In 1938, after being unable to sell their Superman story for newspaper syndication, Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster sold their first Superman story for $10 per page, and all rights to their character to DC Comics for $130.
In 2004, Frank Miller received a seven-figure upfront payment to bring "Sin City" to the big screen from Dimension Films, as well as a share of profits from the film. He wrote the screenplay and co-directed the movie, which took in more than $160 million in worldwide box office and was a DVD hit. Then he signed to do two more installments of the series for Dimension. He's conservatively estimated to have made more than $10 million for the package.
The anti-heroes at the center of today's graphics novels like "Hellboy" and "Sin City" are far more complex and nuanced than classic characters like Superman and Batman. The same could be said of deals for the rights signed by their creators. And the deals are far more lucrative for the creators, as well.
The deal cut by Miller, a comic book icon, was an exception. But savvy modern comics writers, enlightened in part by the financial struggles of their predecessors, have cut broad and creative rights deals covering not only film and TV, but video games and DVDs, as well as emerging platforms like wireless and broadband.
In addition, they're going through independent publishers, rather than working with the majors.
Siegel and Shuster, who worked in the Great Depression, never thought about television rights, much less iPod broadcasts.
"When Siegel and Shuster created Superman, they didn't think it was going to become an icon and part of the nation's mythology," said comic book creator Marc Andreyko, 35. "It's like saying John Wayne didn't know his movies would be out on DVDs. The opportunities created by technology and how small the world has become and the output for entertainment are so much more vast than they were 60 years ago, even 20 years ago."
While the creators never cashed in, the Man of Steel nonetheless changed the contract landscape for comics creators.
"It really wasn't until the first 'Superman' movie (in 1978) that people started looking at comic books in a whole other way," said Steven M. Weinberg, a partner at Greenberg Traurig LLP, who has represented Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee. "'Superman' was a blockbuster (the three films grossed more than $300 million for Warner Bros.). I don't think that had been seen before."
Hollywood achieved more comic-based film successes, including Superman's DC Comics stable mate, Batman. Warner Bros., like DC under the Time Warner Inc. corporate umbrella, reaped $700 million on three films based on the Caped Crusader. However, it was the incredible box office grosses realized by Sony, when it produced two films featuring Marvel's Spider-Man, which kicked the comics-to-film biz into high gear. The first "Spider-Man" recorded the biggest box office opening in history, with $114 million in three days in 2002. Overall, Sony reaped more than $1.6 billion on that film and its sequel, and millions more in ancillary receipts.
Along with the box office numbers comics-based films have brought in $14 billion since 1978 the proliferation of media platforms has also upped the ante for comic book creators.
"I think what's really happened over the last 20 years is, especially with the explosion of cable TV and the Internet, that animation has risen to new heights as has the popularity of various characters," Weinberg said.
All of which provides potential for revenue streams, for the owner of the characters.
"Rights are very important," Andreyko understated. He and his partner, Brian Michael Bendis, have a film project based on one of their comics ("Torso") in development at Paramount Pictures Corp.
"If I have an idea that I think is a viable commercial idea, I instantly think if it has life elsewhere. Do I want to pitch it to a major publisher or keep it for myself and have more control?"
While the size of the potential payout has increased tremendously, the emergence of the alternative distribution platforms hasn't shortened the odds of a comic book creator reaping a rights bonanza by much.
"They say if you catch the right lightning in a bottle, you can become exceedingly wealthy," said Andreyko, citing peers Mike Mignola ("Hellboy") and Todd MacFarlane ("Spawn"). "It's about as common as becoming a big movie star. It's very rare but it happens often enough that it's not completely out of reach."
It was natural that publishing and film production companies that catered specifically to writers from the comic book and graphic novel genres would emerge. Among the first was Dark Horse Entertainment, headed by Mike Richardson. Since 1992, Dark Horse has brought eight films to the big screen, including "The Mask" and "Sin City," accounting for more than $750 million at the worldwide box office.
