ROBERT GREENBERGER: Super-Heroes D2DVD to your home!
We’ve spent the last few weeks looking at how Hollywood operates, optioning properties, including comic books, which they think might work as a movie or television series. With the success of 300, we also paused to examine how full the calendar was getting the next few years and wondered if a glut was coming.
If that’s the case, what alternatives might there be?
Television remains skittish with comic book properties despite the runaway success of Heroes. Beyond Smallville, there are no comics-related shows on prime time and none likely to be added to the 2007-08 schedule (to be announced in May). Cable, with dozens and dozens of channels, has one: Painkiller Jane on Sci-Fi.
Animated fare, either for Saturday mornings or weekday afternoons, has turned away from comic books for source material, preferring anime imports or original productions. The last handful of attempts have not been resounding successes such as the WB’s Legion of Super-Heroes.
But there are new signs of life in the still growing Direct to DVD market, a.k.a. D2DVD. Here, producers go for the familiar as they crank out sequel after sequel on shoestring budgets and churn them out like so much shovelware, clogging the shelves at mass merchandisers from Sam’s Club to Best Buy. In 2006, D2DVD releases generated $1.3 billion in revenue, and that’s expected to grow 5% to 7% this year, according to Variety.
This is fertile ground for all the comic book publishers but so far only the majors are exploiting it to the fullest.
The earliest releases were not from DC, but from Warner animation, starting with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The story worked and the look matched that of the successful Bruce Timm/Paul Dini animated series and played better than expected so got upgraded to feature film release. Unfortunately, the subsequent efforts: Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero, Batman vs. Dracula and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman fared less well both creatively and financially.
The nadir may have been hit last year when they rushed out the ill-conceived Superman: Brainiac Attacks which resembled neither the animated continuity nor the Superman Returns feature film. Both were played off on the Cartoon Network.
Fortunately, it came and went with little fanfare and was totally eclipsed last summer when DC announced they were finally working as full partners with Warner animation in creating animated adaptations of classic DC stories from the company’s rich and deep library.
The first four announced releases, for those who missed the news, are:
* Justice League: New Frontier – written by Stan Berkowitz, with Darwyn Cooke as story and visual consultant
* Teen Titans: The Judas Contract – written by Marv Wolfman and Tom DeSanto, produced by DeSanto
* Superman: Doomsday – produced by Bruce Timm and written by Duane Capizzi, from a story by Timm & Capizzi
You’ll note the familiar names involved in the animated adventures, which speaks well for their chances.
Across town, a long while back, Marvel cut a deal with Lion’s Gate to begin producing D2DVD animated adventures and they debuted last year with Ultimate Avengers, based on the first 12 issues of The Ultimates. It sold pretty damn well and got reasonable ratings when aired on the Cartoon Network. This was followed up last fall with Ultimate Avengers 2, which was less well received.
Even though the feature film is more than a year away, this winter, Marvel released the Invincible Iron Man, which looked good and got a fairly low-key airing on Cartoon Network. The fourth film in their series will be August’s Dr. Strange and we can only guess how this will look.
Interestingly, after the Master of the Mystic Arts Marvel intends to change gears and play to the younger fans with subsequent escapades. The only one announced so far is Teen Avengers but the notion of skewing younger for broader appeal makes a lot of sense and mirrors Disney’s library of sequels to their classic animated films. This story, unrelated to the Allen Heinberg Young Avengers series, has been promised as adhering to Saturday morning rules which sounds fairly bowdlerized compared with the violence in Ultimate Avengers. On the other hand, it’s being written by Craig Yost who has performed well for Marvel in both animation and print.
Speaking of the younger set, where’s Archie? That Archie Comics has yet to jump in with Sabrina, Josie or even Mr. Andrews himself remains a mystery.
Beyond the majors there has been the animated Hellboy with the second one, Blood & Iron, getting an airing on Cartoon Network tonight. A third D2DVD is in the works. Talk has been heard from other publishers about jumping on the bandwagon but no announcements have been forthcoming.
Is this a gold mine they have yet to tap, or a prohibitive market given production and distribution costs? One can speculate either way, but seeing drek like American Pie 5 and Bring it On 3, it’s clear there’s money to be made.
Closer to our hearts, we can also anticipate live-action genre fare such as the forthcoming Babylon 5 direct adventures from J. Michael Straczynski himself.
Done right, this is a great chance to promote comic books to new audiences.