Gerry Conway on the Superhero Comics Crisis Part 3

NOTE FROM LB: This is Part 3 of a 3 part series. You can find the first part HERE. Part 2 is HERE.

And now, the much-awaited finale:

by Gerry Conway

The superhero comic book business is in a death spiral, and everyone in the business seems to know it. A crisis as serious as this cannot be addressed by fixes at the margins. We need a fundamental break with the business practices that have brought the companies to this point. A radical solution to a radical crisis.

Both Marvel and DC need to redefine themselves as creative entities. What is their CORE purpose? What is their CORE contribution to the larger enterprise of creating superhero mythology for mainstream media?

Is their core purpose publishing paper pamphlets for sale to a small readership of tens of thousands? Or is their core contribution creating stories and characters in comic book format that can be transformed into other forms of media?

If it’s the first, their business is a dead end, and nothing they do will extend its existence past the next few years. The direct sale market is dying. There’s no time to develop other methods of distribution to profitably replace it. The publishers have tried expanding into bookstores, which, like the comic book stores, are dying. They’ve tried expanding into big box stores like Walmart, but that experiment seems to have failed. They’ve sought sales in digital format, but judging by reports of my own sales in that medium, it’s not a panacea– yet. Traditional comic book publishing for profit by the Big Two seems hopeless, by all the available evidence, at least as presently constituted. Maybe, if both companies scaled back overhead and production to 1967 levels– Marvel producing 12 books a month with a small office and a skeleton staff, DC producing 30 with a slightly larger editorial footprint– they might survive as pure publishing entities.

But survival shouldn’t be a goal.

Instead, I suggest both Marvel and DC dramatically redefine themselves as creators of comic book content first– and profitable publishers second, if at all.

One advantage both companies have as corporate subsidiaries that they never had as independent family businesses is something they need to embrace and promote to their corporate masters as a positive principle– neither company needs to turn a profit, at least not in the short term, and not as publishers. Instead they should redefine themselves primarily, in the modern lexicon, as IP creators. Intellectual Property is one of the most important drivers of modern corporate media success– if not the most crucial component. Comic book publishers are easily the most cost effective creators of IP in modern media. For a media corporation to require profitability of an IP generator like a comic book publisher, when even the highest levels of publishing profitability pale beside the far greater value of the IP itself, isn’t just short-sighted, it’s counterproductive and self defeating.

Marvel and DC should see themselves primarily, if not solely, as IP generators, and sell themselves to Disney and Warnermedia as such. Publishing should be the tail of the dog; the dog is creation.

If the companies do follow this path, they’ll also need to radically rethink their approach to publishing– ironically, with potential benefit both to themselves as profitable enterprises and to their customers in the direct market.

For example, if your goal as a company is no longer to increase or maintain market share in the direct market, but instead to generate exciting and long-term potential IP, you don’t need predatory publishing practices like variant covers, or twice-yearly “events,” or extortionate pricing, or required pre-orders. You could even begin to accept returns, lightening the financial pressures on dealers and encouraging them to risk new series. You could reduce the number of unnecessary spin-offs and reboots. You could devote energy to nurturing creatives and long-term storylines.

At one point in the mid 1970s I had a dust up with Marvel’s production chief, the late John Verpoorten. I was complaining that a revision to the production schedule would negatively affect the aesthetic quality of a book I was writing and how could he justify that (I was young, naive and arrogant). John looked at me and growled, “From an aesthetic point of view we can maybe justify ten of these books.” I was gobsmacked and obviously never forgot his point.

Redefining their core mission as IP generators would allow both Marvel and DC to address John’s point positively: is there an aesthetic reason to publish this story? Does it say something new and valuable about our characters, or is it just an effort to increase market share? Does it add to the mythology, or diminish it? Is it good?

Publishing sales success has rarely been a reliable predictor of a superhero story’s viability in other media. Venom is a popular comic book character with mixed success in sales– but a worldwide hit as a movie antihero. The JLA Detroit era heroes ended ignominiously in a market driven by direct sales, but individually have provided useful source material for CW TV shows. The Green Arrow was never a sales leader in comics. Before the Batman movies, Batman was a mid-level but important DC comic. Deadpool was a popular second string character but again never a sales leader before Ryan Reynolds put on the mask.

