Entertainment execs hit Comic-Con to build buzz

There's a new team of superheroes in entertainment. But it isn't made up of fantastical creatures that defy the laws of physics.

Due to changes in the national mood, and savvy company strategies, publishers of comic books and graphic novels — led in the USA by Marvel Entertainment mvl, Time Warner's DC Comics twx and Dark Horse — have been transformed from mild-mannered niche businesses into muscular media forces.

Their characters, stories and writers are driving billions of dollars in sales and saving the day for film, TV and retail companies struggling in a so-so market.

"Comics are a low-cost laboratory, with instant feedback, for what's happening in pop culture," says Milton Griepp, publisher of ICv2, a website that tracks comic publishing.

Although comics have long had a presence in radio, TV, movies and licensed merchandise, he says they've never had such far-reaching impact.

For example, last weekend, movie-goers spent $158.3 million to see the Batman feature The Dark Knight— a Friday-to-Sunday record. That followed a string of summer hits derived from less well-known comic characters: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Wantedand Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

They're on pace to beat the record $925 million in ticket sales generated last year from films adapted from comics. Those titles, including Spider-Man 3 and 300, accounted for 10% of the 2007 box office.

Comic book writers also created two of prime-time TV's biggest hits: NBC's Heroes and ABC's Lost.

That makes this weekend's sold-out Comic-Con — the biggest annual fan gathering, taking place in San Diego — more important than ever. Entertainment executives are flocking there to stoke excitement among its largest-ever crowd for upcoming films, including Watchmen, Caliber and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, as well as TV shows and books.

"It's a big deal and a wild show," says Michael Stone, CEO of The Beanstalk Group, a licensing consulting firm. "There are a lot of comic book companies besides Marvel and DC, and something can rise out of there pretty quickly."

Faster than a speeding wallet

Stone says consumers are spending record amounts on toys, games, clothing and other merchandise featuring characters licensed from comic books and graphic novels.

Warner Bros. Consumer Products, which handles DC's Batman and Superman, as well as non-comic book properties including Harry Potter, generated $6 billion in retail sales last year, making it the third-largest licenser — behind Disney dis and Phillips-Van Heusen pvh— trade magazine License Global says.

DC hopes to expand its reach to adults this Christmas with a Diane von Furstenberg-designed line of clothing, leather goods and footwear based on Wonder Woman.

It's also gearing up for Watchmen, a film due in March based on one of the first important graphic novels, a cult hit published in 1986. Fans are already salivating over news items about the movie, as well as its newly released trailer. The combination has led to a significant increase in sales of the book, DC Comics President Paul Levitz says.

Meanwhile, Marvel ended last year as the No. 5 licenser as sales of merchandise with characters including Spider-Man, X-Men, Hulk and Iron Man rose 14.6% to $5.5 billion.

Sales could grow as retailers gain confidence that the comics boom isn't a fad and clear shelf space.

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