Indies Dark Horse, IDW, Oni lead the charge

The love affair between movies and comicbooks is about to take on a new dimension.

One hint about what it will look like: Portland, Ore., is poised to be the next Hollywood of this page-to-screen business.

After a period all but dominated by Marvel and DC and their lineups of spandex-clad superheroes, much smaller publishers, including three in the moody northwest city, are actively looking to bring their comics and graphic novels to the screen. Rather than simply license their characters to studios or producers, however, some publishers are looking at self-financing with the aid of outside investors.

One of the big differences from other comic projects: They don’t necessarily revolve around men in tights.

For example, IDW Publishing’s first film adaptation is “30 Days of Night,” based on Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s graphic novel, a bloody vampire tale set in a remote Alaskan town. Sony releases the pic, helmed by David Slade (“Hard Candy”), in October.

Another small publisher, Oni Press, has a dozen pics set up at various studios. Three years ago, the Portland-based company was trying to figure out a way to make bigscreen versions of its properties as a way to drive its book sales.

In came producer Eric Gitter, who was considering a comicbook adaptation after watching the “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” franchises and movies like “Road to Perdition” collect serious box office coin. Gitter, who had previously produced Miramax’s “O,” now heads up Oni’s entertainment arm, Closed on Mondays.

Their first adaptation, “Whiteout,” an action thriller based on Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber’s graphic novel, will be released by Warner Bros. sometime next year. The picture, with Dominic Sena directing and Joel Silver co-producing, stars Kate Beckinsale as a marshal who must solve a murder at the South Pole.

Also based in Portland are Oni and two other comic firms: Top Shelf and Dark Horse Comics.

Dark Horse has established itself as a major player in the adaptation game, having formed Dark Horse Entertainment in 1992.

The company also is a producer of “30 Days of Night,” and its credits range from “Hellboy” and “Alien vs. Predator” to “Mystery Men” and “The Mask.”

Its most recent offering, “300,” based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, grossed $211 million at the domestic box office and sent copies of the book flying off the shelves.

That’s exactly what publishers are hoping for.

“When these things become movies, it just helps the publishing business, especially publishers of our level,” says Chris Ryall, publisher and editor-in-chief of IDW Publishing. “Everyone in the world knows Superman or Spider-Man. But when ‘300,’ ‘Sin City,’ or a ’30 Days of Night’ comes out and people aren’t aware of it, it drives people into bookstores to check them out.”

Among the other companies and their film projects:

Devil’s Due: Publisher’s “Hack/Slash” and “The Lost Squad” are set up at Rogue Pictures with “Hitman’s” Adrian Askarieh and Daniel Alter producing. Benderspink recently acquired the rights to the company’s “Drafted.” Steven De Souza is adapting “Sheena: Queen of the Jungle.”

Top Cow: Universal is lensing “Wanted,” with James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman starring in the actioner that is already being heralded as next summer’s “The Matrix.” Platinum Studios’ Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (who adapted the comicbook “Men in Black”) is shepherding the publisher’s adaptations, which also include “Inferno,” at WB; “Rising Stars,” at MGM; and “Fathom,” at Fox. Separately, Image Comics, launched by one of Top Cow’s founders, has “O.C.T.: Occult Crimes Taskforce” in the works at Dimension Films, with Rosario Dawson set to star. She co-created the comic with David Atchison and Tony Shasteen.

Platinum Studios: On its own, Platinum has “Cowboys & Aliens” set up at Sony, sci-fier “Unique” at Disney, “Mal Chance” at Miramax and “Nathan Never” at DreamWorks, based on the company’s books.

IDW: Outside of “30 Days of Night,” publisher is also considering film versions of Steve Niles’ “Aleister Arcane,” “The Lurkers” and “Bigfoot.”

Tokyopop: Publisher formed Tokyopop Pictures to produce its own pics that include adaptations of psychological horror book “Lament of the Lamb” and live-action/animated hybrid “Princess Ai.” It’s also planning features based on “Riding Shotgun” and “I Love Halloween,” online series that screen on MySpace. It had previously set up the vampire Western “Priest” to Screen Gems, “East Coast Rising” at Starz and “Pet Shop of Horrors” at Focus.

