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When Dark Horse Entertainment landed a first look deal at Universal Pictures in 2008, the pact was considered a coup for the comicbook publisher and a faster way to get more of its adaptations up on the bigscreen.

At a time when Hollywood is snatching up the film rights to every high-profile graphic novel available, the pair-up was an innovative way for a studio to lock down some top titles, without having to pony up the $4 billion Disney paid for Marvel.

A number of projects were developed — including “Umbrella Academy,” “Emily the Strange,” “The Secret,” “Criminal Macabre” and “R.I.P.D.” — but not a single film wound up being produced during the deal’s three-year run.

“There were a lot of grand plans that didn’t pan out,” says Dark Horse president Mike Richardson. “It wasn’t lost time. We were developing projects.” The first, the comedic thriller “R.I.P.D.,” shoots this summer with Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges as supernatural cops.

Still, Dark Horse’s relationship with Universal provides other publishers with a case study in whether an exclusive studio deal makes sense. And the main lesson is: They don’t need one.

“When you’re in one, you want to get out of it, and when you’re not in one you want in one,” Richardson says.

The deals do have their pros, providing publishers with overhead that pays for office space and staffers. At the same time, “your titles are at the top of executives’ minds when they’re considering which films to make next,” Richardson notes. And a studio deal essentially guarantees distribution for a publisher’s pics, from theatrical to homevideo, including the ones it wants to self-finance.

But a first look can hinder a publisher from shopping a title to the highest bidder — especially one that might want to produce the film before anyone else. If Universal was interested in one of Dark Horse’s books, it had the first right of refusal, and could hold it from going to another major.

Dark Horse is hardly hurting now that it’s a free agent again with its books.

“We’re doing fine, and we’ve sold a number of projects since we left (Universal),” Richardson says. “It’s nice to be able to go out with our projects and take them all over town and get people interested in them.”

In fact, the publisher has been on a roll (see projects in pipeline, page A1). The company, repped by WME and the Gotham Group, has had one of the better track records: Of the 80 projects it’s set up, 28 have been made.

The first look deal at Universal wasn’t Dark Horse’s first. After Richardson launched Dark Horse’s film division in 1992, the company landed at 20th Century Fox. It moved over to Universal in 1994 for six years, during which it co-produced “Mystery Men,” “Virus” and “Time Cop,” which spun off a TV series. A deal at Fireworks Entertainment followed before Dark Horse wound up at Universal again, while the studio was readying to release “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

Dark Horse’s deal also came right at a time when there was a regime change in Universal’s executive suites: Studio chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chair David Linde, who brokered the deal, were ousted in 2009. Comcast’s takeover of NBCUniversal also created distractions.

“Our timing was unfortunate,” Richardson says.

Previously, Dark Horse had set up such projects as “300” and “The Mask” at Warner Bros. and New Line, “30 Days of Night” at Sony and “Alien vs. Predator” at Fox, and “Sin City” at Dimension on a case-by-case basis. Richardson says he’d be interested in a new first look deal, “if the right one is out there. We’d always entertain one.”

When announcing the deal with Dark Horse, Linde said it wasn’t about making “comicbook movies. This is about ideas. One of the most important things in the film business is original perspective, and it comes at a premium in our business.”

And that’s what Richardson says has helped the company get its projects picked up.

“Dark Horse has tremendous content, and that’s what keeps us going,” he says. “Many of our titles will make terrific films, but that’s not our endgame. People sense which books are attempts to cash in on the film business and which books stand out on their own.”

Pulp pics embrace dark side | What’s next for Dark Horse | Studio deal put brakes on slate | Comic-Con stunts hit the streets
Variety’s coverage of 2011 Comic-Con