Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Portland is the Hollywood of comics."

In case any of you missed the article in the Oregonian today about comics and movies from Portland.

Just as an correction to the rosy view contained, I've included a picture of Fortune and Glory, which is about Brian Bendis's adventures in Hollywood which I think made me feel like I never want to go near the place.

But good for Mike Richardson.

Hollywood says hurray for Portland comic books
Local creators are following "Hellboy" to an eager Tinsel Town
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The Oregonian Staff

If there were any doubts about the hottest trend in movies, they were crushed like a Gotham City police car last weekend. "The Dark Knight," the latest interpretation of the Batman saga, swooped off with 158.3 million box-office dollars, the highest weekend opening ever, according to Variety.

The superhero sensation is the most dramatic demonstration yet that movies are cashing in as never before on stories from comic books and graphic novels.

While "The Dark Knight" is adapted from the venerable DC Comics franchise, Hollywood's growing infatuation with comics has spread north. Portland's thriving community of comics creators and publishers -- including Dark Horse Comics, Oni Press and Top Shelf Productions -- is playing a major role in feeding the silver screen's voracious appetite.

"Portland," says Eric Gitter, Oni Press' L.A.-based producing partner, "is the Hollywood of comic books."

The week before Batman and the Joker commandeered the nation's cineplexes, the No. 1 movie in the country was "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," adapted from the comics series published by Milwaukie-based Dark Horse Comics. Although it fell from its perch in the "Dark Knight" onslaught, even a brief stay on top can do wonders for your visibility, Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson says.

"My phone's been ringing," Richardson says. "Lots of people have been calling and saying, 'Congratulations! Oh, and by the way, I have a project . . .' "

Although publishers won't reveal exactly how much money such Hollywood deals add to their revenue stream, Richardson says the movie connection may account for Dark Horse's sales records for three consecutive years. "We're heading for another record this year, despite the economy," Richardson says. Dark Horse Entertainment has offices at Universal Studios and Sunset Gower Studios in Los Angeles and is developing a slate of productions.

Portland's Oni Press, with several projects in development, has added staff. "We're at seven people now in Portland and two in L.A.," Oni Press co-founder Joe Nozemack says.

Local comics publishers aren't necessarily driving Jaguars and rolling in dough, Nozemack says. "You're not looking at serious amounts of money until the films are actually made. But the money that creators get for option rights gives them the freedom to do their own thing rather than working on somebody else's characters."

The comics-to-movie frenzy will only escalate this week, when San Diego Comic-Con International starts. The Thursday-to-Sunday convention is the largest annual pop culture event in the world, attracting some 125,000 people. The conference is also ground zero for whipping up fan support of comics-based movie and TV projects.

Portland-area publishers will be out in force at "the Con," a place where deals get made and buzz gets built. Brett Warnock of Top Shelf recalls the company debuted "The Surrogates," a five-issue miniseries, at the Con two years ago.

"Immediately we had interest from various parties," says Warnock, who wanted to turn the story into a film. It's shooting now in the Boston area, with Bruce Willis in the lead role.

Other examples of Portland-published comics coming to screens near you are "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," from the series published by Oni Press, scheduled to start shooting this fall under the direction of Edgar Wright; and "Whiteout," from the Oni Press graphic novel by Portlanders Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber, scheduled to open Sept. 19.

Those films are just the start. Dark Horse and Oni both have several more projects in development. With writers and artists moving to Portland every day, comics are shaping up as the city's newest natural resource.

Dark Horse is Portland's comics publishing pioneer, and it was the first to enter the movie business. Building on the success of its creator-friendly approach -- Dark Horse artists could own the rights to their characters, in a change from industry tradition -- the company started its entertainment arm in 1992. After developing two dozen film and TV projects, Dark Horse Entertainment took an even bigger step into Hollywood in March with a three-year deal with Universal Pictures.

Dark Horse and Universal are in the process, Richardson says, of picking projects to develop. Though Richardson prefers not to discuss specific movies until they have the green light to go into production, a number of titles have been optioned -- in other words, a producer or studio has paid for the right to make the comic into a movie. Whether the movie ever gets made is subject to all sorts of variables.

Among the Dark Horse projects: "R.I.P.D.," about a team of "undead police officers," to be directed by David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers"); "The Ark," which mixes UFOs and Noah's Ark; "Rex Mundi," set in an alternate past in which the Catholic Inquisition still rages, to be produced by Johnny Depp's company (and, maybe, star Depp himself); and "The Goon," an animated version of Eric Powell's stories, to be produced by director David Fincher ("Fight Club").

And, Richardson adds, "I hope that we'll be discussing 'Hellboy III.' It's way too early to say if there will be a third one, and (director) Guillermo del Toro is very important to that. But we're talking."

Comic book artists -- and, eventually, small comics companies -- followed Dark Horse to Portland. And now they're following the company to Hollywood. Hot on Dark Horse's heels is Oni Press, which has been racking up movie deals at a breathtaking pace.

"Yeah, it's been an interesting few months," says Nozemack, who helped start Oni Press in 1997. Oni's output is eclectic. For example, the hit "Scott Pilgrim" series, by Bryan Lee O'Malley, is about an underemployed 23-year-old who falls for a young woman, but to win her he must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. Not exactly superhero-with-a-cape material.

For director Edgar Wright, the Englishman who made the acclaimed zombie comedy "Shaun of the Dead," the "Scott Pilgrim" combination of "flights of fancy coupled with very mundane kinds of situations" reminded Wright of his own work. "The dialogue, the characters, the style of it is something I can develop in live action and take it to another sort of stage that comics can't," he says.

Other Oni-to-movie properties in development are "Resurrection"; "The Leading Man"; "The Damned"; "Maintenance"; "Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things"; "The Last Call"; and "Three Days in Europe," a romantic action-adventure with Jennifer Garner and Hugh Jackman set to star.

Since teaming with Oni in 2003, Gitter has seen interest in comics-based material soar in Hollywood.

"When you're in this town, you see a lot of the same types of stories over and over again," Gitter says. He wanted to team with Oni, he recalls, because "I felt like there was this world out there that we could be tapping into for fresher choices. Movies and comics are both visual storytelling."

Comics first, movies later

Hollywood's ardent embrace of comics has inspired some publishers to print comics with the idea of selling them for films. Walt Disney Studios has helped launch Kingdom Comics, which is charged with developing graphic novels to create film projects for the studio.

Comics veterans, however, say that puts the cart before the horse. Brett Warnock of Top Shelf Productions says in an e-mail, "While of course we're all about optioning our comics to other media, we NEVER make comics solely to pimp for that purpose. We make comics for comics, not TV or film."

But the upside of having your comic made into a film is considerable. What did movie version of "Hellboy" do for its creator, former Portlander Mike Mignola?

"It makes a heck of a lot more people aware that there is something called 'Hellboy,' and hopefully they get curious and look at your book," Mignola says. "There's so much stuff out there that having a movie is like having a giant spotlight in your stuff."

Steve Lieber, who illustrated "Whiteout," writes in an e-mail that "in the short time since the movie version was announced, the new edition of the two 'Whiteout' books have already sold more copies than the old ones did over the past eight years. And they haven't even started promoting the movie yet."

Speaking for many of his colleagues, Lieber adds: "I hope the movie does well, but at the end of the day, I'm a comic book illustrator. And what I want is more people reading our comic."

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