Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Where are all the Heroes?

This mock cover for the reissue of THE GREAT PULP HEROES by Don Hutchinson has given me a question to ponder...

Everyone here knows of my analogy regarding the DVD Premiere market. The DVD premiere market is the new pulp. Here's why:

-- Both feature lurid, colorful covers designed to entice the browser at the store or newsstand.

-- Both are inexpensively produced and distributed to a mass market.

-- Both are written to a formula (more on that in my upcoming Scr(i)pt article)

-- Both rely on story and genre more than star power

-- Both feature exciting tales of continuing heroic adventure...waitaminnit!


But we DON'T have heroic fiction featuring the adventures of a continuing cast of characters. No TARZAN, JOHN CARTER, G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES, THE SHADOW, THE SPIDER, CAPTAIN FUTURE, OPERATOR 5 or even FU MANCHU.

Why not? Why mimic the pulps in so many other ways and not do so when it comes to heroic fiction?



John Donald Carlucci said...

Full Moon Ent tried, but I think they were a little ahead of their time. I would love to have more of Dr. Modred or some good Jack Deth. I would think the D2DVD effort concerning Darkman was a shot.


RogerRmjet said...

Excellent question, Bill, and one that I've been asking for years! I think the problem actually lies with the success of big screen comic book movies like Batman, X-Men, and Spider-Man. They're all the rage right now, and typically hero movies require some level of expensive SFX work, so the studios only think of them in terms of the big screen. People who own, or have purchased, the rights to lesser-known (to the mass populace, anyway) characters, such as Green Hornet and The Shadow, salivate over the big screen box office returns they imagine can be theirs. But then they stumble for years on end just trying to get these projects off the ground. Who even owns the screen rights to Green Hornet now? Did the Weinsteins take that project with them, or did it stay with Miramax/Disney?

I think The Shadow is a great property for a DVD Premiere series, but Conde Nast owns it (and Doc Savage), and, from what I've read, they have those same big-screen dollar signs in their eyes. Who knows if they'll ever get their act together enough to do another Shadow movie, much less a decent one. WB has been farting around with a new Tarzan movie for years. Same with John Carter -- first Disney fumbled the project, and now Paramount just dropped the ball again.

I think the market is ripe for a return of the glory days of Republic Pictures -- making modest budget, quickly made DVD Premieres that are chock full of character and action. I strongly believe that this is what Marvel and DC should do with their lesser-known characters. Marvel is all gung-ho about making more films, but as many people have pointed out, they've used up all their best characters except for Captain America. This would be a perfect means to tap that vein, make huge profits, and give audiences and filmmakers (I'd kill to make a Shadow or Green Hornet movie) what they really want.

So, who owns the rights to G-8, The Spider, Captain Future, Operator 5, and Fu Manchu?

Bill Cunningham said...

My thoughts are that it doesn't necessarily require known properties, but just the idea of continuing series.

And yes, I understand that there are DVD Premieres of BATMAN, SUPERMAN , BATMAN BEYOND, JUSTICE LEAGUE and THE BATMAN - but those are all tied into their tv shows and are all animated. I'm talking live action recurring movie characters. Why hasn't that 'hero genre' made the crossover to DVD? Is there a disconnect.

I agree JDC - the FULL MOON / DARKMAN stuff was that. Why didn't they continue with D-MAN as he was successful? They even made a TV pilot from it all.


Jonathan Walter said...

I think Hollywood fears portraying real masculinity anymore. Most of the masculine heros in films today are played by women. Look how they watered down Superman.

Bill Cunningham said...

Well then, where is SHEENA or even NANCY DREW?

(which I always thought would make a great teenage girl series for something like Nickelodeon or Disney or ABC family)

I think there's some sort of fundamental disconnect here. I can't believe that no one has thought of this before...

RogerRmjet said...

I meant live action, too. Perhaps I was too long-winded in my response. As I said, I think the chief problem is that when Hollywood thinks of hero-oriented movies, they automatically think BIG and EXPENSIVE, both in terms of production and returns.

There is a Nancy Drew movie in the works, starring Emma Roberts (Julia's niece), slated for 2007. Once again, headed for the big screen. As you've stated before, Bill, the industry doesn't really understand the D2DVD market, and this is an excellent example. They used to think D2DVD was only for kids movies, and are just now discovering that they aren't.

Bill Cunningham said...

"Hollywood thinks of hero-oriented movies, they automatically think BIG and EXPENSIVE, both in terms of production and returns."

Yes, and they could be thinking small budget, but big looking and more importantly - MAKING A LOT OF THEM.

Since many movies are sold in package deals anyway - why not create a package of 4 DVDP movies for the price of one theatrical? Put the exact amount of marketing dollars behind it and leverage the merchandising.

Also, I want to get away from the idea that it has to be a licensed property that already exists like THE SHADOW. It could be something completely new that creates a series of heroic adventure movies on DVD. If DVDP is the new pulp, then it stands to reason that there should be new characters and stories.

Jonathan Walter said...

Before someone comments on this page that I am a chauvinist, I have nothing against female action heroes. I'm just making the point that I think Hollywood is overcorrecting for the years of strong male leads and whimpering female characters. Which is understandable but enough is enough.

For example: Aeon Flux, Underworld, Resident Evil, Xena, Buffy, Avenging Angel, Dark Angel, La Femme Nikita, Charmed, Ultraviolet, Charlie's Angels, V for Vendetta, the Tomb Raider movies. Etc....

We now have a feminized version of superman who is afraid to expouse: truth, justice and the American way. Which is another aspect of the political correctness that I don't get. There is nothing wrong with having pride in America but much of Hollywood doesn't get this.

