Thursday, September 10, 2009

"I always wondered when Warner Brothers would figure out that they owned DC Comics?"

Shortly after I had scheduled to publish my comments below about the Disney/Marvel announcement, another huge entertainment-related news story broke which threatened to overshadow the Disney/Marvel story....

I'm speaking, of course, about the announcement that Ellen Degeneres is joining "American Idol."

I'm kidding, of course—I'm actually referring to the shakeup over at DC Comics, in which in a move similar to Disney/Marvel, the venerable comic-book publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman now becomes DC Entertainment and more fully integrated within its parent company at Warner Brothers.

To be fair, a move like this takes a lot of planning so it's likely been on the boards for awhile. The timing of the announcement, however, was no doubt precipitated by Disney's action, perhaps in an attempt to suck some of the air out of the excitement over Disney's move. While I personally found the timing poor, conveying a sense of desperation, I guess WB felt that if it waited longer (or until the new year), they might otherwise look like total also-rans that were copycatting Disney. By making the announcement sooner than later, they can say they meant to do it all along.

Indeed, such a move was expected at some point. It was generally agreed that WB had never done a good job of managing or fully exploiting its superhero properties—an example being the fitful way the company dealt with the re-launch of the Superman franchise earlier in this decade (at one point, a Batman/Superman film was on the boards), and the off-and-on again Wonder Woman movie.

WB has owned DC since the '70s, but the huge conglomerate generally kept the comic-book company at arm's distance, meddling little in its affairs, and licensing out its characters piecemeal, no doubt seeing the company as a minor licenseable property within its multimedia empire. (As one columnist noted, "I always wondered when Warner Brothers would figure out that they owned DC Comics?")

Marvel, too, had similar problems maximizing the potential of its properties—witness two on-the-cheap film adaptations of Captain America and the Fantastic Four from the '90s that the studio paid to bury so embarrassing were the results. But when the Spider-Man films proved the worth of their properties, Marvel—being a bit smaller and, hence, nimbler than the WB-owned DC—moved to clamp down on its properties and assert greater creative say and control by establishing its own movie studio. With comic-book properties now becoming the source of highly successful tent-pole franchises, WB has clearly seen the light, and is now hoping to emulate this integrated approach that creates some continuity and synergy in the way DC's characters are handled.

To echo what I wrote below about the Disney/Marvel partnership (and written before WB's announcement), it’s likely that new DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson—who self-admittedly is not "by nature a comic fan"—does not plan to manage DC Comics or its comic-book publishing operations on a day-to-day basis. Like Disney with Marvel, as long as DC makes money and supports its own operations, DC likely will be allowed to continue publishing its comics as it sees fit, if for no other reason than to continue producing the content that will be the source for other more lucrative new media platforms. Nelson’s job is not to run a comic-book company, but to migrate those characters and their decades of content to films and new media.

While I would prefer to avoid the term "winners" and "losers," in such shakeups there invariably always will be collatoral damage. Chief among them is now-former DC Comics President and Publisher Paul Levitz. Levitz is a true-blue fanboy, starting at DC in his teens (particularly known for his writing on the Legion of Super-Heroes), who got an MBA while he remained working with the company, and rose to the position of president and publisher. Generally recognized as one of the "good guys," Levitz will return to writing (including Legion) and work as a "special consultant" due to his extensive knowledge of the DC universe. While it's not clear whether Levitz was given an opportunity to remain in a management position at DC, the change likely would have made him a mid-level person in the new new DC Entertainment chain of command, so he likely opted to exit as gracefully as possible.

With much of the dust now settled, I thought I might as well weigh in on my own thoughts about what likely will be one of the biggest comics/movie/entertainment news stories of the year: Disney's acquisition of Marvel Comics for $4 billion.

Though there have been a few reported predictable fanboy rants like the one below (quoted at The Beat)—
This is like disgusting in many levels......

Disney has always been in their entire existence to buy out the competition or aquire it and then ruin the foundations it was based on. Although it may be a “sweet deal” to everyone who has stock Marvel will forever be a Disney product and I will not buy anything from Marvel again. 4 billion is “chump change” to Disney, Marvel will “lose” out again in making more money on their own!!!!!!

I think this is a “bad” idea for Marvel to “sell out” to Disney I mean the reason Marvel is doing well is because of us “kids” who are now in to their 40’s and 50’s who still appreciate the characters we grew up with and totally support all of the merchandise involved with Marvel heroes.
—for the most part, I doubt the average person (or, indeed, even most comic-book fans) will see much of a difference. (The above rant typifies the distorted view of some fans who equate emotional investment of a product with actual ownership.)

Marvel Comics will undoubtedly continue to produce their comics—and probably even their films—under the Marvel Comics imprint, with little if any meddling by Disney. Disney acquired Marvel for the strength of its brand, and I doubt Disney would do anything to risk damaging that brand, under the "why fix what ain't broke" axiom. Disney will likely grant Marvel the same degree of independence it has given Pixar, leaving well enough alone (keeping in mind this never would have been possible under former Disney CEO Michael Eisner's stewardship).

So if Disney isn't interested in directly running a comic-book publishing company, what do both sides get out of the bargain?

The $4 billion Disney paid for Marvel wasn't for the joy of publishing comic books, but rather for Marvel's rich goldmine of 7,000 characters and 70 years of story continuity. So while Marvel will continue to publish its comics as it always has done, no doubt Disney will work with Marvel to bring its characters to new, more lucrative platforms.

With this acquisition, Disney also finally has an instant, credible foothold in a market that so far has eluded the house of mouse: young male adolescents. While Disney Channel has evolved into the de facto channel for tween girls, Disney has met with less success finding ways to appeal to boys (witness Disney's launch earlier this year of the XD Channel). Marvel solves that problem.

And on top of all this, of course, any profits generated by Marvel will trickle upwards towards Disney's coffers.

For its part, Marvel gets the muscle and access to the deep pockets of one of the most recognized and largest multimedia companies in the world. Despite its success, Marvel has struggled finding adequate resources to achieve its goal to self-finance its films—witness the embarrassing attempts to save money that nearly resulted in the exit of director Jon Favreau from the Iron Man sequel and of Samuel L. Jackson as recurring character Nick Fury.

Yes, this is a sea change—but remember that Marvel's main competitor, DC Comics (publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), is itself owned by Warner Brothers. Most changes will be transparent to consumers, and will occur more on the business/platform side of things rather than content, particularly as Hollywood continues exploring new media platforms as traditional print, television and film struggle to re-invent themselves. Marvel's established characters and fan base will give Disney recognizable content to more aggressively explore new arenas.

To me, aside from the actual acquisition, the real story behind the announcement was that it was such a well kept secret. The news took everyone by surprise, turning it into an even bigger story as news outlets scrambled to get up to speed. Most observers quickly saw the great genius of the partnership, and even rival companies found themselves kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.

For a detailed report on how the deal happened and an assessment of the Marvel acquisition, I recommend entertainment blogger Nikki Finke's recent coverage of the news.

1 comment:

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