Hollywood hung up on adapting strips

In 1998, only two of America’s 50 highest-grossing films were based on a comic book. Last year, there were none, in a list dominated by remakes, sequels and book-based properties. The most successful comic-inspired creation: “From Hell” at No. 78.

No such shutout will happen this year. “Spider-Man” ($370 million) and “Blade 2″ ($81 million) are already comic-based hits, “Men in Black 2″ and “Road to Perdition” are coming, with “Bulletproof Monk” arriving this winter.

Nor is it likely to be a one-year blip. Next year’s schedule already features “The Hulk,” “Daredevil,” two sequels to “The Matrix” and “X-Men 2.” And Hollywood is scouring comic publishers’ vaults for more movie-worthy characters.

It’s not quite a comic-book wonderland, though trends point that way. An analysis of 1998’s top-grossing pics shows that 20 of the top 50 grossers came from spec scripts or pitches, another 14 were based on books, and seven more were sequels or remakes. Only “Blade” and “Mask of Zorro” had comics pedigrees.

Last year, books again comprised 14 of the top 50, sequels and remakes another 11. Twenty-three major movies came from spec scripts and pitches.

But this year, clearly, Hollywood has found a strong new source for blockbusters:

  • The long-gestating “Spider-Man” debuted with an historic $114 million opening weekend, and is already the No. 5 all-time grosser. The “Blade” franchise already has bagged $151 million on its way to a third installment.

  • Marvel — with “Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men 2,” “The Hulk” and “Daredevil” underway — is mining its 4,700 characters for more. And the company’s licensing, merchandise, publishing, vidgame and other operations are enjoying spinoff success.

  • MGM and Cheyenne Enterprises recently signed a deal with Stan Lee’s new company, POW! Entertainment. Lee, the original creator of Spider-Man, X-Men and many others, has infused his first three projects with six decades of comics experience.

  • Smaller publishers –Platinum Entertainment, Todd McFarlane Entertainment and Fantagraphics Books among others — also are basking in Hollywood’s eye, with resurgent interest in their characters and languishing development projects.

  • The modest moneymaker “Ghost World” showed studios don’t need superheroes to score. Now creator Dan Clowes is finishing another script.

Ever since Superman and Batman’s onscreen heydays, Hollywood has tried to tap into comics. But that stalled by the mid-’90s with Marvel’s financial woes and DC Comics’ inability to generate any synergy with its Time-Warner corporate siblings.

Eventually, the situation eased as changing distribution gave aggressive smaller publishers bigger market share, and a chance to bring new characters forward. And Marvel revived under vigorous new management.

In 1997, “Men in Black,” based on a little-seen Malibu Comics series, grossed $250 million, showing even unknowns could break big. “The Matrix” ($171 million) in 1999 and “X-Men” ($157 million) in 2000 further fed Hollywood’s interest, but it’s taken until now for many projects to hit screens.

“It all kind of came to a head with ‘Spider-Man,'” says Stan Lee. “These are high-concept, bigger-than-life characters with a touch of fantasy.”

Marvel Studios prexy Avi Arad spends his days visiting his three movies now in production, juggling bids on other projects, and development work on still others. The most ambitious deal is a 15-picture joint venture with Artisan, with “Iron Fist” and “The Punisher” to begin production in the fall.”Personally, I think we have the easiest thing in the world in making these movies, because the stories are there,” Arad says. “The characters are likable and they’re relatable.”

Certainly, MGM hopes Lee can unleash more superhero lightning with his latest comics-minded concepts.

“But you must never forget that you still need a compelling story with elements of surprise, and characters who must be believable and empathetic,” Lee says of his approach. “The story is still the thing.”MGM Studios prexy Michael Nathanson says most of Hollywood’s comic book focus has been on tentpoles such as Lee’s.

“They’re not easy movies to put together,” he cautions, because of the cost, special effects and time required. But the ability to become a franchise makes the cost a worthwhile bet.”When they’re successful, you’re dealing with a compelling character in chapter stories,” says Bob Levin, MGM’s prexy of worldwide marketing and distribution. “Then it’s very easy to spin that character into another chapter for a sequel.”

And improved effects technology means such pics can be convincingly made.

“What would have looked hokey a few years back now looks a lot better,” says Platinum CEO Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, who published “Men in Black” and now specializes in bringing comics to screen.

Comics properties also generate merchandise and other ancillary revenue, as “Spawn’s” Todd McFarlane has repeatedly proved. Now his company is trying to close four deals, and Col has intensified interest in “Spawn 2.”

“We’re getting phone calls like ‘Jennifer Lopez wanted to play Wonder Woman but she was denied, so what have you got for us?’ People are starting to believe this is a good medium to pull from,” says Todd McFarlane Entertainment prexy Terry Fitzgerald.

There are reasons for caution though. “Howard the Duck,” “Judge Dredd” and “The Phantom” show that comic adaptations aren’t sure-fire hits.

“I get asked sometimes, and I am hard pressed to come up with anything new to option,” says Rob Worley, who writes the Comics2Film website. “Marvel boasts 3,000 to 4,000 characters, but not every one of them is a viable movie property.”

Marvel’s library includes such “immortals” as Mort the Dead Teenager, Dazzler the disco superhero and Ant-Man. But Worley gives the company credit for creating superheroes with human qualities that make for accessible, successful projects.

He also gives good marks to smaller shops such as Dark Horse, whose comics led to “The Mask” and “Time Cop.” Comics giant DC, by contrast, hasn’t done much since “Batman Forever” in 1995.

“It’s very strange that DC has fallen behind,” says Worley. “It has all these iconic characters, all in development, but nothing seems to break out.”

Warner is working on sequels to “Batman” and “Superman,” a third movie with both superheroes, and pics about Wonder Woman and Catwoman, all coming the next three years.

And DC has exploited other outlets. “Smallville,” a TV take on a teen Superman, has been a big hit, while the Ubi Soft vidgame “Batman Vengeance” sold more than 1 million units this spring. Batman TV spinoff “Birds of Prey” is coming soon.

All these projects are live-action, reflecting aud resistance to watching grown-up themes in animation. But it also reflects technology’s ability to create compelling live-action pics. Ironically, such films’ success ultimately could kill comics.

“It’s always been the allure of the genre comic book that you couldn’t duplicate on screen what the comic book artist was doing,” says Eric Reynolds, a Fantagraphics editor. “But who wants to look at a static image of the Hulk on the printed page when you can watch a film by Ang Lee of the Hulk kicking butt?”

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