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Comic Books Go Hollywood, Part 3: Comics to Film

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In the conclusion to our three-part discussion about movies and comics, Todd takes us through the process of bringing comics to film.

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

BROKEN FRONTIER:  When you look at a property of your own or that someone has shown interest in, what is the process from the initial wooing to completion?

TODD MCFARLANE:  There’s slight variation in what I’m about to tell you but there’s a bit of a standard MO. Usually, you have to have something that has some kind of popularity or success, right? It’s tough to go into a meeting and say, “Hey, we’re number eighty-five on the charts.” You want to have something that has some kind of impact. If you have that, one of two things happens. It’s easier to get a meeting with Hollywood people or a lot of times they’ll actually come knocking on your door because they’ve seen the name or the reputation on some chart. So they come hunting for it themselves. That’s what there job is, to try and find popular ideas that they think will translate.

Once you’ve made that contact, you go into what they call a pitch meeting. The vast majority of mine are me going in there and sitting down and going, “Ok, I’ve got half an hour. Let me walk you through the idea.” You basically walk them through the motivations, the characters, and especially the protagonist or your hero. This is how they’ll change during the movie, this is what motivates them, this is why we’re supposed to give a damn about them and by the way, here are the circumstances that put us in the place to give a damn about them. There’s the general overview of the movie as a whole.

Some of those can be sparsed out. I’ve done some, where I’ve literally acted out the whole movie. I stand up and run around and do whatever else. And when you do those pitch meetings, just to be clear, in my experience, you’ll do six in a day. Then you get up the next day and do another three. If possible, when you want somebody to buy something, then why wouldn’t you try to show it to the most customers?

So you literally go to Universal and Paramount and Fox and Warner Bros., wherever you can. Sometimes it’s the studios and sometimes you’re going to production houses who have deals with those big studios. So, if you’re going to pitch to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin, he has a deal on the Universal lot that he has to take some of his stuff there in first look deal.

There are a couple of different ways to get in front of people who start pushing it uphill. Obviously, the higher up you to are to the person who has the right to say, “Yeah, let’s buy it, as fast you can get it” the better. Early on, when my credibility wasn’t nearly as high, I’d be dealing with assistants and stuff like that but as years went by I got into rooms, where at least if they said no, you didn’t have to ask anybody else. It would at least be just a “No, we’re passing.”

You do seven or eight of them and you go back to your hotel room exhausted and literally within that day or the next they’re going to tell you if they want to buy it. If they know you’re going to six or seven other guys, they don’t want you to sell to someone else before they make the deal. I’ve been going to the next studio and the last guy phones and says, “Here’s my deal and it stands for five minutes and if you take it within five minutes, I pull the deal off the table.” They don’t want you walking in and getting a better deal from somebody else. They’re very good at negotiating.

All of the studios are very hard about driving their deals but once you give the pitch and you get one guy to bite, which is the hurdle, they may go “Ok, we’ll option it.” Then when they option it, you go into what they call development, what they call development hell, sometimes.



That’s where you start to sit down with the producers; you start to try to find a writer. Eventually, you hire a writer. The people who buy it, the producers or the studios, once they “sell” it, the first they do is get a writer to write a script. There are a lot of scripts floating around, so you’ve passed a big hurdle. So, now you’ve passed a couple. You got a meeting, there’s a hurdle.

At the meeting, you got one of them to say yes, one of them said yes after the pitch. Boom! They’ve bought it, they’ve given you some money, and they’ve acquired it. Now, you have to go get a writer. There’s another hurdle. Now, the script comes in and for me, that’s the giant hurdle. Once the script comes in, they then work it and rewrite it. Sometimes they get rid of the writer and bring in another writer, then they get rid of that writer. Sometimes, it can be two, three, four writers.

The reason the next step is the biggest is because the next step only happens if someone says, “Yes, let’s make it.” They can literally can put a stop on it at that point. They read the script and go, “This is going no place. It’s going to cost too much money. We don’t have any actors who we think can fall into it. It’s not on our schedule. We’ve had a regime change with some executives and we don’t want to do these kinds of movies. We want to do romantic-comedies…”

Lots of things can derail scripts. But again, every now then, lightning strikes and somebody says, “We like the script. Let’s go.” A lot of thought’s gone into it by that point, because somebody’s literally taken that script and gone through page by page and come up with a budget. They know exactly how much money this thing is going to cost, pretty damn close anyways. So, they now know they’re on the hook for “X” amount of dollars if they say go.

The reason that hurdle’s so big is because that’s where reputations are made and broken in the executive world. If you say yes to something and it doesn’t work and you’ve spent a lot of money…Whooo, that one gets stuck on you. Which is why, as sad as it is, I’ve met executives, who make careers of not saying yes to anything because they know then they’ll never get bashed for having made a bad movie. Now, they’ll never get praised for making a good movie, because they don’t make any movies. What they do is acquire a lot of stuff but they never green-light anything. They develop stuff, so at least they’re still doing something. It looks like they’re working the way they’re supposed to.

But like I said, every now and then, lightning strikes and they say, “We like the script. Let’s put it out to the actors. We have some actors, some directors who are interested. The studio’s going to commit the money. Let’s go.” And at that point, you get into filmmaking. You go and scout locations. You take a look at everybody’s schedules; make sure you can get the actors that you want.

               

At some point, you bring all of that together and you start filming. After filming, almost everybody starts to go home, except for the director and few other people. You have to start putting sound scores. You have to do editing. You still have to hang out with special effects because you’re doing a comic book movie. There’s still a lot of post-principle photography; still a lot of work to go into it.

Eventually, you get it all done, they start doing the marketing campaign. You have to spend some more money. Depending on how much the executives like the first couple of go-arounds of the early film, it will sometimes predicate the budget they spend on the marketing. If they fall in love with it, they’ll sometimes double the budget of the marketing right on the spot. And if they watch the movie and say, “Oh my God, this is a disaster,” they may even take some money out of the budget.

There’s all of these different points that can expand and contract what you’re doing. Eventually, if you can past these fifteen or twenty hurdles, some of them bigger than others, you roll it to the theaters. You cross your fingers and you hope people go. You spent probably two years of your life getting to that point. If you’re in development hell, it probably took five years of your life. Then someone comes and watches it in one and a half hours and says, “That was OK. When’s the next movie.” Then, you start it over again.

BF:  I guess we could wrap this up with this question: Your experiences with Hollywood: positive or negative?

MCFARLANE:  I’ve gone in with my eyes wide open, so I don’t aggravated over things that I know will have aggravation in them, any more than I would if I walked through a thorn patch or thistle patch and I ended up getting poked by it. I don’t have anybody to blame but myself. So I’m not going to be one of those guys who bellyache about Hollywood too much.

They have a mechanism, they have business models that they have to adhere to and I understand that. There’s a way around it, which is the reason I haven’t given them Spawn 2. I just think, “Nope. For some of the things that bug me about Hollywood, I’ll just do it myself.” I’ll go to a small producer or I’ll fund it myself. There are ways around it. You can solve your own problems if you put your time, money, and effort into doing it. If you don’t want to put your own time, money, and effort into doing it, then you have to ask others to do it and you can’t expect them not to have any kind of interests or personal agendas themselves.

I treat each one of these as a separate process. I may want to retain a lot more control over Spawn, so I’m willing to fight for it but maybe my fifth most popular character I say, “Yah, you can have. What do I care?” I’ll make a softer deal and not insert myself into that as much. Each one of them is a different negotiation for me personally.

 

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