Is an Unproduced Screenplay the Next Great Comic Book?

With the rise of the Internet and spoilers, readers and publishers alike are constantly chasing the next big thing. Sometimes it's re-inventing a character or title, or perhaps bringing in a new property from another publisher or even another medium such as movies. One of the more unique developments in recent years has been several comic book series based on unproduced movie screenplays with characters and writers who possess name recognition in the comics market.

Kevin Smith's "Green Hornet" series at Dynamite came about in this manner, as well as the seminal Frank Miller series "Daredevil: Man Without Fear" and the later "Frank Miller's Robocop" series at Avatar a few years back. News broke earlier this year that Darren Aronofsky's canceled "Batman: Year One" film project was being revitalized as a comic by DC Comics in the near future. In an interview with ClothesonFilm, Aronofsky revealed the script was far-removed from its original source material, Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One," and could stand on its own as the "Black Swan" director's take on DC's dark hero. No official announcement has come from DC about this project, but the idea of it -- coupled with the upcoming end to Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movie trilogy makes for some interesting speculation.

Smith's "Green Hornet" and Miller's "Robocop" worked largely because they were based on recognizable characters and delivered by marquee creators. This trend mirrors the recent groundswell of remakes and revamps going on in Hollywood. With those successes in the record books and more undoubtedly on the way, unproduced screenplays could be a goldmine for comic publishers looking for a property with built-in buzz and name-recognition -- but it's not without its risks.

"I definitely saw this coming," says former book agent Brendan Deneen, Co-President of comics publisher Ardden Entertainment and writer of its flagship title, "Flash Gordon." "[With the remake trend,] fewer and fewer spec scripts are being optioned, and everyone seems to want pre-branded material, i.e. books and comic books. They think that these will have a pre-existing audience; they see a spec script as starting from scratch. As the spec market bottomed out, you could sense this in the wind."

With the increased demand for screenwriters to develop new takes on established characters and franchises, there are a number of new stories that will never see the light of day as a movie. But Hollywood's loss could potentially be comics' gain. From "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" Joss Whedon and even "Superman" director Richard Donner, a number of Hollywood's busiest writers moonlight in comics, which potentially opens the door for some of these unproduced scripts to be revived as comic books by publishers looking to license the material.

Based on publicly available information, there's a veritable goldmine of unproduced screenplays written by what would amount to huge names to fans and retailers alike that are ripe for this treatment. DC Comics' parent company Time Warner owns a number of these, including Joss Whedon's "Wonder Woman," Kevin Smith's "Superman," William Goldman's "Captain Marvel" and even a "Sgt. Rock" script by "Conan" director Jon Milius. Several companies who licensed Marvel's movie rights also have some interesting gems if taken at face value: Michael Chabon's "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four," Bob Gale's "Doctor Strange," Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 4," Chris Columbus' "Daredevil" and a take on Silver Surfer by Quentin Tarantino. Most are completely screenplays, but with these names involved even pitches and proposals could serve as a launch pad for something special.

Full-time comic creators have also gotten in the act writing movie screenplays. While Frank Miller's "Robocop" screenplay already made the jump back to comics, there are other screenplays from comic creators including Mark Millar's "Superman," Stan Lee and "Repo Man" director Alex Cox's "Doctor Strange," Len Wein's "Swamp Thing," a script based on Michael Turner's "Fathom" and a veritable treasure trove with Grant Morrison's name on it, from a "Teen Titans" script to "Dan Dare."

But before you begin salivating over these potential comic series, the road from A to B isn't without its roadblocks. First of all, ownership and rights: these unproduced screenplays are paid for and bought by the studios or production companies that originally commissioned them. For example, even if Joss Whedon's "Wonder Woman" script has no chance of being filmed, it may not be so easy for DC to produce it as a comic since the script itself was commissioned by Joel Silver's Silver Pictures, who optioned the movie rights for "Wonder Woman." Although those rights may revert back to Time Warner, the script stays put with Silver unless a deal is made.

CBR News asked Dynamite Publisher Nick Barrucci about the process of acquiring the rights to an unproduced screenplay, and he explained it can be quite treacherous.

"It usually tends to be very difficult. The rights holders have to do their due diligence and if it's licensed to a movie company, they need to do their due diligence and confirm that they feel comfortable licensing out the property," Barrucci told CBR. "In the 'Green Hornet' instance, the Green Hornet license was with the family who owns the Green Hornet. The license to the movie that Kevin Smith wrote belonged to Miramax so they owned that version of the movie -- because they paid for it."
A second studio, Sony Pictures, had since acquired the movie rights to "Green Hornet" after Smith's screenplay was abandoned, and were filming the Seth Rogen while Dynamite was pursuing the rights.

"There were many layers there that most fans don't see and probably don't care to see," Barrucci said. "We licensed the Sony movie, prelude and stories from Sony, but the Kevin Smith story for the "Green Hornet" we licensed from the Green Hornet rights holders and Miramax so there were many layers to go through."

Dynamite's other movie script-turned-comic, "The Bionic Man" (also by Smith), had fewer layers due to Universal owning all the rights, but Barrucci explained each division of the studio had to review everything the publisher did in regards to the comic.