There’s a way forward for both the superhero publishers and the direct market– but not if the publishers continue to define themselves first as publishers. That day is past. The publishers will have to be bold if they’re going to thrive in the post-direct market world. The first step is for them to decide what they do best. In my view, what they do best is create comic book stories. Those stories transcend the traditional sales platform that produced them. It’s time for the bird to leave its nest.


Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.

Indie Video: The Return of ‘Sam and Pat’ – – @brisownworld

 by TVWriter™ Press Service

TVWriter™’s favorite web series creator, Bri Castellini and her partner, Chris Cherry are at it again!

Sam and Pat Are Depressed, the award-winning comedy mental health web series, is back for its second season, with the first episode premiering March 25th, 2019, on Stareable and SeekaTV.

As part of the marketing push for the much-anticipated new episodes, the stars and executive producers Bri Castellini and Chris Cherry have also launched a companion podcast called Bri and Chris Are Depressed, as well as added new Stareable Enrich tiers for fans of the series to get early access to both the web series and the podcast as well as exclusive bonus updates and content.

The web series Sam and Pat Are Depressed follows depressed roommates Sam (Castellini, also the series’ creator) and Pat (Cherry) who help each other navigate the inherent awkwardness of therapy through profanity, humor, and take out.

The second season will cover the complicated emotions that are part of such activities as going on medication, mansplaining to your therapist, and more. Watch on Stareable or SeekaTV.

The Bri and Chris Are Depressed podcast, hosted by Castellini and Cherry, recaps Sam and Pat episodes one by one while also delving into the hosts’ own connection to the various therapy and mental health topics and answering viewer and listener questions.

The podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, Radio Public, or your preferred podcasting app.

A Few Words About the Stareable Enrich tiers

Stareable Enrich empowers creators to offer freemium versions of their content so fans can support the shows they love. Sam and Pat have 2 monthly tiers available for fans, for $5 and $10 a month, each with
accompanying bonus content and early access. More information available at the link above.

How to Write a Web Series and Get Your TV Writing Career Going

Ya gotta start somewhere, right? Here’s a post from Script Reader Pro pointing you in a direction that differs from most starting gigs – because in and of itself, writing a web series can be more creatively and financially rewarding than many of us imagine:

Yes, it’s true. This is a very bad visual pun. Our apologies.

How to Write a Web Series and Get Your TV Writing Career Off the Ground
by Rebecca Norris

Are you an aspiring writer still wondering how to write for TV years after starting down the road? We’re going to show you how writing a web series could be your best move ever if your main aim is to become a TV writer.

This isn’t a post on how to write a web series but here are three reasons why creating your own web series is the best thing you can do to learn how to become a writer for TV.

Wondering How to Become a TV Writer? Write For TV.  

What better way to show you can write for TV than actually writing for TV? If you want to know how to become a  TV writer and produce TV shows, why don’t you live that dream today?

Maybe you can follow in the footsteps of Issa Rae, whose popular web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl led her being repped by UTA and 3 Arts Entertainment, and writing for TV — i.e. ABC and HBO.

Create your own TV series on the web, and you can enter it into festivals and contests to win awards and recognition, and gain credibility. If you earn a steady following on sites like YouTube, it can help you pitch your series to networks, and build a fan base for your work.

At the very least, you’ll be seeing your writing come to life, and isn’t that the goal of most aspiring TV writers?

Aspiring TV Writers Should Utilize the Power of the Link!…

Read it all at SCRIPTREADERPRO.COM

 

How the Major Hollywood Talent Agencies Put Their Interests Ahead of Their Clients’ Interests

Monday we talked about the Writers Guild of America’s upcoming move to put out a report on how talent agencies have been screwing their writer clients when they put together packaging deals that include them.

