Fan Film, Fan Films

Analysis: Fan Films Leading To Comic Crackdown?

One of the more interesting panels this past weekend at the New York Comic Con was closed to the public. Friday’s “Comics Publishing: Review and Outlook” featured some truly heavy-hitters, including: Paul Levitz (President & Publisher, DC Comics), whose low-key demeanor belied the fact that he was surprisingly candid with numbers (for instance, the Watchmen trade paperback sold about 50,000 copies last year, about three times more than usual, thanks to the V For Vendetta movie); Dallas Middaugh (Associate Publisher, Del Rey Manga), who was happy just to be there; Stuart Levy (CEO, Tokyopop), who played the role of the enfant terrible just like last year’s panel, but admittedly with more intriguing things to say this time; Alvin Lu (VP – Publishing, VIZ Media), who said stuff that admittedly I don’t recall; and Dan Buckley (President & Publisher, Publishing, Marvel Entertainment, Inc.) who dropped a bomb of sorts talking about Marvel’s future in digital distribution. It’s that latter commentary that we’re gonna chat about today.

For a full run-down of the panel and Buckley’s comments, you can read all about it at Newsarama, but basically, he expounded that his company is moving into digital distribution, noting that all comic publishers will have to because many of their books are already online, whether they like it or not. They don’t plan to put their entire lines on the net, and they recognize that the form factor (paper vs. a screen) will help them not get slammed as hard by piracy as the music and movie industries have been in recent years.

Why mention this on a fan film site? Because as the major comic publishers move into the digital realm more forcefully, superhero fan films may get more strikes against them from the copyright holders of those characters (i.e. the publishers). The music industry always complains about piracy with the now-cliché “It’s hard to compete with free;” as the comic book companies make inroads into the online world where fan films have roamed freely in recent years, they may decide the same thing as the music industry, and make a stronger effort to close down the fan productions based on their characters that are floating around the internet.

Levitz noted at one point that for the last 20 years, the comic book industry has been subsisting on die-hard comic fans who drop $20 a week at comic shops, adding that his company (and likely the others on the panel as well) is trying to attract more casual comic buyers, because they’d do a lot better with lots of $300-a-year consumers rather than a handful of $1,000-a-year consumers. If that’s the case, that means reaching a lot of people who don’t normally buy comics–and I suspect those people are harder to reach, harder to cater to and harder to retain.

Of course, a good fan film might help attract more casual buyers to comics, acting as free publicity and helping to get those occasional buyers to check out some comics. On the other hand, a bad fan film (and God knows, there’s millions of ‘em) could just as likely send those potential fans in the opposite direction, and the reason could be as simple as “the guy in that ridiculous costume looks like a dork–ergo, only dorks read comics.” Is it a shallow observation? Sure it is (“Welcome to America–would you like a side-order of Project Runway with that 24-hour news coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s decomposition?”), but whether the reaction is fair or not, if a bad fan film can turn off a potential reader, then that fan film is bad for business.

[And to be perfectly clear, while FCT celebrates fan films and filmmakers, we also work in content industries around here, and have no problems with copyright owners--like comic publishers, for instance--exerting their rightful control over materials. Of course, abuse of copyright extension laws is heinous--that means you, Disney--but that's a topic for someone else's blog.]

For the last few years, the major comics publishers have generally turned a blind eye to superhero fan films (not always though, so I’ll have to talk about that at some point in the future). In recent times, however, sites like YouTube and Google Video have become very popular, feeding the viral video craze while also making it possible for nearly anyone to post video online, including fan flicks, of course. With the ability for those films to suddenly reach a much larger audience than ever before, it’s probably not in the publishers’ best financial interests to let those amateur films run unchecked as the companies start moving more and more professional content online. It may be hard to compete with free, but it’s even harder to compete with your own product ineptly presented…and free.

As a result, we may well be in the final days of the wild west era of superhero fan films; I suspect it will only be a few years before either the major comic book publishers either lay down some guidelines as Lucasfilm did with its AtomFilms Star Wars fan film contest, or just start legally smacking some fan filmmakers around to make an example of them. I hope I’m wrong, but I bet I’m not. Disagree? Post a comment below and let’s chat about it.

Like this story? Tell the world:

Comments are closed.

RSS for Posts RSS for Comments