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Comic Books Go Hollywood, Part 2: Measuring Success

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This week, we continue our conversation with Todd about comics and movies, starting of with a discussion about measuring success.  

This installment of McFarlane's Mark was produced by Jason Wilkins and Frederik Hautain.

BROKEN FRONTIER: As somebody who grew up in Calgary, what are your impressions of having moved to the States and enjoying all of this success and opportunity, obviously having worked hard for it, with the movie and the toy lines? Did you ever think, back in the day, when you were doing things like Infinity Inc., that it would explode like it has?

TODD MCFARLANE
: It’s an interesting question and here’s why. I get asked it a lot. People say, “Hey, did you ever think you’d be so successful?” Really, if I stop and think about it intellectually, then the answer is no. Because you say, “Hold on a sec, I was just a sixteen-year old kid, in my basement in Calgary, doodling away hoping maybe some day I could break into comic books. And that was the sum total of whatever it was I wanted to do. Actually, my bigger goal was to play baseball. So, I didn’t actually get my first goal.

So all the steps that lead past it are just ongoing momentum that you gain at the very beginning. Maybe, if I had done something as big as Microsoft, maybe I’d go, “Wow!” But everything that I’ve gotten has just been taking another step forward and when you take a lot of steps forward, sometimes you look behind and go, “Wow, I’ve actually gone half a mile.” But there was no one step that you took that seemed any different than any other step that during that voyage that you took.

For me, it was a culmination of hundreds and hundreds of steps to get that half-mile. So you don’t really see what’s happening and each day is just a little bit better than the last one. There’s no big dramatic thing. It’s not like I invented the hula hoop and somebody bought ten million of them, so you go, “Oh my gosh, there’s the defining moment!” I mean there’s been a couple…

BF: Well, when Spawn first came out…


MCFARLANE:  Spider-Man helped in the acceleration. You know, Spider-Man #1 comes out, there’s a move there. Spawn, a few years later. Spawn #1 comes out and keeps the momentum going. You create a toy company but that was more to keep some of my creative ideas, mostly for Spawn, going. Then wanting to diversify thinking, “I better do more than just Spawn toys,” which we have.

So, when I stop I think, “Wow, from high school to here, I’ve been very, very fortunate.” And like you said, a lot of hard work goes with it. And on a daily basis? It’s just living your life. It slowly evolves like watching your kid grow up. You don’t notice he’s getting bigger and stronger and his features are changing and all of a sudden he’s turned into a man in front of you. A career has those same metaphors too.

BF:  I guess the reason I ask, is that you seem to have been able to retain a lot more control over your properties and over your ideas than most people fortunate to work in the industry. So, what were the steps you took to ensure you retained as much creative control as possible?


MCFARLANE: In the areas that I wanted…I mean if you take a look at the deals I made for animation or toys or comics or movies or directing, each one of those sort of indulges me to have a lot of control and sometimes less than a lot. It just depends on what you’re doing and what it is you want to fight for that part.

Let me just go on record too, with saying that just because somebody doesn’t want to have that control doesn’t make them any less passionate about what they want to do. They may just have decided they don’t want to complicate their life. They’re doing it, right? I know a guy who works in Ohio, does comic books, got a wife and two kids. He’s happy and sort of content doing whatever it is wants to do. He sells his characters to somebody and they do it and they change it and whatever. That’s his prerogative.

What I did…and this something people have gotten confused about…I never set out to do stuff, to say this the right way to do or this is the wrong way to do it. I set out and did everything because this is what I needed to do for Todd McFarlane personally. That’s it. Nobody else. Some people can work at Marvel Comics and DC Comics for forty years and be happy. God bless them! Some people can only stay there for one week and they’d go crazy or they’d get fired because they don’t make their deadlines.

It’s interesting…If you actually read the vast majority of the interviews, about 97% of what you’re going to read is me talking about me. “Here’s how I do Spawn, here’s how I came up with him, here’s why I did this…” There’s a lot of “I”s in the conversation. I rarely have a conversation and tell you why another writer or artist does something.

BF:  So, getting back to the movies. We were speaking about how comics are a big trend in Hollywood right now. Could you comment on the nature of the fascination with comic books? How much of it comes out of publishers courting Hollywood and merging with studios and how much of it comes from just making movies people want to see?

MCFARLANE: In all honesty, in my opinion, I think it’s an extension of what was already in existence. Prior to comic book movies being big, you had stuff like James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars. These are all essentially comic book movies. They just didn’t have a comic book as the origin. Big fantastic characters, big fantastic action, big fantastic villains, lots of jeopardy, good versus evil. It’s been running through movies arguably, since they’ve been putting films on paper. It’s just gotten bigger and bigger.

It’s interesting because there was a time in my teens, when if I told somebody I was collecting comic books, they thought I was mentally arrested. But they were going to these kinds of movies. James Bond one week and Star Wars the next. It was always an odd thing to me because what makes those movies any different than comic books? It’s big and fantastic melodrama, right?
                                              
So I think somewhere along the line, Hollywood has a knack for when something works, let’s just keep doing it, to the point of overkill at times. If you look at what came out over the years, you know Tim Burton’s Batman, the first Superman. People started thinking that there is something to be mined out of the shaft of comic book work. And then when you got the big hits like X-Men and Spider-Man at the very beginning, that just opened the floodgates essentially.

But the reality is that even with those floodgates open, it’s not like they’ve made a hundred different comic book movies. They’ve been very selective because I think they’ve come to the same realization that I think we all would, which is just because you have ten thousand characters, doesn’t mean you can have ten thousand movies. They’re not all worthy.

If you look at the number of comic books that have been purchased or optioned, there’s gobs of them but only a small, small fraction of them are ever going to see the light of day.

BF:  Why do you think it took so long for Hollywood to jump on that bandwagon? Do you think it has something to do with the state of the technology at the time versus today?

MCFARLANE: I think so. I remember when Spider-Man first came out there had been about a ten- year scrum between a lot of studios, both domestic and international, who said they had a pieces of this franchise. It took almost ten years before they got it glued into one spot.

I’ve always said that I think that ten-year battle they were having legally was actually beneficial to the property because I if they’d tried to make the movie ten years earlier, they wouldn’t have had the technology to do it and make it look nearly as cool. So this is first time, arguably the only time, that I can say that the lawyers did us a favor. They delayed it enough for the technology to catch up to the idea.

Now, with the way the technology is, with things like Avatar coming out, the only two things stopping you is budget, whether you have the money. And once you have the budget, the only thing stopping you is your imagination. Technology-wise, there are very few things we can’t do and make you believe it. And then with Cameron, not only m ake you believe it but make you believe it for almost three hours.

            

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