Well, that move is no longer “upcoming.” The WGAW released the report yesterday. Here it is:

Introduction:

Talent agencies have represented Hollywood actors, writers, and directors for almost a century. But what began as a service to artists in their negotiations with film studios has become a cartel dominated by a few powerful agencies that use their control of talent primarily to enrich themselves. Today, the major Hollywood agencies make money not by maximizing their clients’ earnings and charging ten percent commission, but through direct payments from studios known as “packaging” fees, which are unrelated to their clients’ compensation and come directly from TV series and film production budgets and profits. More recently, an even more overt form of conflict has taken root. The largest talent agencies have themselves formed production entities that hire and employ their own clients.

These conflicted practices systematically favor the interests of the major agencies at the expense of their clients, and constitute a violation of fiduciary duty under multiple bodies of law. During a period of unprecedented prosperity for the major media companies, these conflicts have contributed to declining writer pay. In each of the last three years, the companies that dominate the entertainment industry—Disney, Fox, Time Warner, Comcast, CBS, and Viacom—generated more than $50 billion in operating profits. Meanwhile, television writer-producers’ median weekly earnings declined 23 percent between 2014 and 2016.

Conflicted practices have driven agency profits, attracting billions in investments from private equity firms and institutional investors that now own majority stakes in the two largest agencies, William Morris Endeavor (WME) and Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and have a minority stake in the third, United Talent Agency (UTA). The influx of capital has fueled expansion efforts into sports ownership, marketing and advertising, investment banking, and content production and distribution. With these agencies increasingly representing companies that employ clients, and even becoming the employer themselves, conflicts of interestare at the heart of the dominant agencies’ business model. This fact is not in dispute, as co-CEO of WME Ari Emanuel said in 2015 of his agency’s operations, “No conflict, no interest.” More recently, Emanuel was quoted in The Telegraph stating, “If you don’t have a conflict you don’t have a business.”

While the major agencies have pursued growth through conflicts of interest, these practices contravene how agents are required to act under state and federal law. When representing clients, agents act as fiduciaries, who have specific responsibilities under the law in California and virtually every other state. A fiduciary is a person to whom power is entrusted on behalf of a client, giving the fiduciary a duty “to act loyally for the principal’s benefit” and requiring that the fiduciary “subordinate [its] interests to those of the principal and place the principal’s interests first.” Whether negotiating directly with a studio for their own compensation or becoming a producer-employer, the major agencies are clearly not abiding by the standard of fiduciary duty required under the law.

This report provides an overview of talent agency representation in Hollywood and details the extent to which the major agencies’ business model is based on conflicts of interest that harm their clients and violate the law. It shows how, by maximizing their own profits and now the profits of their outside investors, these agencies have strayed from their core purpose of representing the interests of their clients…..

Read it all as uploaded by WGAW.ORG

Gerry Conway on the Superhero Comics Crisis Part 2

NOTE FROM LB: This is Part 2 of a 3 part series. You can find the first part HERE.

And now, on with the show:

by Gerry Conway

For most of the 1970s, in other words, both companies, Marvel and DC, faced creative and economic chaos. That chaos produced memorable and influential work– Kirby’s Fourth World was born, I killed Gwen Stacy, the X-Men were reborn under Chris Claremont, Jim Starlin created Thanos and killed the original Captain Marvel, Batman began getting dark– but the companies themselves were flailing. Management at both Marvel and DC were clueless how to proceed. (As someone who held editorial positions at both companies in the 1970s I can attest top executives at DC and Marvel were way out of their depth.)

No one working in comics in the early to mid 1970s had any realistic expectation the business would even exist by the end of the decade– news stand sales were that bad and getting worse every year. Cost cutting was rampant. Marvel reduced page count to 18 pages (and tried to hide it by paying writers and artists for 1 page that was printed as a “double page spread”). DC maintained a higher page count while adding reprint pages in order to increase the price. Short term fixes for a devastating long term crisis.

Two events saved superhero comics from disappearing in the late 1970s, and each produced effects that fundamentally altered the economics and creative direction of the business up to the present day.

