Jeff Katz: Inside American Original

Jeff Katz has been quoting Teddy Roosevelt on Twitter a lot this week. With choice lines like "Wars are, of course, as a rule to be avoided; but they are far better than certain kinds of peace" and "We cannot do great deeds unless we are willing to do the small things that make up the sum of greatness," it may seem as though the studio executive and comics writer was preparing to invade a small country. But with an announcement this morning, it appears as though Katz is trying something much harder: taking on Hollywood.

Katz will launch a new company over the coming months called American Original, which will serve as both a comic book publisher and movie production shingle with an eye on giving the creators behind a much more significant cut of the profits from film and media adaptations of their work than that of the current system. Long rumored since Katz left his staff position at 20th Century Fox last year, American Original already announced the involvement of Top Cow Entertainment, who will help produce Katz's first lineup of ten or so comics, and am advisory board featuring "Superman: The Movie" director Richard Donner.

While specific titles, projects and creators will be announced in the lead up to San Diego's Comic-Con International this July, CBR News spoke with Jeff Katz -- fresh off a big opening for "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which he worked on at Fox-- about American Original as a company and as a new deal for creators.

CBR: This is a deal that you've been working on for a long time. What exactly is American Original in its final form?

Jeff Katz: I'm not going to reveal my final form just yet. That wouldn't be particularly sporting or interesting, now would it? [laughs] I'll be very candid about this. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve, but by the time we get to San Diego, the entire picture will be clear. We have a very specific plan where every few weeks there'll be a reveal and another reveal until the entire machine is fully revealed before we head into SD. And when I say it's a "machine," it is. It's a full service machine at the end of the day - for us, by us, and finally remunerating us. And it's been long overdue.

You've been behind-the-scenes, working on various big genre movies for years, and have gotten into the direct work of making comics with "Booster Gold" for DC Comics. Was coming into the comics world and seeing how it worked next to Hollywood part of what drove you to do this on your own?

The landscape of the entertainment business has shifted entirely. It's been sort of a gradual shift over the last decade and then a lightning fast shift over the last couple of years even, in a micro sense. The entire business at this point is being driven by what we on the inside called "pre-awareness." All you have to understand - and I spent a decade in that business and have been to more pre-awareness meetings than I can count - is that because of the cost of doing business and making and marketing these movies, the importance of having a base to build from has become everything. It's why a movie like "Drop Dead Fred" that didn't make a lot of money domestically in the first place can be remade today. It's a library title. It's in-house. It's cheap to relaunch a franchise. You see that all over the place. So it didn't take rocket science to go, "Okay, if pre-awareness is the end all, be all, then those of us that occupy this [creative] space have got it ass backwards." We've been acting like we need [the established system] more than they need us, when in reality I'd argue it's the other way around.

This is something that I've been working for a long time. [As an executive,] I bought Neil Gaiman's "Death." I bought "We3" as an executive. I know these guys and know them well, and when doing "Booster Gold" and these other books, I've also seen how their royalty system works and how they're treated across the line. It's very clear to me that at a large level, we're being taken advantage of. And at some point in time, because the landscape has shifted in our favor, it's up to us to wake up and realize it and go, "Wait a minute. There's another way to do this. There's a better way to do this." We can actually change things so that future creatives in this space will be taken care of and empowered and remunerated. I want to empower them to do this by themselves. I want to teach every one of these companies to fish for themselves because the reality is that as the model shifts and the entertainment industry shrinks, their self-sufficiency is the key to their survival.

What about your time working on things like "Freddy Vs. Jason Vs. Ash" to "Snakes On A Plane" right up to "Wolverine" makes you feel that creators and publishers will be able to get movies produced in their own way?

I would say to you that where I benefitted was in that I'm a hybrid. I'm a fan, but I'm also a businessman, and those two things are not mutually exclusive. I think the thing I'm working on is getting people to understand why things work in certain ways. One of the areas I benefitted is that I'm the bastard child of New Line Cinema and that system and 20th Century Fox and that system. They're two entirely different things that are ultimately two different skill sets that when brought together are unique and effective. I learned a ton from both places, and I'm incredibly grateful for the decade I spent between the two companies. And through the trial and error of the "Freddy Vs. Jason Vs. Ash" and through dealing with my comics peers - and I play XBox with these guys and we talk - and knowing their frustrations, I know what the hurdles are. And by understanding those two different methods, I think I'm in a unique position that could be used for good or for bad. I'm of the opinion that it's my responsibility to do as much good with it as I can. We need to learn how to fish, and unless we do that we're going to continue to be slaves to a system that's rigged against us no matter how many in roads we think we've made.

One big part of the announcement is that you'll be publishing new books through Top Cow. Why was Top Cow the first publisher you hooked up with? Does Top Cow have a similar system or a similar set of values to what you're trying to do?

I was in a fortunate position where I had a lot of people interested in doing business, and I'll say to you candidly, I'm going to do business with a lot of people. I have no desire to hurt any company. It behooves me from this space to be as healthy and self-sufficient as possible. This is a case where you've got to give [Top Cow heads] Matt [Hawkins] and Mark [Silvestri] credit. I went to them and said, "I want to blow up your model and try something new," and they said, "Cool. Go for it."

And they're not alone. There are a lot of other publishers that know what their future is. They've just been sold a bill of goods that "we need X producer to show the way." I don't agree with that. I think I can educate all these people to do it themselves and more importantly, be taken seriously on their own accord. Setting up movies is one thing, and getting them made is something else entirely. And until you know every step along the line, you're going into battle with your gun half-cocked. We've been doing this with one hand behind our back as an industry in a lot of ways, and I think it's time to untie the other hand. And whoever wants to join me in this, whether you're Top Cow or someone that just wants to learn, I'm game to help.

