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DC Comics Storms the Film World

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DC Comics Storms the Film World
In the comics universe, where characters are endlessly reborn and re-outfitted, a motto from the 1980s -- "DC Comics is on the move" -- could just as well apply to the current, hyperactive state of the publisher as it relates to Hollywood.

A year after "The Dark Knight" became a worldwide phenomenon, there are more DC Comics adaptations in the works than at any other point since the company was acquired by Warner Bros. in 1969.

Among the projects on front burners:

-- "The Losers," an action-adventure drama starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe Saldana and Chris Evans, begins principal photography this week in Puerto Rico.

-- "Jonah Hex," a supernatural Western starring Josh Brolin, Megan Fox and John Malkovich, recently wrapped production in Louisiana.

-- "The Green Lantern," Warners' next big superhero tentpole, is set to star Ryan Reynolds after a long search.

-- Fox has picked up the TV series "Human Target," starring Mark Valley, for the fall.

-- And, in a rare example of a film project that has ventured off the Warners reservation, DC has set up "Red," a spy thriller to star Bruce Willis, at Summit.

"One of the things that has differentiated us for most of the last 20 years is the depth of our library and the depth of the creative material that we've put out and the opportunities that creates for other media," DC Comics president Paul Levitz said.Still, when "Dark Knight" invaded theaters last summer, critics of DC and Warners complained there didn't appear to be a grand strategy in place to exploit DC properties.

In contrast, DC arch-rival Marvel moved quickly in the wake of its successful "Iron Man" to stake out a series of release dates for a slew of movies, branding them as part of one big Marvel universe leading to "The Avengers," which arrives in 2012.

But DC and Warners have taken a different approach, arguing that DC has a wider breadth of books than other comics companies. They insist their situation isn't comparable to Marvel, which already has licensed out to other studios a number of its biggest titles: Spider-Man is housed at Sony, and X-Men and Fantastic Four are at Fox.

With fewer marquee superheroes, Marvel works like an animation studio: It only develops select projects and makes most of what it develops, while DC is managing a much larger portfolio.

Still, in the wake of "Dark Knight," DC and Warners have made strategic moves in the superhero realm, including centralizing the way DC's titles and characters are developed. In the past, Warners optioned a property, paying DC a fee comparable to what a property could command on the open market. But while the projects ostensibly were being developed under one roof, many were spread out over a host of producers, each with different visions for how to approach each adaptation.

To bring competing approaches into sync, Levitz and DC's Los Angeles-based film exec Gregory Noveck have overseen a reorganization of the development slate. While Warners execs still drive the creative side, DC now has more input, making it an actual participant in the shaping of material.

"The creative process is by and large a true partnership," Noveck said. "They'll ask us a ton of questions, and we'll give a ton of answers. We will talk back and forth. We'll discuss writers and talent, but ultimately it's their decision."

This past fall, Warners quietly hired three of DC's biggest writers -- Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison and Marv Wolfman -- to act as consultants and writers for its superhero line of movies. The move involved taking back the reins on projects being handled by such producers as Charles Roven ("The Flash") and Akiva Goldsman ("Teen Titans").

Some agents and scribes grumbled about being forced to work with the consultants, never mind that Johns started his career as a assistant to "Superman" director Richard Donner or that Wolfman has worked in animation since the 1980s.

The moves have begun to pay off. Johns worked up a new treatment for a "Flash" script, being written by Dan Mazeau; Johns will act in a producer capacity on the project, which has not attached a director.

The projects Morrison and Wolfman are working on are in the early stages at Warners, whose execs declined to comment.

The process involves one writer taking point, though the trio do collaborate on projects, reading one another's materials while hashing out a story that will be at once accessible to nonfans yet still adhere to each character's long history. The writers also work in tandem with producers, writers and the Warners execs overseeing the projects, showing them treatments and providing notes on scripts.

Meanwhile, other superhero projects are moving forward at Warners.

The studio is taking pitches on sci-fi hero Adam Strange and the underwater-breathing hero "Aquaman," to be produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and his Appian Way shingle.

Also in the pipeline: "Bizarro Superman" being written by "Galaxy Quest" scribes David Howard and Robert Gordon; a sequel to "Constantine," with Goldsman and Erwin Stoff producing; two concurrent Green Arrow projects, an origin story and a prison-set one titled "Super Max"; and "Shazam," which was set up at New Line but has moved to Warners, with Pete Segal attached to direct.

Unsung in the lineup is Warners' line of straight-to-DVD animated movies released via Warner Premiere. "Green Lantern: First Flight," the latest entry, will premiere at this week's Comic-Con and has a July 28 street date.

These movies, produced on budgets in the $3.5 million range, apparently overperformed their targets. "First Flight" is the fifth straight-to-DVD title, with "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies" in production for a Sept. 29 release.

In the home entertainmentarena, DC has overshadowed Marvel, with 2007's "Superman-Doomsday" generating $9.4 million in revenue and last year's "Batman: Gotham Knight," taking advantage of the tidal wave of support for the Christopher Nolan movie, generating $8 million, according to tracking site The-Numbers.com. "Wonder Woman," released in March, already has chalked up $4.4 million. Marvel's top seller, "Ultimate Avengers 2," has pulled in $7.7 million.

Not that all the stars in the DC firmament are aligned yet.

Warners and DC still haven't figured out how to translate "Wonder Woman" to the big screen. In part, that failure reflects the difficulties DC has had turning out a popular Wonder Women comic. Morrison, during a recent Q&A with Clive Barker at Los Angeles' Meltdown Comics, admitted he didn't have a complete handle on the character when he was writing the comic "Final Crisis."

Also, ever since Bryan Singer's 2006's "Superman Returns," a new Superman has been in limbo.

"Our hope is to develop a Superman property and to try again," Warner Bros. Entertainment president Alan Horn said in April. "What hurt us is that the reviews and so on for the Superman movie did not get the kind of critical acclaim that Batman got, and we have other issues with Superman that concern us."

On the Batman front, a sequel to "Dark Knight" also is quite a way off. Nolan is open to doing a third installment, but his next movie is "Inception," an original script he penned and is shooting for Warners.

All that has put a damper on any movie about the Justice League, whose roster includes the above-mentioned heroes as well as myriad others including Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter. DC would like to present some of the main heroes in their own movies before they are brought together for one big outing, so "League" currently is inactive.

On top of that, there could be another change in how Warners approaches the DC characters, with studio chiefs debating whether to put the operation under one super-exec.

To bring the next generation of superheroes to the screen, DC and Warners might yet have to unleash their own super powers.

Nielsen Business Media 

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