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Treat Your Art Like An Investment

Added on by Gamal Hennessy.

The success of Guardians (See Guardians Zoom to $94 Million Dollar Weekend) and the ongoing success of the Avengers franchise in mainstream entertainment creates a ripple effect reaching into the comics and other media. Guardians is getting a TV series (See Marvel Announces New Guardians Series). Staple Avengers characters are getting diversity makeovers (See On the New female Thor and a Black Captain America). Other Avengers characters are getting high profile spin off comics (Loki, Hawkeye and Black Widow). As the public perception of these properties rise, Marvel is putting more energy into them.

Meanwhile, other properties are getting less attention. From where I’m sitting, franchises like the X-Men are losing currency in the comic book universe. While the X franchise still has a large percentage of the books coming out every month, they are being marginalized from a story perspective. They’re not the focus of many of the tentpole events of the past few years (Secret Invasion, Civil War, Siege, etc.) and there was a major storyline killing off most of the mutants in the Marvel Universe and sending the rest of them to live on an isolated island. To top it all off, the major event of this summer is killing off Wolverine. The X-Men have been the best selling and most popular franchise for the past twenty years of Marvel Comics. All that might be changing now.


I think part of the reason has to do with lack of control and lower revenue. Marvel has far greater control of the Avengers and Guardians characters than they do with X-Men. The X-Men film license is held by Fox (and the Spider-Man license is held by Sony in a co-production agreement). Those licenses were created when Marvel had very little leverage because of their recent bankruptcy. The revenue from those movies and their associated merchandise programs, helped put the company in a position to make films like Iron Man and Captain America, but deals that made sense then aren’t as attractive now.

The X-Men and Spider-Man deals are still making money for Marvel. But from a business standpoint, it makes more sense to focus on the characters who generate more money. Changing focus means some characters get more attention, while others get less. This thinking explains part of the reason for the shift (See Marvel Shorting X-Men Due to Fox Deal)

Marvel’s strategic creative choices offer useful guidance for emerging and independent creators both inside and outside of comics. When you strip away all the fanfare, details and nuances of each tactical move, the basic idea can be expressed in three parts.

1) See your stories and characters as investments of your skill, time, energy and passion

2) Take the long view of your stories and characters when considering their business potential

3) Focus your energy on those projects that fit with your long term goals

I could be wrong about the direction of X-Men comics. This transfer of focus could be a temporary move designed to reinvigorate the franchise or regain complete control if and when the film license expires. Either way writers and artist can learn the concepts of artistic investment by watching the way the big boys play.

Have fun.


What Message Should You Take from the GoG Success?

Added on by Gamal Hennessy.

At this point, the internet is saturated with reaction from the monster opening weekend of Guardians of the Galaxy (See Guardians Sets New August Record). Some see this as a new plateau in the golden age of comic book movies (See Films Based on Comics are Serious Business). Others assume saturation is just around the corner. Either one of those perspectives could be accurate. In certain ways, they’re probably both right. But as writers and artists, what should you take away from the breakout success of the latest Marvel film?

Answer: You never know which property is going to be successful and you never know when.

Consider the doubt many people expressed leading up to the release of GoG (See Guardians Will Be a Flop). A film based on a group of unknown characters created in 1969 and only loosely linked to the Avengers franchise didn’t have the established mainstream fan base widespread support of Spider-Man, Batman or even Hulk. I think quite a few people saw the “inevitable” failure of GoG as the beginning of the end of the comics based movie era, especially in the light of disappointments like Green Lantern, Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Wolverine. But when an obscure property makes $94,000,000 in its first four days of release, people take notice. When a film opens as a historic success, as part of a string of top grossing film and merchandise campaigns, the potential of comic based entertainment can’t be ignored.

All this means you can’t afford to ignore the legal status of your property either.

  • Yes you might be working on your first self-published book.
  • Yes, you might still be looking for a creator owned deal.
  • Yes, the vast majority of comics will not become movies or TV series or anything else.
  • Yes, it might take decades before Hollywood (or in the future Amazon, Netflix or its successors) stumbled upon your little book.

Even if all of this is true, can you afford to be cut off from ownership and potential future earnings? In his new book Words for Pictures, Bendis suggests you treat your story like it’s going to be the next big thing when it comes to dealing with your contract. It might be optimistic to the point of being delusional, but it is still sound advice for anyone in comics, even if your book doesn’t have a talking raccoon character.

Have fun.

Why Comic Creators Need Lawyers

Added on by Gamal Hennessy.
Technology has given independent artists the tools and freedom to control more of their work. It is easier than ever to create, publish and distribute your stories without a deal from the big boys. This evolution in the industry gives you more chances to get your work in front of bigger players, and gives you the potential to make deals that were few and far between a few years ago.

But this DIY spirit can be dangerous if taken too far. There is a point where it is helpful, even preferable, to do things on your own. When it comes to legal agreements involving your intellectual property, you need the support of a professional.

You’ve probably already came to the conclusion that I'm only writing this post to get more work. After all, I am an attorney who represents comic creators. (See An Introduction to Creative Contract Consulting). If I scare you into thinking that you'll be cast off into the Negative Zone if you don't get a lawyer, then there's a good chance you'll hire me. To a certain extent, that's true. But there are three points to keep in mind before you dismiss me out of hand:

So as self-serving as this post might be, that doesn't mean it doesn't make a point that can help you.

