I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about the importance of protecting the rights of creator owned properties. I discuss getting value for your creation and thinking long term about your potential licenses. The truth is that very few creator owned projects will ever become major characters on any level. But when you think about the potential of creator owned projects, one of the best examples to consider is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The lessons that have come out of that title are ones that every artist should learn.
I first saw an issue of Turtles in my freshman year of high school. I distinctly remember rolling my eyes when I saw the cover and a guy in class explained the concept to me. In 1984, everyone who read comics knew the most popular comics were Daredevil, X-Men, Cerberus and Ronin. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird didn’t agonize over trying to create something completely new. They combined all of the basic concepts behind all the most popular titles and came up with gritty, young, chemically altered, anthropomorphic martial artists. The idea was confusing to anyone outside of comics. To anyone who read comics, it was the best example of self indulgent parody. The book premiered at a small comic con in New Hampshire with an extremely small print run. Then larger publishers like IDW and Image got involved. Then the merchandise started to come out. After a short period, the inside joke wasn’t a joke anymore.
In 2009, Nickelodeon bought the rights to Turtles for $60 million dollars. Before that sale, the Turtles were the subject of four wide release movies, 175 hours of TV programming and 600 worldwide merchandise licenses. It has been one of the top ten toy franchises for years and has become a staple of youth pop culture. This fall, Nickelodeon is releasing a new CG version of Turtles that will coincide with 50 new merchandise licenses in the UK and Europe alone. Over the past 30 years, it is safe to say that Turtles have become one of the most successful character franchises in history. That is a pretty good result for a self published parody comic based on derivative tropes.
As I have repeatedly said, there were a lot of factors that go into a successful creator owned program. Eastman and Laird had the input of licensing agents, advertising professionals and animators to help the project take off. Even with all that business support, there was still a considerable amount of hard work and luck that went into the growth of Turtles as a franchise. Obviously, not every character has the potential or support to sell for $60 million dollars. Even DC, Disney and Marvel have a ton of non starters in their character catalog. But each company protects the rights of each character as if it will be the next Spider-Man, Batman or Turtles because you never know what people will respond to. Eastman and Laird did the right thing from the beginning. They got the advice of professionals, protected their rights and adapted their creation to each new medium and market. As a creator, you need to take the same steps. Your character might not be worth $60 million, but if it is you need to put yourself in the best position to profit from it.
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