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Exclusive Excerpt: Comic-Con and The Fanboys From The Book 'The $11 Billion Year'

The Playlist By Edward Davis | The Playlist April 30, 2014 at 12:45PM

As former L.A. Times writer Patrick Goldstein recounted last year in an internecine article about Hollywood’s mercurial entertainment industry, the reporters on the front lines are often as ego-centric, vain, hot-blooded and brash as the studio chiefs, agents and fictional characters they write about; sometimes more so.
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$11 Billion Dollar Year

As former L.A. Times writer Patrick Goldstein recounted last year in an internecine article about Hollywood’s mercurial entertainment industry, the reporters on the front lines are often as ego-centric, vain, hot-blooded and brash as the studio chiefs, agents and fictional characters they write about; sometimes more so.

The article was essentially about the Hollywood trades; the increasingly desperate need to be (or appear to be) first on any morsel of news, the unseemly fighting around bragging rights, and the cast of frantic and distressed characters waging the war of firsts. Not-so-curiously absent from the list of names like Finke, Fleming and Waxman, was Anne Thompson.

A former Variety and Hollywood Reporter veteran, Thompson’s dependable blog, “Thompson On Hollywood” has had a home at Indiewire for the last four years. While the aforementioned writers are often defined by the caustic personalities and egos threatening to undermine what is often good reporting, Thompson’s approach has always been about the content and rarely if ever does she have the ego to make the story about herself. Frankly, this is something we’ve always admired in this reporter.

Somehow, on top of editing, managing and writing for her blog, Thompson wrote a book last year. Titled “The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System,” Thompson’s chronicle takes a deep-dive into the 2012 movie industry; the flop of "John Carter" alongside the wild success of "The Hunger Games," the breakout success of "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" going from Sundance indie to multiple Oscar contender....and much more of course (read more about it on her blog). 

While some writers are howling at the moon to be heard on Twitter, jockeying for position, Thompson’s brand of reliability keeps going. If Finke is ousted from the site she created and Waxman’s stock is an unpredictable one with volatile highs and lows, Thompson’s is a bond that slowly keeps appreciating in wealth. We’re lucky enough to have an excerpt of her must-read industry book that centers on Comic-Con and the super-hero pictures that are quickly becoming today’s modern mythologies.

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But make no mistake: playing well at Comic-Con is no guarantee of success, as the studios have learned the hard way. Comic-Con hits from Edgar Wright’sScott Pilgrim vs. the World” to Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens” have crashed and burned. The fan demo is just a slice of the wide mainstream audience that big-budget studio movies need to pull in. Zack Snyder’s innovative $60 million sword-and-sandal actioner adapted from Frank Miller’s “300” played well in Hall H and went on to be a $456 million global hit in 2006. His 2009 follow-up “Watchmen,” adapted from a complex, interlocking Alan Moore graphic novel that had been deemed unfilmable for years, played equally well—but cost too much ($138 million) to make a profit in release ($185.3 million worldwide).

The general rule of thumb is that a movie needs to gross double its production cost to come out ahead. Given that Warner Bros. spent at least $50 million in global marketing costs and that returns from theater owners were about half of worldwide ticket sales, “Watchmen” was a write-off for the studio—even with earnings from TV licensing and DVD sales (down 20 percent from their 2004 peak). In 2012, for the first time, online revenue grew enough to offset the seven-year drop in DVD sales and rentals.

An earlier disappointment for Warner had been Bryan Singer’s out-of-control 2006 reboot “Superman Returns,” which cost close to $250 million and yielded just $391 million worldwide. It also caused an uproar among fans who complained that it was too much of an homage to the original 1978 Dick Donner “Superman” and didn’t have enough action. They were dismayed that Superman (Brandon Routh) and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) had spawned a kid and were facing too-familiar villain Lex Luthor (Singer regular Kevin Spacey). The problem with the square-jawed orphan from Krypton is that he’s an invulnerable big blue Boy Scout, with no weaknesses except kryptonite—and his feelings for Lois. But Superman doesn’t have to be squeaky clean, many fans argued: the origins of the char-acter are darker and more complex.

In late 2009, one Warner exec told me that, after many false starts, the studio was again seeking to find the right direction for the superhero: “We’re working on a strategy for DC. Superman is the trickiest one to figure out.”

With its franchise stalled out, Warner inevitably turned to the indie filmmaker who had saved its bacon with “Batman Begins” and was coming to the end of that $2.5 billion trilogy with 2012 release “The Dark Knight Rises”: Christopher Nolan. At Comic-Con 2012, the studio introduces a teaser for Nolan and writer David S. Goyer’s latest Superman iteration, “Man of Steel,” which visual stylist Zack Snyder is directing with young Brit Henry Cavill (“The Tudors”) in the starring role, Russell Crowe as his father, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Michael Shannon as archvillain General Zod.

When a fan asks Snyder if he’ll be using John Williams’ iconic “Superman” score, he explains why not: “We had to act as if no film has been made. When we approached it, we had to say, ‘This is Superman for the first time.’ ” Veteran composer Hans Zimmer got the gig.