Although Kevin Smith was unable to answer questions regarding this situation, screenwriter Marc Guggenheim ("Green Lantern," "No Ordinary Family") spoke with CBR and provided his unique perspective as a writer of movies, TV shows, comics and also as a practicing lawyer. During our conversation with him, the writer brought up potential hurdles relating to rights the screenwriter might have since these unproduced screenplays were commissioned as a film, not a comic or anything else. When asked about the rights situation, Guggenheim's knowledge was revealing.

"Your question refers to what's known, in Hollywood parlance, as 'separated rights.' It's actually a bit of a legal thicket. It's such a thicket that I'm a screenwriter and a lawyer and I don't fully understand it," Guggenheim admitted. "With that caveat in mind, I don't believe that the studios have any legal right to take a screenplay and repurpose it for another medium. However, that answer may -- in fact, probably -- change if the screenplay is produced into a movie. For example, if there's a comic book adaptation of a movie, I don't think the studio owes the original screenwriter any money. But I may very well be wrong about that."

Although repurposing screenplays as comics is a relatively new concept, it's something that people in Hollywood have already considered in previous circumstances.

"Of course, all of the foregoing is covered under what's known as the MBA. The MBA is the Minimum Basic Agreement between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). These are the two organizations that brought you the 2007/2008 Writers Guild Strike," Guggenheim explained. "Short version: The MBA covers all this stuff. With one critical exception: [screenwriters are] always free to negotiate -- or try to negotiate -- your own terms. Some writers have the clout to do that."

"Did I mention it was a thicket?" Guggenheim joked.

Although the allure of dusty screenplays with marquee writers and popular characters is easy to understand, there are also a number of original scripts not tied to pre-existing characters that can and have been turned into comic books.

"I know there's a lot of unproduced screenplays out there that writers have tried -- and some have succeeded -- in turning into comics. I think the trend there is already, well, trending," Guggenheim said. "The only thing is that for the most part, you don't know that the comic you're reading is based on an unproduced screenplay."

Some of these screenplays-turned-comics are by comics writers who repurpose the ideas back into comics, while others are outside writers looking to find their works a second life, and often to again stoke the Hollywood fires. Writer/director Darren Aronofsky did just that when his initial attempts to shoot "The Fountain" fell through in 2002, and he has talked openly about doing the same with his script based on the biblical story of Noah's Ark. From his standpoint, it's about getting a creation of his out into the open whether it be by film, comic, or other means.

"You work really hard on something and want to get it out there," Aronofsky told ClothesOnFilm.com. "The reason that 'The Fountain' comic exists is because for a long time we didn't think that the film was going to happen, so I went after an artist because I wanted to get that finished and out there. I'm a storyteller, so if I can't tell it in my medium of choice I try to do it another way."

While Aronofsky was upfront about his intentions with "The Fountain," there are a number of comic series that have been discreetly (and not so discreetly) refashioned into comics. For every project that makes the jump there are more that have attempted it.

"Generally, we're not getting these scripts in from studios. We're getting them in from agents or producers, so the chain of title isn't too complicated," Deneen told CBR News. "In the rarer instances where we're dealing directly with a studio, the contracts are definitely complicated. But it's a great opportunity to get 'into bed' with some very prestigious companies, so it's worth the extra effort."

Just as it's difficult to turn these scripts into movies the first time around, the key to adapting them to comics is a hard one to acquire.

"Sometimes there's a reason a script doesn't sell or get produced," Deneen said. "We may see some crappy comics based on crappy screenplays but I honestly think an influx of more ideas into the comic market is a good thing. I like seeing more genres represented in this market. But I think these stories have to work as comics first and foremost. If they also make great movies, then fantastic, but if they're being adapted into another format in the cynical hopes of just getting a movie out of it, I think that's a very unfortunate trend."

As a writer of both films and comic books, Marc Guggenheim agreed with the sentiment.

"I've read both and I'm here to tell you that what works as a screenplay doesn't always work as a comic," Guggenheim said. "In fact, I'm extremely skeptical of any endeavor that seeks to literally translate a script that was conceived for one medium and then executed in another. And I'm not just talking about screenplays to comics. The reverse is also true. Don't you think 'Watchmen' would've been a better movie if it hadn't been so faithful to the comic? I do."

After successfully translating unproduced screenplays into comic books twice, Dynamite's Nick Barrucci says the chances for this becoming a trend, either for pre-existing characters or original spec works, is doubtful.

"I don't know if this would be a trend for anyone else to do. These are unique situations where we're working with a writer as popular as Kevin Smith on characters the fans have wanted to see in comics for many years," Barrucci explained. "The right story [with] the right creator can work, but there aren't too many comic creators that have unused movie scripts that would work. I think we were fortunate that it happened twice in a row. I think we're very fortunate that it happened with someone as passionate as Kevin is, but I don't even know if we're going to be doing this again down the line."

What the future holds for adaptations is uncertain, but there are many fans would love to see stories by their favorite creators brought to life in one form or another rather than dying a long, slow death on a producer's shelf.

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