Live-Action Comics Target TV


Looking for a little face time with that influential Hollywood executive? Not having any lunchtime luck at The Grill or The Ivy? Les Deux Café a bit too pricey?

Head instead to House of Secrets in Burbank, Calif. No, House of Secrets isn't a murky retreat hosted by your friendly local dominatrix. It's a comic-book store, to which entertainment executives flock every Wednesday when new editions hit the shelves.

Even Sam Register, Cartoon Network's senior vice president for original animation, fesses up when cross-examined. "We're all there. I see people from Warner Bros., Nickelodeon, Disney, Cartoon Network.

"Sure, we're competitors, but we're all one at the comic book store on Wednesday," he said.

TV's next wave?

"House of Secrets? I love that shop," said Craig Kyle, director of television programming development at Marvel Studios, the motion-picture sibling to Spider-Man and Hulk home Marvel Comics.

Sure, executives like Register and Kyle are "fanboys," but now they're all grown up. And they, along with their colleagues, may just change what you're about to see on television.

While the big networks remain hooked on procedural crime dramas barren of character development and short on action (and, in fact, have just added another: JAG NCIS) cable may soon offer a new beast entirely — live-action, much of it derived from comic books.

Comics have always been a rich source of cinematic inspiration. The Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) were once employed as writers for Marvel. But several factors are converging to bring comics to the small screen.

Comics have high-powered support from enthusiasts who are now positioned to implement their visions. Since the material is inherently product-placement friendly, the productions are easier to finance.

Some executives now see comic-based properties as an opportunity to reach a broad spectrum of viewers.

Last but not least, Marvel Studios — hoping to leverage Marvel Comics's vast library of 4,700 characters — is muscling into the small-screen development game.

Marvel is digging deep to license short-lived, lesser-known gems. Craig Kyle says demand for live-action and adult programming is jumping.

Live-action push

"Live-action is really heating up for us," he said. "[Marvel Studios CEO] Avi [Arad] is making the big push. He wants us to be as successful in television as we've been in feature film."

The number of Marvel properties in television development — much of which are live-action — have tripled in the last 18 months.

Marvel's cable soulmate is Sci Fi Channel, a formidable cable player in the comics-to-television live-action space.

With so many characters from which to choose, Kyle stresses their properties will find a home across many different venues, but he admits Sci Fi is a "natural fit."

Sci Fi's success with Taken, last winter's Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries on alien abductions, was duly noted by Marvel

"They did a beautiful job with Taken," said Kyle. "They set a new standard. Everyone was blown away.

"If they can have that kind of success, we would be silly not to want to be a part of that. That's what we're about — those kinds of events, those kinds of series."

The executive responsible for steering Marvel and other comic properties through Sci Fi's development pipeline is Mark Stern, Sci Fi's senior vice president of original programming.

According to Stern, close to a third of Sci Fi's scripted series development slate (as back-door pilots) are comic-book based. Sci Fi has four announced comic-based series in development and several unannounced projects on the boards.

Stern believes the material offers an opportunity to hit several key audiences simultaneously: the "gaming gen-Xers and gen-Yers who like the eye candy and the run and jump" — and, surprisingly, women.

'A revelation'

Comic-derived material, according to Stern, is a strategic fit with Sci Fi's plans to draw in the wider audience that network analysis shows is poised to make the leap to the channel.

Sci Fi conducted a year's worth of audience research, and the results, said Stern, were "a revelation."

The programmer discovered an untapped market segment of escapist women, hungering for shows that allow them to "invest in characters that have deep emotional through lines."

Stern feels comics offer "amazing concepts with strong imaginative elements" but, he cautioned, some have thin backstories that can detract from the emotional through lines.

"You have to be careful not to become overly enamored of the imaginative elements," he said. "People get invested in the characters. This is what keeps them coming back week after week."

Stern said his job is to nurture the comic material in a way that anchors the cross-gender appeal.

Sci Fi hardly seems concerned about bucking the wave of procedural crime dramas. In fact, the network relishes the opportunity to play the contrarian.

"There's a huge appetite for escapism, for being transported via the imagination." Stern asserts, "And Sci Fi is all about the alternative to network.

"We want to be pushing the envelope and taking chances. Network is all about holding onto share. Whenever you're trapped in that mindset, you're not looking at taking chances. Our mindset is completely different. We're out to capture share so we want to be taking chances."