I live in middle america and I can say that even my very liberal friends miss the masculine male lead. We Want Our Heroes Back!!

Piers said...

Let's put on the show right here!

...why not?

Given there's a market there, that the films get sold in packages, that there's a profit ready to be turned, it seems that the market is ready.

Use a D2DVD hero (Van Damme? Henriksen? Patrick? Roberts?) a series of 4 movies sold as one package with a decent guest-villain in each episode. Re-sell into syndication... (cut a deal with Sci Fi for pre-production money?)

I'm very much thinking aloud, as you can probably tell.

Bill, you're ahead of the game here as you've got access to the figures. Can you crunch the numbers?

Even a back-of-an-envelope calculation should show us whether this is definitely possible, definitely impossible, or somewhere in the middle...

Chopped Nuts said...

Part of the trend might come from the idea that it's easier to base a story on a bad guy's schtick. If Freddy Krueger is coming up with new ways to kill teens, then that gives heroes something new to react to.

If you work off, say, Superman though, then you're trying to fit a space into his reactions where he gets to use his freezing breath.

Er, did that make any sense?

I'm not saying it's better, just easier to plot out a story.

John Donald Carlucci said...

Here is a thought and it is completely from left field, but I don't think they take us seriously Bill. Look at the contempt the creators of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen felt for the fans of the graphic novels on the commentary.
Everyone flocks to ComicCon to find properties to buy and to make fun of the geeks, but they don't take us seriously.

When you talk serial hero character I bet they see the same geek in a cardboard Cylon costume. We are not a market to them - we are a punchline. They underestimate the fan of the dark hero, the serial adventure, the evil scientist. We are talking about most people in these positions who don't consider it a film unless it was shot after Angelheart (I had one director tell me that), or laugh at the though of watching a black and white.


Bill Cunningham said...

Today's variety asks this very question about original heroes. I'm going to go through and pull out the best stuff from their articles on comic con and add it into our discussion.

Scott the Reader said...

So what are the limitations here? What do you have to do to create a viable, compelling action series that eschews major special effects?

There probably has to be some sort of hook. Something to the main character that makes him interesting, that makes people want to check out the next adventure, but which can be done on a smaller budget.

Maybe something that's just sort of real, and very low-key. A guy with some sort of ability, traveling around the country, foiling aspects of something -- alien invasion? Government mind control? -- stand-alone stories that slowly build and build as they go on.

Bill Cunningham said...

Certainly there's all sorts of scenarios with which to play. For arguements sake - let's call the high end $5M (what WB says they are producing their DVDPs for) and $100K (what I've produced some of my films at). Between that it's all about how you use the SFX and write the script. The WAR OF THE WORLDS that played on SCIFI with C. Thomas Howell and Jake Busey was made for around $200K (+/-). That had a lot of SFX in it.

It just has to be easily shot. Trust me when I say you can pack a lot of action in a $5M movie. They make episodes for ALIAS at $2M or so, now double that run time and you have it with a $1m left over for more FX. If you were to finance three flicks at the same time you would save even more because you could shoot them like a series and amortize the costs of certain set pieces over three films.

Most of the SCIFI movies are made for around $2M. They have a lot of action in them.

But to get back to your question - yes there has to be a hook (similar to 'template' in tv series lingo) that makes you want to see the characters again. And yes, you can set it up as a trilogy of movies, each movie = one act of the overall story arc.

STAR WARS would be a perfect example of this...

It kind of disturbs me that you equated lower budget with low key when exactly the opposite is true. At a lower budget level you cut out all of the filler and subtle stuff and get right into the pulp of the story - the moments that define it and give it momentum.

Scott the Reader said...

Well, when I said low-key, that's what I was thinking of -- not Superman Returns' reliance on spectacle over story, but much more story over spectacle. Use the budget to judiciously add tech value here and there, but make it about the characters and the story.

I'm not down on low budget at all. I think it provides much better opportunities to force writers and directors to focus on the things that are ultimately really at the heart of good storytelling.

barsoomcore said...

The reason it's not happening is at least partially just because it's really really hard to come up with compelling characters that can both "hook" an unfamiliar audience AND provide ongoing stories of sufficient interest.

Hence, as someone pointed out, the historical predominance of BAD GUYS in the B-Movie space over the last thirty years. MUCH easier.

That said, I think it's pointless to try and dredge up existing characters. FAR better to come up with new characters and budget your productions so that you can afford to start small and grow your audience.

The two problems are, first, if you fail to "hook" anyone, you lose your initial investment and can't carry on, and second, if you strike it big you will get offered big money to take your characters, license them to kingdom come and and make it impossible for future stories about them to be made on the cheap.

This is probably why most of this indie sort of "follow-a-character" storytelling has been happening in comic books for the past few decades -- the barrier to entry is lower, as was (until recently) the total potential upside. So a guy like Frank Miller can do exactly this -- tell pulp tales with recurring characters -- entirely on his own terms, making enough to make a profit but not so much that big money steps in with all its problematic strings attached.

Until, as I say, recently.

Christopher Sharpe said...

This post encapsulates all that I am trying to do with my movies. I always liked when Charlie Band talked about how he was inspired by Marvel comics and was trying to do something similar with his movie concepts.

nshumate said...

It looks like there's a perfect opportunity coming up for this kind of D2DVD exercise: Iron Man. Ride the coattails of this May 2008 feature for a mechanized superhero. (I'm not saying be as blatant as The Asylum would be -- "The Iron Hero!" -- but something in the same vein.) A mechanical-looking supersuit doesn't even need to be able to fly, if we're trying to keep the budget down.