Virgin Comics: Guy Ritchie is attached to helm publisher’s first original property as a feature, “The Gamekeeper,” for Warner Bros., based on his own comicbook. Joel Silver is producing. Publisher’s Director’s Cut comic line also may turn books by John Woo, Ed Burns, Jonathan Mostow, Terry Gilliam, Shekhar Kapur and Nicolas Cage into pics.

In many cases, publishers are licensing their properties, with producers spending up to $200,000 to option the rights.

But like Marvel Entertainment, which is looking to grab a bigger piece of the pie with next summer’s “The Hulk” and “Iron Man” after licensing such top properties as “Spider-Man” and “Fantastic Four,” publishers are looking to self-finance these projects.

The payoff could be huge.

That’s because pics based on comicbooks on average are earning more than pics based on any other source material, averaging around $215 million each, according to a study conducted by Variety that surveyed the sources for the top 20 pics for each of the past 10 years.

It’s what’s helped attract top talent like Johnny Depp, Zack Snyder, McG, Joel Silver, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, for example.

But this idea of self-financing doesn’t mean $100-million plus outlays on tentpoles. For example, “300” had a budget of $60 million. Oni is considering spending up to $40 million per project. Others, like Tokyopop, based in Los Angeles, are looking to spend far less, mostly in the $10 million range.

Other companies like Devil’s Due Publishing would love to get into that game but “aren’t in the position (financially) to do so yet,” says Josh Blaylock, president of the Chicago-based Devil’s Due. “But in the future, you never know.”

The ultimate goal is the same: to be more hands-on in the development of their properties, packaging the projects and hiring directors, writers and actors, while making more money.

“That’s the great thing about being a book publisher at the same time,” says Stu Levy, CEO and chief creative officer of Tokyopop. “It’s a business that means something to us. Building franchises (through films or TV shows) means more book revenues.”

In the past, publishers have had to sit back and watch as their projects languished in development hell or had talent attached that filmmakers may not have wanted to work with.

“We have a lot of people come to us and ask if they can buy the rights to our books and we’ve said no,” Levy says. “It’s hard when someone is offering you a check, but ultimately the project is shelved and never sees the light of day and you have an unhappy creator. That’s not good for anybody in the long run.”

Levy cites “Priest” as an example. The book, about a vampire-hunting cowboy, has been in development at Screen Gems since 2005 and has stalled after several attempts to get it off the ground.

“That was the thing that made me realize we need, as a company, to make sure that our creative direction is what’s behind the movement into film and television for Tokyopop-related properties,” Levy says. “For us, it’s about producing a creative aesthetic on the screen that will resonate with a global audience.”

Blaylock is cautious about dealing with “the biz.” He’d always wanted to pursue turning his properties into films or TV shows, but has always focused on selling comicbooks and graphics first.

“I’m definitely psyched about all this excitement and snowball of enthusiasm that Hollywood has for comics and hope it doesn’t stop,” Blaylock says. “But I’m always the first person to walk into anything with the worst-case-scenario approach. We’re not looking to just give everything over to someone. We want to make sure we partner up with people who understand the properties. We’re trying to carefully choose our allies.”

As much as publishers have been looking to the screen, there is also the sense that they can lose their core mission.

IDW, for instance, is working it both ways. The publisher has been going the reverse route, relying on landing movie- or TV-based properties like “Beowulf” and next year’s “Star Trek” pic to publish as comicbooks. It recently published 1.5 million copies of “Transformers,” which tied in with the film. The strategy has helped the company establish a greater presence with mass-market retailers like Target, Borders and Barnes & Noble — a main focus for the company as it tries to increase sales. Those stores now make up 70% of the company’s stores, versus 40% in the past.

“By the time you get a movie made, it’s just kind of a nice bonus on top of everything else,” Ryall says. “We never got into this to make movies. We’re certainly a comicbook publisher, and that’s what we do.”

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