It's readily apparent why Marvel and Sci Fi have partnered. Kyle and others at Marvel share Stern's enthusiasm for live-action coupled with dynamic character elements. Like Stern, Kyle believes there's an expanded audience to be tapped.

"Women love great stories, too," he said. "They'll watch live-action if the story is there."

'1,000 Days'

Kyle acknowledges that comics have normally been the purview of men, but he points to the cross-gender success of the Spider-Man
feature film. "It's proof positive that there's a bigger audience for this material than the conventional wisdom allows for," he said.

Similarly, Kyle predicted 1,000 Days, one of several Marvel properties in development at Sci Fi, will resonate across the spectrum.

"These are characters who, for whatever reason, are living without hope. They're offered genetically enhanced powers in exchange for the opportunity to do good."

He underscored the classic Faustian bargain that gives the show its vital universal edge — in 1,000 days or less, the same genetic programming triggers burn out and, inevitably, death occurs.

"As they hit their last 200 days, just as their powers begin to increase exponentially, reality also sets in. They're a secret force. There will be no gravesite, no one will remember them. So, what kinds of life choices will these characters make in the here and now? It's about love, loss, joy, hope — all highly concentrated."

Like Stern, Kyle also outlined some of the challenges involved in tapping the Marvel library. "It goes without saying that some of our characters have to be updated for the millennial audience."

Brother Voodoo, a series with strong supernatural elements (also slated for Sci Fi), was restructured by shifting the setting from Haiti to New Orleans.

The protagonist, originally Haitian, is now Creole — a deliberate choice, says Kyle, to give the character a "multicultural appeal."

Silverman's key

A closer look at the comic-to-television space reveals a pivot point: Ben Silverman, CEO of Reveille, a television and film production and distribution company that operates as an independent studio within Vivendi Universal Entertainment.

Perhaps no other executive is better positioned to bring live-action comic inspired material to television than Silverman. As the former head of the international packaging division at William Morris, Silverman sourced and sold Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. He's currently executive producer of NBC's Coupling
and The Restaurant, partnering for the latter with Survivor's Mark Burnett, Robert Di Niro's TriBeca Studios and Magna Global.

Advertisers like American Express, Mitsubishi, and Coors have lined up for product-placement opportunities.

In an era of shrinking overseas sales, stagnating network licensing fees, and advertiser skittishness over TiVo-like incursions, Silverman is a balm for industry nerves. He's one of the latest go-to guys in the game to match content with innovative forms of financing.

Silverman is also, coincidentally, a former vice president of Marvel Entertainment — where he developed live-action projects for film and television — a friend of Avi Arad and a life-long comic enthusiast.

And he's forged a close working relationship with Mark Stern whose meticulous work style, Silverman said, complements his "let's just go for it now" tendencies.

Since starting Reveille just over a year ago, Silverman has launched four Marvel properties: Brother Voodoo, 1,000 Days, Night Thrasher, and an undisclosed project in partnership with Joe Straczynski. He's also developing the independent comic Brotherman
for theatrical release and possible spin-off to television.

Comics, says Silverman, are a "fundamental part of the Reveille strategy."

Placement cash

Comic properties are win-win, he said, because the material lends itself so well to product placement.

Night Thrasher
is described by Silverman as "Russell Simmons meets James Bond." The character, originally a skateboarding African-American superhero, was re-imagined as a wealthy clothing designer who resides in a plush Manhattan penthouse.

"These environments are ideal for product placement." Silverman noted. "It's easy to insert the latest cool gadget, the cell phone, the newest laptop."

While comic-based material syncs nicely with the latest fad in branded entertainment, there's no question that intangibles are playing an important part in the decision-making process. Many of these executives have comic book passion in their blood, a vein that extends back to childhood.

"I'm a fanboy just like everyone else," admitted Kyle. "I remember my first comic. It changed my life.

"Being in position now where I get to introduce these characters to a whole new audience is such a great opportunity."

Even Silverman heated up when talking about comics, "I want to be that superhero, to get the beautiful girl, to live a life without limits. Who wouldn't?"

"Every time these characters make it to the screen it's a triumph," said Kyle. "You ain't seen nothin' yet."