I think I can be illuminating to my peers in helping them understand why development works a certain way, how production and, more importantly, talent attachment works. Consider this at some level a training program, and Top Cow were incredibly hip. They've gone through it having made a movie now [with "Wanted"] and seeing "What are we consulted on? What are we not?" - and that's for Matt to say - but the irony is having gone through the Hollywood experience, they've come out the other side saying, "There's got to be another way."

And I might fail, but we live in a world where Sumner Redstone doesn't know the way. Rupert Murdoch doesn't know the way. Ted Turner doesn't even go on the internet. So why isn't my guess as good as theirs? At the very least, you won't be able to say I didn't put my money where my mouth was.

And the reality is, these are symbiotic business anyway. Producers are going to continue to move in [the comic book] space, and they're going to tell you how much they love "graphic novels," which we all know means their entirely full of shit because no one who likes comics calls them "graphic novels." We all know that, right? So when they come into the "graphic novel" space, the reality is that they know the only way for them to make their product survive is to have pre-awareness product. They are frauds. So my challenge to them is, "If you love this space so much, match my deal." Not only are my creatives drawing gross out of the underlying intellectual property (IP) and its extrapolation - they draw gross out of my producing deal and off that IP as well. And there's not another producer in town offering that deal. They want to help this space they love so much, they can match my deal. And if the worst thing I pull off in this whole thing is that they do match it, that's already changed the game in our favor.

Well, that brings this question: You're a writer with your own ideas and stories, and surely those will be part of this launch, but when creators come to you with properties, will they be owning the trademark wholly on their own with you coming in on the production end?

No. Let me be clear that I'm building a library-driven business. One of the reasons that The Weinstein Company hasn't done as well as Miramax is very simply because they don't control their library. Library value is everything. What I offer is the benefit of being in a library system with a piece of genuine ownership that's also then extrapolated over the life of the IP in any form. These guys aren't just doing a for hire job for me. Not only are they getting their page rate, they're getting their gross piece. All I did was bring Hollywood deal-making into the comics system to try and drag it into the 21st Century.

The terminology is "gross after tax, break even." That's ostensibly what I'm doing. They bring me an original, it goes in the library, but the benefit is that when you bring me an original, and the first time you're an [Associate Producer], the next time you're an [Executive Producer], and I'm going to bring in this incredibly crazy new concept called "involving you." I'm going to teach you how to do it. That's the advantage. Do you want to learn how to swim for yourself and get a piece of your gross, or do you want to continue to live in a forest? "Maybe I'll publish it myself. Maybe a producer will find me. Maybe he's a real guy or maybe he's a faux nerd. Maybe he'll give me my options." What I offer is one-stop shopping. Your publisher is your producer is me. You have questions, you know where you go. You want to know why it was developed that way? Look, I may have to tell you you're crazy, and it was developed this way for a reason, but at least you're included in the debate.

And once you have a gross deal, that becomes your quote. You can go to other companies and say, "I've got a gross deal over here. Match it." They don't want to do that, but the talent will now be negotiating from a stronger point of leverage. My idea is that even if I fail, I have a chance to make a real impact. And for me, that's a risk worth taking. I'm 30-years-old. I'm not married. I can afford to fail, and there's nothing wrong with failing if you fail for a noble gesture. I'm a big believer in that. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, "The victory is in the striving."

You're not revealing the specific launch titles just yet, but are these stories ones you've been working up and writing yourself over the past few years?

A percentage of that stuff is my original stuff. I think we're going to be playing in some genres that will surprise some people. We're going to try to be outside the box. I'd equate it with what New Line was at its best or even a more accessible Vertigo in the sense that if I think it's cool, I'll do it. I love the original idea. And you'll never see a movie actor's name above title on a book. I'm not doing that. These things have to work on their own. I care too much about the format to piss on it that way, but the idea is that I don't care if only five people buy the books - they bought them authentically. That's what I'm after. All I need is an authentically engaged audience, and it snowballs from there. This is what I've done for a decade with various levels of efficiency and effectiveness, but I'm not bad at it. Packaging I can do. For the talent at the end of the day, for me it seems like a lot of upside. Try my system, and if you're not drawing bigger checks at the end of the day or finding yourself learning then don't use me again.

What can people expect to be hearing from you between now and San Diego? Are you going to be doing creator and book announcements? Production deals?

It's going to be a pretty fun variety. There's lots of people involved with the company. We have some executive hires coming, comics titles and some straight film development shots. We have stuff up our sleeves. I spent three years in the wrestling business and learned a little something about rollout from that. I'm following that model, and we're trying to inject some fun back into this. I find that showmanship is missing generally in entertainment, and so we're going to try and maximize it. My thing is that I want to engage people. I'm not hard to find. I'm on Facebook, I'm on MySpace, I'm on Twitter. Challenge me if you think I'm wrong. I'm going to try and go on listening tours to some of these cons and engage people. The onus is on the audience as well for us to get smarter. We vote with our dollar. Once I've explained to people how we're actually in the driver's seat position, I think they'll actually go, "Ah ha!" Light bulbs will go off, and suddenly there will be a whole host of opportunities for us. We're in a position of strength. Let's own it. Let's use it. And let's make sure that the people who are creative are getting taken care of for once in their damn lives.

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