Have you seen the trailer for the Marvel Studios film The Avengers? The superhero team-up flick pairs some of Marvel's top names in an epic fight to save the planet from certain doom. DOOM, I say!
See what I mean? (Grins.)
Some will no doubt call The Avengers formulaic Hollywood fare. I don't care. To me, it looks as though Marvel and director Joss Whedon have created another winner in what's becoming an almost tiresome string of hits. Parent Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS ) took in $448 million in worldwide box-office receipts from Thor, and then another $362 million from July's Captain America: The First Avenger, which I rate as the best of the summer's comic book-themed films.
DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns must be grimacing. The Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) unit failed to establish a cinematic foothold for one of its own lesser heroes in June, when Green Lantern came short of taking in $220 million worldwide. Warner Bros. spent an estimated $200 million just to produce the film. Prints and advertising must have added tens of millions more.
Why can't they be more like Marvel?
To be fair, comic-book films are a tricky enterprise. And while Disney and Warner are the primary producers of such films, other studios have entered the genre through licensing deals. Sony (NYSE: SNE ) has enjoyed nearly a decade of web-spun profits from producing films starring Spider-Man. A new installment in the series is due next July.
Yet not all Marvel films have succeeded. Daredevil, produced by News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS ) 20th Century Fox, took in more than its production budget but was a flop with fans. A one-off titled Elektra needed overseas receipts just to beat its budget, while Lions Gate Entertainment (NYSE: LGF ) managed to take in less than one-third of its production outlay for Punisher: War Zone.
Yet Marvel's hits have more than made up for these misses. Warner and DC can't say the same, and that's a shame. I think there's a lot of great material in the DC Universe. As a Time Warner shareholder, I've bet real money that Johns and his team can unlock the value within.
DC's hidden treasure
So far, they haven't delivered. My suggestion? Look to Bruce Timm, the creative genius behind DC's animated epics. His latest -- Green Lantern: Emerald Knights -- has taken in roughly $2.9 million in DVD sales, according to TheNumbers.com. Count me among the buyers. My 6-year-old son and I rented Emerald Knights on iTunes because I thought the live-action version might be too scary for him.
As a series, DC's animated flicks have grossed more than $73 million since 2007. We don't know how those sales have fed profits, but using animation and voice-over narration is far cheaper than hiring actors, actresses, production trucks, makeup artists, visual-effects geniuses, and the like. DVD and digital distribution also cost less. It's a formula that, judging by DC's aggressive production schedule, seems to work really well.
Warner's animated group has also won over fans through television-distributed hits such as Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited. Want to kick-start DC's lesser franchises, Mr. Johns? All the elements for a Justice League film -- a flick comparable with that of next May's The Avengers -- is present in two seasons' worth of JLU stories.
Marvel's not-so-secret formula for successful comic-book filmmaking
At the very least, I think JLU has something that Green Lantern didn't and that every one of Marvel's major live-action hits had: a strong writer-director team with a specific vision for what to put on the screen. GL had four writers. Four. No wonder this otherwise-promising story got garbled on screen.
The Avengers? It has Whedon, a writer with top-notch credentials when it comes to scripting movies, TV, and, yes, even comic books. That's why I'll be unsurprised if Disney wins big when the film reaches theaters next May. Take notes, Time Warner. The formula for success is right in front of you.
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