The thought of movie money drives comics people nuts.
Face it: despite occasional blips in the pattern, it’s very difficult to make what amounts to a living wage doing comics. Making comics can be very fun, it can be creatively satisfying, but, take it from me, it’s way more fun and satisfying if you can pay your bills without also having to, oh, take up a side career in sewer maintenance.
The value of movie money is that it allows you to do that, if you’re smart. (Just as in comics, you can also stupidly sell your birthright for a bowl of stew, in which case movie money isn’t all that valuable at all.) The value of having a film made based on your comic (or book, or website, or whatever) is, again if you’re smart, it gets your name out there to the general public in a way that simply doing comics almost certainly won’t. Whatever his feelings about the films made from his books, Alan Moore is much more of a household name following “Watchmen,” “From Hell,” “V for Vendetta” and “League of Extraordinary Gentleman” than before. It didn’t hurt that many film critics mentioned his books were far better than the resultant films. Whether any of this ultimately made any difference in Alan’s life I couldn’t say, and I’m not suggesting he owes anyone any gratitude for it. But anyone’s profile will rise in that situation.
Whether and how it can be capitalized on is a dodgier proposition, but it’s still easier than capitalizing on no profile. As many have noted, this has not been lost on many actors and screenwriters who have now cast their eyes on comics as a substitute for studio pitches. To the annoyance of many comics purists who have declared — and vehemently declare it whenever the subject of comics and movies comes up — Hollywood is The Devil, distorting the sacred process of comics creation with the dangled threat of big bucks that make creators more interested in creating books aimed at getting Hollywood’s attention than in creating great comics.
I’m here today to say: they’re right.
But it’s not Hollywood’s fault.
Hollywood is not the enemy.
This problem derives from a basic misunderstanding of (and underlying contempt for) how Hollywood works.
Even as they’re out grubbing for Hollywood cash, a lot of comics talent is very condescending toward Hollywood, egged on by what they perceive is a lot of bad movies and movies “ruined” by Hollywood and a curious belief that they, the comics talent, are the truly creative ones and Hollywood is run by unimaginative crowd-pleasing hacks.
As I mentioned last week, a lot of little publishers founded their companies on the idea that they’d develop lots of comics properties for Hollywood to buy, and that, not comics sales, would be how they’d make their millions.
But no one in Hollywood sets out to make a bad movie. Everyone always asks “Why does Hollywood make such bad movies?” but, varying critical standards aside, the real question to ask is “given the system, how does any movie ever get made at all?”
Most movies don’t get made lightly or off-handedly. The average time it takes to get a film made is seven years (much of it before even actors even get attached, meaning before any studio gets involved) and that takes a lot of dedication and interest apart from eyes on potential profits, though money is always going to be a critical factor because even producers and studio executives like to eat, pay their bills and keep their jobs. Of course, there are always going to be bad producers, but the good producers I’ve met (and I’ve met a lot of producers the past few years) aren’t in it strictly for the money. They’re in it because they love movies, exactly the same way people do comics because they love comics. You have to love movies to suffer through all the crap it takes to get one made. I don’t know a single producer who wouldn’t rather produce a film they love than a film they hate that will make them money. Doesn’t mean they won’t produce the latter, or that a film they love won’t turn to swill in their hands the same way comics can easily go wrong despite their creator’s efforts, but all other things being equal neither would be their preference.
The popular cliche of the Hollywood producer remains Sammy Glick, the unctuous, manipulative “hero” of Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” and, sure, there are still Sammys in Hollywood, but they’re not hard to spot if you’ve any awareness at all. (The guys out there so desperate for a deal they’ll take any deal at all I can’t help. Desperation, that’s your real enemy.) Comics workers and fans have been so tormented over the years by wrongheaded myths about them they ought to take other myths with a grain of salt. Hollywood’s new recent interest in comics is not about any callous desire to exploit the medium. Quite the opposite.
Comics have made their film/TV inroads over the past decade because the new executives and producers who came into Hollywood in the early 2000s and who are now rising to control levels throughout the town were all comics fans in the ’80s and ’90s. More comics fans are entering the movie business all the time. The guys who made successful screenwriting and producing careers, then started writing scripts for Marvel & DC? They didn’t do it because they thought it was a big career step upwards. They did it because they’re comics fans. The town is now full of people who love comics. Even a lot of producers who predate the big comics “invasion” or otherwise had no experience of comics have learned to appreciate them for their own sake. They’re not the enemy. The Hollywood system is the enemy, but it’s their enemy, not ours.
Comics are not movies.
This seems obvious on the face of it but way too people prefer to forget it. You’ll be a lot happier if you accept it now and learn to live with it.
I’ve adapted movies and books into comics, now I’ve watched my comic be adapted into a movie. There are things you can do in comics you can’t do in either movies or books; that not many people take advantage of the differences doesn’t mean they’re not there. Likewise, there are things you can do in movies you can’t do in comics. For instance, a comparable amount of complicated action might require several pages in comics but only take 15 seconds of film time. Your story is going to change in translation. If it doesn’t, they’re doing something wrong.
But their story is their story. This is the part that’s hard for most people to wrap their heads around. Your story is the comic. The movie is their story. It may not have existed without you, but it isn’t exactly yours. But the comic is all yours, and that’s something no one can take away from you, whatever happens. If the film version’s great, that’s great — bask in it. If it isn’t, remember the critics who complained about “Watchmen” commonly made a point of noting Alan and Dave’s graphic novel was brilliant.
If you want your comic turned into a movie — and if you don’t, hey, more power to you — that’s the chance you take. There are a lot of parts and considerations to a movie, and a lot of people making decisions. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, usually they’re not quite as random as they seem to outside eyes, but are responses to the million little crises that arise in the course of such an (expensive) enterprise. Often fans suggest publishers/talent/whoever exert more control over the films made from their properties, but unless you’re willing to go the Marvel route and put up the tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to get a movie made and take over production yourself, that’s just not going to happen. You can hope for anything and if (like us) you happen into executive producers, a director, a screenwriter and actors who truly get what you’re doing you might even get it, but the only thing you can be certain of getting from a film deal is the means of making producing other comics you want to do easier: money. Contrary to common parlance, this is not selling out. This is what you are due.
More next week…
Replies, mash notes, hate mail, etc. can be sent to email@example.com. Anyone who wants face time can find me at the San Diego Comic-Con, July 18-21 (try the BOOM! Studios booth, 2743) & WizardWorld Chicago August 8-11 (I’ll have my own table).
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