed to direct and then suddenly, cold feet. New Line allowed Marvel to reacquire the rights which they then folded into their deal with Paramount. Said deal provided Marvel Productions with financing for ten films which Paramount will distribute. Even though work was proceeding on Nick Fury and Captain America, suddenly Iron Man moved to the top of the list. Cassavettes left during the transition and Jon Favreau stepped in, charming the fans on MySpace, and assembling an impressive cast. Paramount and Marvel have high hopes for it but we won’t know until May 2008. If it fails to launch, the remaining nine pictures suddenly tremble in the shadows.
All too often comic book properties get optioned while people are interested for whatever reason. They commission scripts or begin doing production art to figure out how things will look. Then they begin to budget the thing and Hollywood usually gets cold feet because, after all, unless you’re shooting Strangers in Paradise you’re likely going to need a lot of very expensive special effects. Cheapen the effects and the movie will more often than not fail to convince audiences, whether they know the source material or not. It took the pressure of getting a Superman movie made and the cache of Bryan Singer’s X-Men success to get Warner to commit in excess of $200 million to make Superman Returns.
Several comic properties got turned into movies with their origins somewhat obscured. Road to Perdition was from a Paradox Press project but all the press materials downplayed it. (Heck, when Max Allan Collins wrote the novelization of the screenplay adapting his graphic novel, he added and fleshed out material only to be told to stick to the screenplay!) David Cronenberg made a big deal out of being unaware that Paradox Press’ A History of Violence started life in graphic novel form. And let’s not forget Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started life as a one-shot black and white parody of Frank Miller’s grim and gritty oeuvre. Let’s see how much Paramount acknowledges Stardust‘s Vertigo origins versus ballyhooing just Neil Gaiman’s credit.
Hollywood will remain fascinated with turning comics into films until a strong of disasters come along. This year’s crop of adaptations looks particularly strong with 300 and Spider-Man 3. Should Ghost Rider skid or Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer sink, that may put more pressure on Marvel’s future outings (2008’s Iron Man would be next) but not hurt comic films. Should Spidey underperform and FF2 fail and the CGI Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles remain in the shell, then maybe the ardor will begin to cool. Until then, producers and studios will continue to buy as creators and publishers continue to sell as hard as ever.
No sooner did Goyer say he was off The Flash than Shawn Levy was announced as the new director. He got the gig based on the smash success of Night at the Museum, not necessarily because he was a fan of The Flash or even had the right sensibilities to handle the film. Once more, fans can get their hopes up or be depressed as Hollywood conducts business as usual. We, the fans, have endured brilliance, misfires and countless disappointments: William Goldman is writing Shazam! for New Line, now he’s off.
You’d think we’d be used to it by now.