Last week had two milestones in comics based transmedia entertainment. Batman v Superman broke records for both highest opening film in the genre and fastest decline in weekend revenues. Along with crossovers from the Flash and Supergirl TV series, the recent success of Deadpool, Daredevil and Gotham, as well as the much anticipated Civil War, Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange films later this year and the industry appears to be firing on all cylinders.
But not everyone sees a bright future for the art form. Some critics from the Washington Post contend that the revenue cycle of the latest Batman film is a sign that the genre is running out of creative and financial appeal. Is this accurate? Where does it end for this style of entertainment, and what does this new world mean for the creators of this work?
The Reality TV Connection
Consider the recent past, before the current “golden age” of television with Game of Thrones, Mad Men and Breaking Bad where unscripted or “reality” TV dominated the pop culture landscape. It began with experimental shows like MTV’s Real World and then expanded into things like Road Rules. A few years later, shows like Survivor, the Bachelor and American Idol became prime time staples.
That prompted a flood of reality programming. The category got so big it had to develop subgenres to create differentiation. They had makeover shows, celebrity shows, and competition shows. Every network felt the need to jump into the category. Networks like the History Channel and Food Network created shows having little or nothing to do with the channel’s original purpose. The phenomenon became so big MTV itself morphed into a reality TV network. For all intents and purposes it abandoned music videos altogether.
But at a certain point, it was all too much. The industry couldn’t absorb another Real Housewives or singing competition show. The genre shrunk to a handful of shows that gets smaller every year.
The Tail That Wags the Dog
Now consider the evolution of comics based entertainment over the past twenty five years. The success of films like Batman in 1989, Spider-Man in 2002 and the Avengers franchise in 2013 have made this genre of film one of the most financially successful categories in the history of movies. (See IMDB Highest Grossing Films of All Time). When you add the success of TV series like Smallville and Arrow to the equation, not to mention animated series like TMNT, Batman, Justice League and X-Men and you have a content avalanche that’s only gaining momentum. We’ve reached the point now where some universities are devoting college classes just to the comic book movie phenomenon (See New College Course for the Marvel Universe). The industry has come a long way from the sad days of films like Howard the Duck and Spawn.
More or Less
But how far can this momentum take us? Is there a connection between the fall of reality TV and the coming implosion of transmedia in comics? Consider this:
- Unlike reality TV, it will take more than a box office flop (or even a series of flops) to stop it. Green Lantern, Punisher and Ghost Rider taught us that.
- It won’t come from a lack of “A List” actors or characters. Iron Man wasn’t a household name before RDJ got to it and no one knew who Guardians were before last year.
- It’s not just a game for Marvel and DC, since Wanted, Sin City, Kick Ass and Walking Dead have shown independents can take their titles to the screen too.
So maybe the question isn’t ‘Will this genre collapse?’ There might be an opportunity for comic based transmedia to expand instead of contract.
Will comic film and television get their own awards category at some point? Which network will abandon its original mandate and become a comic entertainment channel? The questions seemed silly ten years ago. Now it doesn’t seem so farfetched. In the world of comic entertainment, comics are becoming the bottom priority, not the top (See Making Comics Isn’t Really about Comics Anymore)
What does all this mean for aspiring writers and artists? I think there are three takeaways anyone in the industry should keep in mind as they build their careers:
- Opportunities beyond traditional comics are continuing to grow not just in terms of TV and film, but in the areas of video games, streaming video and other forms of entertainment
- While the chances of translating any given property into a mainstream market release is still rare, it is essential for creators to know and protect the rights they have in the comics they create
- The amount of quality entertainment coming into the marketplace can raise the bar across the industry and drive innovation in art and story quality.
We might be living in the golden age of transmedia entertainment, but it will take creative expansion and prudent business choices to keep the momentum going.
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