Unlike D.C, whose properties have remained under the control of Warner, Marvel decided to take control of its destiny. After partner-ing with various studios on X-Men (Fox), Spider-Man (Sony), and Iron Man (Paramount), Marvel took itself independent—for a time—by taking over management, production, and ownership of its films. The results have been extraordinary. Because it was invested in controlling over the long term its characters as well as the universes they inhabit, Marvel developed a five-year plan and put Kevin Feige in charge. An ardent comic-book fan who lives and breathes and fights to protect Marvel characters, he knew the Marvel world inside and out and understood both moviemaking and fandom.

New Jersey native Feige, forty, studied film at the University of Southern California and interned for producer Lauren Shuler Donner, whose husband, Dick, had directed the “Lethal Weapon” series and the first two Christopher Reeve “Superman” films. When she produced X-Men at Fox, Feige became her assistant and an “X-Men” associate producer because of his vast knowledge of all things Marvel. Since joining Marvel in 2002, he has supervised all their in-house films; he became president in 2007.

After proving his prowess with various Marvel studio pictures, Feige was heading toward an ambitious goal. He laid the ground- work first in singular hero movies by introducing iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), as well as several other supporting characters such as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Once established, Marvel could proceed and assemble them, along with the Hulk, into one supercharged Marvel hero ensemble movie: “The Avengers.”

But who had the skill and chops to artfully blend all these worlds into one, and not have the whole thing devolve into a shouting match? Feige turned to writer-director Joss Whedon, son of two generations of Manhattan TV writers: father, Tom, and grandfather John Whedon. (His mother, Lee Stearns Whedon, my best-ever English teacher at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School, taught me Shakespeare.) An unapologetic comics maven, Joss Whedon went to Hollywood, where he moved from TV success with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to the writers room of the Oscar-nominated Toy Story to cult status with the short-lived TV series Firefly, later incarnated as the underwhelming film Serenity.

In fact, Whedon was one of those writer-directors who was respected within the industry for his writing chops, but who hadn’t quite scored as a commercial director. He labored for a long time on DC’s “Wonder Woman” without success—in fact his idiosyncratic smarts had never flourished inside the studio system—but he had jived with Marvel on a comic-book run of “The Astonishing X-Men.” Feige had the sense to pull him into Marvel’s vortex to deliver “The Avengers.” Whedon had nourished an enormous fan base over the years, who always turn up to his Comic-Con panels in droves. “This is the place where they can say, ‘are we not dope, are we not amazing for being this obsessed with something?’” Whedon told documentarian Morgan Spurlock in his 2012 Comic-Con doc.

While “The Avengers” had plenty of visual effects and noisy whiz bang action sequences, it wouldn’t have worked if the cult leader of the Firefly fans known as the browncoats hadn’t understood the characters, from Robert Downey Jr.’s snarky Tony Stark to Mark Ruffalo’s surprisingly sympathetic Bruce Banner/Hulk, and how they related to the mission: defeating super-super villain Loki (Brit rising star Tom Hiddleston).

At Comic-Con 2011, months before “The Avengers” started filming, Ruffalo stumbled out onto the Hall H stage like a deer in headlights with the long chorus line of the cast, having woken up in the morning at his farm in upstate new York knowing that if a limo pulled up to his door, he had landed the part.

Sure enough, with a mighty Disney marketing campaign and rave reviews, “The Avengers “April launch turned into a box office juggernaut that lured happy comics lovers of every generation, easily rising to the top of the 2012 box office with a global $1.5 billion total.

By Comic-Con 2012, Marvel is ready to celebrate the success of “The Avengers” by showing a pump-up reel and a promise of another Joss Whedon installment to come in May 2015. Downey Jr. makes a grand entrance through the hall, joined by Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau (now in acting mode), Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebecca Hall, Mia Hanson, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin, and new writer-director Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”).

Three other Marvel movies in the works include Downey in “Iron Man 3” (May 3, 2013) and “Game of Thrones” director Alan Taylor’s “Thor: The Dark World” (November 8, 2013) shooting at London’s Shepperton Studios with the entire cast returning. Set to start filming in 2013 is “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (April 2014) starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Redford; and, on the docket for August 1, 2014 is “Guardians of the Galaxy,” to star Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Benicio del Toro, based on the Marvel comic (which ran from 1969 through 2008). Also, Comic-Con fave, “Shaun of the Dead” writer-director Edgar Wright, is looking to apply the latest technology to “Ant-Man” (July 31, 2015) who “will kick your ass one inch at a time,” he says.

When “Man of Steel” finally opens in June 2013, it grosses a respectable but not stellar $630 million worldwide. The following month at Comic-Con, Warner announces it will add the character of Batman to the next Superman movie from Goyer and Snyder, and a month later says Ben Affleck will play the new Batman. Reaction ranges from fan cheers to fears that this is a desperation move to compete with Disney’s Marvel.

That’s because, for the rest of the industry, Marvel has set the bar very high.

This article is related to: News, The $11 Billion Year


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