The first event was the creation of the Direct Sale Market by entrepreneur Phil Seuling in 1973. There are many articles available describing how the direct market expanded through the 70s and 80s, so I won’t repeat the details here, but in a nutshell, the direct market offered comic book publishers a way to guarantee the profit on individual titles compared to newstand sales. Comics sold through newstand distribution were returnable; sales to the direct market were not. Returnability meant most of a title’s print run was wasted. (Typically in that era a publisher would print, say, 200,000 copies of a title to sell 70,000.) In addition, the direct market offered predictability– eventually publishers would learn in advance how well a title might do because of pre-orders. These positives, of course, have a downside, but we’ll get to that later. By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the direct market for comics was viewed by almost everyone in the business as a god send that saved a dying business.

The second event that saved superhero comics was the arrival in 1978 of the first mainstream superhero blockbuster movie– Superman. That movie and its sequels, followed by Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, fueled the growth of “serious” superhero mythology in mainstream pop culture (as opposed to the kid-friendly Superman series of the 1950s and the camp comedy of 1966’s Batman TV show). Those movies (and other baby boomer inspired genre entries into mainstream culture like Star Wars and Indiana Jones) began the gradual colonization of pop culture by superhero mythology which exploded into fruition in the 2000s. In the 1970s, however, the main effect Superman the Movie (and later, the Batman film) had on comics was to temporarily increase sales and thus allow both companies to avoid dealing with longer-term creative and economic questions about the fundamental viability of the industry’s business model.

The combination of both events, the development of the direct market and the arrival of the blockbuster superhero film, saved the comic book business as such in the 1970s– but at the same time created and reinforced conflicting tendencies that today have produced a potentially fatal contradiction in how super hero comic book publishers approach their business.

On the one hand, the growth of the direct sale market into the de facto sole distribution point for superhero comics (the recent Walmart experiment and the digital comic market notwithstanding) has resulted in an incestuous and shrinking niche market for the sale of physical comic books. As recent reporting makes clear, this is unsustainable as a business model. Both Marvel and DC have resorted to increasingly desperate and counterproductive marketing ploys to maintain market share and profitability in a decreasing pool of readers– a ridiculous explosion of variant covers, “special” events, crossovers, mini-series, extortionately-priced first issues, reboots and rebirths and renumberings, spin-offs and multiple versions of the same superhero teams, more events, more crossovers, more tie-ins. What all of these efforts have in common (despite some high-quality creative work on individual titles) is a complete absense of long-term strategic thinking in either the creative or business sense. What’s the plan here? How is any of this short term market share maneuvering going to build and sustain a stable long-term readership? And, in particular, how does it fit with the other, even more significant development in the superhero comic book business– the ascendency of superhero mythology in pop culture?

That second fact– the mainstreaming of superhero mythology, begun by the Superman movie in 1978– is the most significant development in the modern history of the comic book medium, and NEITHER company has developed an effective strategy to address it in their creative approach or their business model. The primary reason they haven’t, I believe, is rooted in the first of the two events that saved comics in the 1970s, and is at the core of the contradiction that’s crippling the superhero comic book business today– the direct market and its lock on the distribution of comic books.

On the one hand, you have superhero mythology in mainstream media– a mass market appealing to millions upon millions of consumers world wide, a potential audience beyond anything imagined by comic book creators half a century ago in our most weed-enhanced fantasies. And on the other hand, you have superhero publishing in the direct market– a shrinking niche market numbering in at most a hundred thousand, dominated by a core readership of a few thousand, whose financial support is strained to the breaking point and beyond by ruthless and extortionate marketing of low-value-added gimmick publications that thwart long term emotional investment.

In a rational universe, both companies would be examining their core business strategy to stake a claim in the mainstream market– a claim they have a moral, creative and financial imperative to demand as the originators of the mythology being celebrated. If ever there was a moment for the Big Two comic book publishers to think outside the traditional box, this is it. Instead, they are consumed with chasing the diminishing returns of the direct market– creating properties to exploit a readership exhausted by the financial and emotional demands of predatory publishing techniques designed to milk as much profit from a shrinking audience as possible. This isn’t only cynical, it’s stupid and counterproductive– not to mention ultimately an expression of creative bankruptcy.

So, having analyzed the problem from my own admittedly limited viewpoint– a viewpoint privileged, somewhat, by fifty years of experience– do I have any solutions to propose?

Yes, I do….


Join us tomorrow for Part 3!


Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.