Warner starts to tap into DC characters

Is “Spider-Man” cooler than “Superman”? Is “Hulk” more emotionally tortured than “Batman”? In a showdown between Marvel and DC Comics characters, it’s not clear who might win. (And would anyone besides a comic-book geek even care?)

Yet in real-life, Marvel Comics wins the contest at the box office. Its characters have proliferated in films with astonishing speed of late (“Blade,” “X-Men,” “Daredevil,” “Spider-Man,” “Hulk” and “The Punisher”), while DC characters have lain dormant at Warner Bros. Pictures.

The studio is working hard to get its films in gear quickly, lest the comic book cycle begins to wane.

Of course, it’s an open question as to whether the world would be a better place with more comic-book movies. But Kevin Tsujihara, an exec VP for business development and strategy for Warner Bros. Entertainment, says Warners is aware it could lose an entire generation of comic book fans simply by not making movies for them.

“We’re not going to let that happen,” Tsujihara insists, “we’re going to hire someone soon.”

So, to keep the world safe for comic-book lovers, he and installed-last-year DC prexy and publisher Paul Levitz are hunting for someone to manage Hollywood creative relationships — and they want to do it quickly.

A recent analysis of Warners by investment bank Thomas Weisel Partners called DC a “hidden asset” that is “buried” within WB. Can it be unearthed and unlocked? Many in Hollywood believe so.

“There is no reason why the DC stable of characters can’t outperform Marvel’s,” says Don Murphy, a producer of graphic novel-based movies “From Hell” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

Tsujihara calls Marvel’s success “good for the genre,” but the WB-owned DC is losing the battle of perception in the Hollywood creative community. “DC has been eclipsed by Marvel, no question,” says United Talent Agency partner and motion picture lit topper, Jeremy Zimmer. And this comes despite TV successes like “Smallville” on the WB and “Justice League” on Cartoon Network.

And so, DC is hurrying big-budget movies into production:

  • “Catwoman,” which stars Halle Berry and will be directed by French f/x vet Pitof, starts lensing in September.

  • Director Francis Lawrence’s “Constantine,” about the Roman emperor, also starts production in September, with Keanu Reeves starring.

  • David Goyer, who penned “Blade” for Marvel and New Line, has adapted a new take on “Batman” that should hit theaters in 2005 under the helm of Christopher Nolan.

  • “Wonder Woman” is being dusted off and developed. “Smallville” scribe Philip Levens is scripting, “Matrix” producer Joel Silver is producing with original TV show producer Leonard Goldberg.

  • Even “Superman” may fly again, with “Charlie’s Angels” helmer McG being eyed to direct.

Levitz and Tsujihara are hunting for a DC equivalent to Marvel’s Avi Arad, who champions the film adaptations. “He will fight to the death to make sure those characters are nurtured,” says John Fogelman, the head of talent at the William Morris Agency and agent to “The Hulk” star Eric Bana. He adds that Arad’s involvement is “beyond fiduciary concern; it’s parental.”

Film adaptations have driven Marvel’s stock up well over 100% year-to-date.

But comic book readers’ hearts belong to DC’s characters: In the May edition of the comics bible “Comics Buyers Guide,” DC beat runner-up Marvel as the readers’ fave on a 2:1 basis, 47% to 24%.

However, Levitz astutely points out that for today’s kids, “comic books are no longer likely to be the first exposure to comic book characters.”

Tsujihara and Levitz can’t say when their Svengali will be hired, or where he or she might be based.

“It just requires a person focused on making that happen,” producer Murphy says. “That’s difficult to find when instead of two people running the company like Avi and Ike (Perlmutter), DC is owned by a monolithic media company — but it’s not impossible.”The bureaucracy of AOL Time Warner has been problematic in getting Warners-controlled DC characters set up as New Line films, execs there say, but it shows signs of ebbing a bit: There’s one DC Comics character, Shazam, in development, with William Goldman adapting it.

And if New Line execs privately grouse that the deal needlessly took months to coalesce, at least there is incremental progress being made.

Already in bed with Marvel for a third “Blade” movie, New Line recently hired Alfred Gough and Miles Millar — creators of the WB’s top-rated and DC-inspired “Smallville” — to adapt a comic book for the big screen. Unfortunately for Warners corporate synergy, it was Marvel’s “Iron Man.”

Still, DC has a wide-ranging supply of characters. All that’s needed is for Warner Bros. to start thinking more creatively about the broad array of slightly lesser-known DC characters available for more reasonably priced pics.

As Marvel’s Arad points out, “Before February, if you asked anyone crossing the street what a ‘Daredevil’ was, they’d say ‘Evel Knievel.’ “

Fox’s “Daredevil” ultimately grossed over $100 million. Mindful of this, Marvel also has the lesser-known “Punisher” set up at Artisan, currently lensing with Thomas Jane and John Travolta.

“DC has the better set of characters,” asserts manager-producer JC Spink, who’s producing DC’s “Y: The Last Man” at New Line.

“They’re more iconic. There just hasn’t been a producer at Warners to take advantage of them.”

If that’s the case, then the hire of someone with both a comic book pedigree and solid producing credentials really is imminent at DC, things really might be looking up.

The Gotham-based Levitz insists DC always takes “a different approach” than Marvel, with which it will not compete head-to-head for the affections of other studios.

He says DC “has the luxury of not being publicly traded, and not having to have a film out every year or every quarter” and says that managing a superhero’s brand is easier at one studio rather than at eight.

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