Division of Labor
The reason you need a lawyer to help protect your rights is because legal contracts and legal principles are designed to be confusing.  The language used in contracts is circular, opaque and dense. What the words mean and what you think they mean are often two different things. The implications of certain words are often unclear even to the person who wrote the contract. Without someone there to explain things to you, it is easy to sign something that will hurt you down the line.

This is not an attack on your intelligence.  Many of my clients are a lot smarter than me. This is a question of training and experience. I’m a writer as well as an attorney (See Smooth Operator). I don't edit my novels and I don't design the covers. I hire professionals to do that. (See Judging a Book by its Cover) As an airline passenger, I don't fly my own plane. I pay the airline to supply professionals. I could learn editing, cover design and piloting, but it saves time and money to bring in a professional.

Hiring a lawyer is the same. We already wasted years of our lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars learning to decipher contracts. Why not take advantage of our poor decisions?

A Word about Costs
Lawyers are not cheap. We have to pay off exorbitant loans and many of us have expensive tastes. We normally charge by the hour, so the best way to use a lawyer is to hire one for as short a period of time as possible. If you hire them before a deal gets signed, it might cost you a few hundred bucks. If you hire one after something goes wrong and you need to go to court, that number can rise exponentially. Court cases can take years and those billable hours pile up fast. It's better to bring us in on the front end and nip the issue in the bud.

Somebody, but not just Anybody
I understand if you don't want to hire me. You might not like my style. I might not be attractive enough to be your lawyer. That's fine. I've been rejected before. All I ask is that if you're faced with a contract that involves you or your work, get a lawyer to review it before you sign it. And not just any lawyer. A criminal defense attorney might not understand the entertainment or comics market well enough to help you. Check the background of your prospective attorney, talk to your colleagues about who they use. Once you find the right one and you determine they have an acceptable level of attractiveness, retain them and put them to work. That will give you the time and the peace of mind to go back to making comics.

Have fun.

Eternity is a Long Time: License Terms in Comics Contracts

Added on by Gamal Hennessy.
Western society is focused on the present. In business and in life, most of us are concerned with what's happening right now. Little thought is given to long term implications and outcomes. This can be a mistake, especially when it concerns your original stories and characters. A prudent creator will consider the length of time that their property is tied up when considering any deal.

How Long Is This Going to Take?
In the language of contracts, the Term is the length of time that a contract will be in effect. So if you license the publishing rights to the Greatest Comic Ever (GCE) for three years from the execution of the agreement, and the contract is signed on January 1, 2014, then the rights revert back to you on January 1, 2017.

In some cases, the starting and ending dates can be manipulated so that three years isn't really for three years. For example, if you license GCE for three years from the date of first publication of the book, you're looking at a longer deal, since GCE might not come out months or years after the contract is signed.

Forever and Ever, Amen
There are two types of terms in comic book contracts, finite and infinite. A finite contract has a term that lasts for a certain amount of defined time. Like the example above, the term could be months or years, but sooner or later, the rights revert back to you.

With an infinite term, there is no practical end to the license. You could die, humanity could be destroyed in the zombie apocalypse and the earth could be eaten by the sun, but as long as there are lawyers around the contract is still in effect. You can tell a license is infinite if the term contains words like perpetual or in perpetuity. Also, if you can't calculate when the term ends, there is a good chance that it never will.

There are also modifiers to standard term language that can make an infinite term look like a finite term. An in use license could be written so that as long as the licensee is actively using the license, then the license is still in effect. This is part of the difference between the X-Men and Daredevil movie franchises. Fox keeps actively making films with the X-Men universe, allowing it to keep the license. Daredevil reverted back to Marvel because Fox made no use of the license after the 2003 film.

An automatic renewal clause can be placed in term language so that the original term continues to restart as long as certain conditions are met. For example, I have seen publisher's contracts where the license term was valid as long as the book was in print. In today's world of internet comics, a book will always be in print if the book can still be downloaded, making a finite license infinite for that purpose.

Also, a license can convert from an exclusive license to a non-exclusive license (See Addition by Division: Separation of Licensing Rights for Creator Owned Deals) after the initial term ends. This can provide some protection for both parties upfront, but creates complications later on.

Think About the Future
Publishers have an inherent interest in holding rights for as long as possible for several reasons. First, it might take a considerable period of time before a property reaches its height of popularity. Wolverine has been a benchmark of popularity for the past ten years, but its celebrity status in comics has been solid for the past twenty years and it languished in relative obscurity for years after his first appearance in 1974. Second, IP assets, like characters are not perishable and they don't take up space. They are mental concepts that can be stockpiled at little cost. Finally, characters can prove to be powerful assets to whoever holds them whether the rights are resold as movies or games, or if the characters themselves used as assets to generate investment income.

The risk that a creator runs into in this scenario is signing away the rights to a Property for too long. What too long means will differ from one person to the next, but it is generally a mistake to sign away rights forever if the benefit you receive doesn't match what you're giving away (See Get What You Give: Rights and Revenue for Creators)

Not every Property is going to be as popular as Superman seventy five years after it is created. Your personal situation might prevent you from making demands about the length of your contract term (See David vs. Goliath: Negotiating Power in Comic Book Contracts). But anyone getting involved in a creator owned deal or some other type of licensing agreement should consider the length of the term in their contract term and strive to maintain some control of the property in the long run.

Have fun.


Ninja Turtles: From Comics Parody to $60 Million Dollar Property

Added on by Gamal Hennessy.
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.
An Inside Joke
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.
The Juggernaut

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.
Secret to Success
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.
Have fun.