Why do bad things happen to good comics in Hollywood? Why do some succeed as movies while others fail? And, successful or not, why do so many comics-to-screen adaptations have so little resemblance to their source material? Screenwriter Randall Jahnson (The Doors, The Mask of Zorro, Tales From the Crypt) shares his insights into the strange and terrifying world of Hollywood…
So, why do bad things happen to good comics in Hollywood?
Comics creators – and their fans – have to understand that mainstream Hollywood is a machine designed for one thing: making money. The studios nowadays are not the autonomous entities they were in the Golden Age. Sony, Universal, Paramount – all the majors – are parts of mega-conglomerates that exist solely to churn out profits. That “Bottom Line” mentality starts at the top and trickles down like drops of sweat into every aspect of movie-making, including the most basic creative decisions.
That means all content – comics and otherwise – that moves through the Machine’s system is going to be subjected to an invasive process that will reconstruct it into a product that the Machine can sell to the widest possible audience, which generally means males ages 13 to 35. So if the original comic or graphic novel has some idiosyncrasies or hard edges, those will likely be removed.
Also, the creators of comics that get sold to Hollywood are mistaken to think they are going to have any kind of creative control. The fact is NO ONE has creative control anymore in the mainstream system. That goes for the film makers too. Even directors and producers have to answer to this Bottom Line mentality. No one is safe from it; no one is immune.
This is not is say that good work isn’t being done. It simply means that the work will be subject to a set of criteria the studios believe will ensure a successful movie.
The more outsiders understand this process, the less disappointed they’ll be.
Black Hole is case in point, really.
I’m a big fan of the book but I have my doubts whether it will translate successfully into a feature film. First off, Charles Burns’ artwork is so idiosyncratic – and at times complex – that it will be very hard to replicate in live action. This is an issue for any comic or graphic novel with a unique visual style. Invariably, something will get lost in translation, and frequently it’s the very elements that made the material special in the first place. Can you imagine R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis as a live-action feature?
Only a couple of directors come to mind who have the right sensibility for Black Hole: the Two Davids, Lynch and Cronenberg. Neither one is a mainstream director, and both are artists, which scares the people in suits. Lynch’s track record of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks, would in my mind make him the ideal candidate for director, but the corporate suits won’t touch him because his last efforts failed to make any money. So Paramount, the studio developing Black Hole, has put it in the hands of another David – David Fincher. Fincher’s a visual stylist, no doubt, but does he have the emotional chops to capture the lurking dread of promiscuous teens in the 1970s trading an STD that causes them to sprout more than a bad case of acne?
Originally, the screenplay was being written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, who had worked together on Beowulf for Robert Zemeckis. But they “abandoned” the project in 2008 after meeting with Fincher who reportedly told them that he needs to have about ten drafts of the script done before he can commit to shooting it. So I don’t blame them for bailing out. Perfectionist streak aside, another issue with Fincher is that the guy is in constant demand. Everyone in Hollywood wants him. So he has about a dozen projects in development all over town. Of those, he will direct only one or two. Even today, I read that he’s attached to direct a new version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Disney.
Meanwhile, Charles Burns has signed off on it. He’s gone on record saying he spent nearly a dozen years working on it and wants to tackle other things now. So he took a paycheck and ran – and I don’t blame him, I would have too.
Unfortunately, that leaves Black Hole to languish in what is known as Development Hell, a fate that happens to many wonderful projects once they arrive at the Gates of Tinseltown. The artistic and business (corporate) odds are stacked against it right from the start. Sometimes I think it’s a minor miracle anything ever gets done; a major miracle is something is done well.
Are there alternatives to the Hollywood system for getting films made (i.e. Ghost World, Sin City, Kick-Ass)?
There are always alternatives. Which means there’s always hope!
You can circumvent the Machine by going the independent route. It can be longer and more difficult but potentially the more rewarding.
There are many producers and film makers and stars who have their own production companies. Sometimes those companies have an overall deal with a studio which pays for their overhead in exchange for getting a first look at anything they develop. Other times they exist independently outside the studio system. Those are good places to go because they will develop a project with little or no studio meddling. As a content creator, you may not get much money initially but you will most likely have a more pleasant experience and your comic or graphic novel will get better treatment – and you might actually be involved in the process!
Then there are many indie producers who have no money of their own but make up for it in enthusiasm and hustle and good taste. They might option (obtain exclusive rights for a little money) your comic or graphic novel, then either ask you to adapt it into a script (usually for free) or introduce you to a screenwriter who will adapt it (frequently for free). The “indie prod” will then take the project and “shop it around” town in an attempt to get it funded. Or they might have the phone number of a Texas oil billionaire who is dying to break into movies. A good indie producer can be like having a tenacious bulldog in your corner. They are very alert, resilient and resourceful, and they can be great champions for your work. They also think outside the box because they have to.
A good example of a graphic novel that followed the indie trail to artistic good results was Ghost World. It was released in 2001 by United Artists. UA was once a full blown production studio. It had been created by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and other silent film stars. But today – and in 2001 – it is considered an indie because it doesn’t have the mega-funding of a Warner Bros. Ghost World was director Terry Zwigoff’s first non-documentary feature. (He had previously done the excellent doc about R. Crumb, so you knew he had a feel for comics.) He and Ghost World‘s creator Daniel Clowes co-wrote a script that was faithful to the original work but stood on its own as a movie too. Their screenplay was even nominated for an Academy Award. That would not have happened if they had gone through the Mainstream Machine.
However, in the eyes of Mainstream Hollywood Ghost World was considered a failure because it didn’t make any money. It cost about 7 million dollars – a modest budget, especially then – but after nearly ten years, it has recouped only a little over 6 million.
Sin City also went the indie route. It had a budget of about $40 million and has grossed to date nearly $100 million. That’s a successful film in the eyes of the industry. But artistically, did it work? It struck me as overly-mannered and self-conscious. Because it replicated Miller’s original graphic novels frame-by-frame – literally used them as a storyboard – I felt the film version was never allowed to breathe, to sprout a life of its own. It wasn’t organic, in other words. But I greatly admire Robert Rodriguez for going for it and insisting Frank Miller be awarded co-director credit. That’s gutsy.
Is the internet a viable alternative distribution method (i.e. Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog)?
Yes, and its function in that capacity will continue to grow. That’s great news for artists and writers and other content creators because they won’t have to knock on the doors of the studios to get their work seen. The Digital Age has taken the Keys to the Kingdom out of the hands of the agents, lawyers, and studio execs and put them into the hands of the People. That’s also the bad news because now – as creators of content – we have to distinguish ourselves from the flood tide of amateurs out there.
When the Writers Guild went on strike a couple of years ago, it was mostly over the potential of the internet as a distributor of content. Ironically, the strike ended up accelerating this development. Mega-successful writers like Joss Whedon – because they suddenly couldn’t work in the traditional markets – began experimenting with it; his Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog is a perfect example. What started as a whim became a sensation. Others followed. The strike was settled, of course, but the damage was done. The Pandora’s Box of http://www.com had been opened for the industry and Mainstream Hollywood has not recovered, and probably never will.
The question is how can the internet be monetized? What is the new business model that will allow indie artists, writers and other creators of quality internet-based entertainment to convert the hits on their website to dollars in their bank account? Those new forms haven’t fully emerged yet but they’re on the way. And when they arrive, look for the tentacles of the entertainment conglomerates to start wiggling their way into them. They will want their control back.
Randall Jahnson interviewed by Jefferson Powers.