Execs cash in on comics, action figures

The geeks shall inherit the industry

WHAT: Comic-Con Intl.: San Diego
WHERE: San Diego Convention Center
FEATURING: Panels, screenings, portfolio reviews, Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards
WEBSITE: comic-con.org
Photo Gallery from Comic-Con 2007:
Iron Man Q&A photos
The Incredible Hulk Q&A photos
Disney Q&A photos
’30 Days of Night’ panel
‘Superbad’ panel
‘Resident Evil: Extinction’ panel
Bionic Woman Q&A photos
• Fans at Comic-Con: Part One, Part Two
Exhibits at Comic-Con

When four of the five top-grossing movies this year are based on comicbooks, rides or ’80s toy lines, there’s no question it pays for studios to listen to the fans, many of whom were working in Hollywood all along.

It’s one thing when a producer like Jerry Bruckheimer pitches a project, but lately it has been the so-called “geeks” themselves — guys such as “300” director Zack Snyder who grew up on comicbooks and videogames — responsible for shepherding those properties to the screen.

“There’s a history of people coming to this town and running away from what they were in high school,” says Jeff Katz, a production VP at Fox who was brought in to be the studio’s “resident geek.” “Now, it’s cool to still be the same guy you were in high school — if anything, what every studio wants at some level is a guy to fill that niche.”

In his time at New Line, Katz tried to convince the studio to option “Transformers,” to no avail. Today, Katz is just one of a growing number of development gurus whose fanboy expertise has gained credibility as such films have taken off at the box office.

Commercial success has helped to abolish the nerd stigma, says DreamWorks production prexy Adam Goodman, an avid videogame player and genre fan himself.

“Nowadays, if you are into comicbooks in Hollywood, you have a vocabulary that most filmmakers grew up with. You can converse in areas that many people respect,” Goodman explains.

A few years ago, studios saw the decision to tap genre directors Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson to helm high-stakes tentpoles as a risky move, and yet such directors’ personal allegiances to the “Spider-Man” and “Lord of the Rings” mythologies clearly worked to the advantage of those franchises.

But as Joss Whedon’s “Serenity,” James Gunn’s “Slither” and the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino “Grindhouse” experiment recently demonstrated, having a geek at the wheel may help to preserve the integrity of the concept among fans, but it can also limit a project’s crossover appeal.

“There is value added to bring different perspectives to these movies,” says Warners senior VP of production Dan Lin, a genre-film enthusiast who brought both the superhero ensembler “Justice League” and Hong Kong remake “The Departed” to the studio. “If we let fanboys make every one of these movies, they wouldn’t necessarily break out.”

An admitted fanboy recently promoted to senior VP of production at Universal, Scott Bernstein has witnessed a growing acceptance of “geekdom” among higher-ups. His studio is prepping a “reinvention” of the action thriller “Death Race” and is in production with Guillermo Del Toro’s “Hellboy 2,” Timur Bekmambetov’s “Wanted” and a new incarnation of “The Incredible Hulk.”

“I’m making (“Death Race”) because it’s a fanboy’s wet dream,” Bernstein says. “I think that’s the mentality (around town). Look how Paramount is re-branding ‘Star Trek’ with J.J. Abrams. That wouldn’t have happened five years ago. That was a dead franchise.”

Hollywood naturally tends to attract film buffs: Just as Disney draws animation enthusiasts hoping to work with the characters they loved as kids, the “Star Trek” franchise is responsible for luring many of the creative personalities who now staff Paramount Studios.

In Abrams’ case, it was actually Paramount who approached him about directing a new “Star Trek,” an idea that appealed to the self-described “geek.”

“I think the key to all of this is to try to tell the kind of stories that (fellow genre fans) really want to see,” Abrams says. “When we did ‘Lost,’ the idea of doing sci-fi on television was pretty much verboten, and it was shocking to me they went for it.”

But maybe geek chic isn’t such a new thing after all. According to “Transformers” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, such things go in cycles, and the number of fan-savvy creative execs hasn’t really changed since he served as president of production for Warners more than a decade ago.

“There were always two or three guys at each studio who believed in those properties,” remembers di Bonaventura, who is developing a “G.I. Joe” feature at Paramount. “The rule of the studios has been that the generation doing the decision-making is not the generation that grew up with the intellectual property.”

But many of the adaptations recently announced, including an animated “Thundercats” pic and a live-action “He-Man,” were cartoons that today’s thirtysomethings watched while doing their homework as kids.

According to Lin, who is overseeing those two projects for Warners, such properties come with a built-in awareness and lend themselves to tentpole-worthy spectacle.

“When I first got here, it was about the movie-star movies. Now it’s evolved into event movies,” he says. “My job is to bring my bosses what I’m into. You certainly see a lot of younger guys who grew up with these comicbooks and TV shows pushing these projects forward.”

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