Richardson draws a simple distinction between companies like his and the major publishers and movie studios.
"It's characters they count on to keep their companies profitable," Richardson said. "We rely on our writers." The message is getting through: An estimated 75 percent of today's writers are published or head to the big screen via independent firms and retain at least some of the rights to their heroes and heroines.
Dark Horse has pacts with Miller, Mignola and MacFarlane as well as Andreyko and Bendis, whose creation "Jinx" will star Charlize Theron and reach the big screen under the Universal Corp. banner next year. Those writers will not only receive larger shares of the royalties than their predecessors (some of whom received little or no percentage of the box office) but also more say in the development of the projects. Miller, for instance, is writing and co-directing all three "Sin City" movies.
"Dark Horse is really good about giving you what you want as far as creative control and things like that," said writer Eric Powell, 31. He took out a loan to self-publish a character called "The Goon," which was a hit online and was later picked up by Dark Horse. There's been interest, but no deal yet for "The Goon," but that's OK with Powell.
"I wanted to be at a company that would respect what I was doing and not just throw it out there," Powell said.
Beverly Hills-based Platinum Studios LLC is another independent publisher. The firm has an extensive library that increased greatly in the early 1980s, when the average age of a comic book reader began to shift from 12 years old to the 26 years of age it is today.
Platinum Chairman Scott Mitchell Rosenberg said his company basically caught a wave when he opened his company in 1986. "We were willing to take some chances."
The first comic the company published was the story behind "Men in Black," which Rosenberg said the majors had passed on, since the creator was a first-time publisher. Sony released two "Men in Black" films, which together grossed $440 million in the U.S.
Platinum works frequently with emerging comic book artists. The company has an editorial department that works with writers on their books, making suggestions and exchanging drafts back and forth. Rosenberg said this enables the company to focus on first-time writers who usually can't get published anywhere else.
In addition, the writers get a 20 percent take on the book sales and will have some rights if the creation is sold to a movie, although terms vary by the contract. Platinum is less concerned with making money on a comic book than striking movie deals.
"It's a small margin in terms of printing," Rosenberg said. "But we look at the other markets: developing characters to take them online, toys, video games, direct-to-DVD, TV series. We don't care how the comic sells, but how the story goes and how the characters interact. Then we can figure out these other ways to go."
Platinum's comic book projects headed to the big and small screen are: Showtime maxi-series "Jeremiah" with Luke Perry and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, the NBC pilot "Meet the Haunteds" and two features slated for 2007, "The Darkness" and "Magdalena." Creator Kevin Taft will write the screenplay on both films.
The major comic book companies, DC and Marvel, remain the 900-pound gorillas in the field. DC owns Superman and Batman while Marvel controls the rights to Spider-Man and the X-Men. All of those characters have been at the center of film franchises that have produced more than $500 million in worldwide receipts.
Today the majors pay contract writers about $250 per page, and some royalties but they control the rights to the characters.
Some writers are realizing the best of both worlds, keeping the rights to some of their characters but while doing some project work for the majors. Such an arrangement has creative as well as financial advantages because it allows writers to work with the major publishers' established characters.
Andreyko, for example, created a character for DC and gladly signed away the rights, because it allowed his character to "play in the DC universe sand box" and interact with heroes and heroines like Superman and Wonder Woman.
There are creative limits, Andreyko said. "It's like writing an episode of 'Friends.' You can't turn Ross into a serial killer"
Despite the opportunities created by today's production companies and creative contracts, achieving major Hollywood success remains a long shot for a comic book creator.
"It's like those documentaries of the Galapagos Islands, when they say '3,000 sea turtles are born two will grow to adulthood,'" Andreyko said. "If I ever have my own production company I want to name it Baby Sea Turtle Productions because the odds are like that."
Even with his picture in development at Paramount, Andreyko isn't counting his sea turtles until they're hatched.
"There can always be a shark in the water or a hurricane. Until I'm at the theater watching it, it could fall apart. But this is as close and as exciting as it's been."
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