By Julie Mackinen, Los Angeles Times
BEIJING — Whether “Iron Man” or “The Dark Knight” or “Spider-Man,” comic-book films have been hot properties for producers. But with the rights to the Marvel and DC Comics character universes essentially locked up by major studios, smaller publishers are attracting increasing attention these days — even from as far away as China.
On Monday, Beijing-based DMG Entertainment is expected to announce that it’s investing at least $10 million in New York-based comics publisher Valiant and putting forth at least $100 million of film financing capital to bring Valiant characters such as Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Shadowman and Dr. Mirage to TV screens and cinemas around the world.
Valiant has less than 1% of the U.S. comic book market. (DC and Marvel account for more than 60% combined.) But Valiant’s huge ensemble of characters, who encompass a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, may hold significant appeal in the international marketplace.
For a company that hardly existed three years ago, Valiant’s sudden change of fortune is like something ripped from the pages of any good superhero story. The company’s saga has taken many dramatic turns, including a plunging defeat and a from-the brink comeback.
Founded by an ex-Marvel editor in chief, Valiant got off the ground in the early 1990s and quickly (and briefly) soared to become the third-largest publisher behind Marvel and DC, churning out fresh titles including “Harbinger” and “Rai.” Within four years, though, Valiant was sold to a video game company, and that entity went bust.
The skeletal remains of Valiant emerged from the ashes of bankruptcy court a decade ago. But it wasn’t until summer 2012 that the reconstituted company burst back to life with a regular publishing schedule, winning critical acclaim and a passionate (if limited) following.
Dan Mintz, chief executive of DMG, which collaborated with Disney to help co-produce “Iron Man 3″ and market it in China in 2013, said he saw great potential in Valiant’s nearly 2,000 characters.
“Within the portfolios of the major Hollywood studios, the most successful and influential genre at this point is comic books,” Mintz said. The problem: “The AAA standard is a fully integrated universe with an amazing amount of characters,” he said, adding that there was only one left, “and that’s Valiant.”
Valiant had already announced plans with Sony Pictures to develop a film based on its character Bloodshot, a memory-challenged ex-soldier whose bloodstream contains nanocomputers, allowing him to interface with technology and shape-shift. Valiant has other film projects in development as well, including ones involving Shadowman and Archer & Armstrong with producer Sean Daniel (“The Mummy,” “The Scorpion King”).
Valiant Chief Executive Dinesh Shamdasani said Sunday that he expected the Bloodshot film to go into production at the start of 2016. DMG will be involved, he said.
Seven other Valiant characters (or teams of characters) are being considered for film treatments, DMG said: Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Dr. Mirage, Shadowman, Archer & Armstrong, Quantum & Woody and Ninjak.
As Valiant sets its sights on the global marketplace, it is introducing its characters to audiences in mainland China. Valiant has teamed up with the giant Chinese Internet firm Tencent to make several of its comics available free online. Starting Tuesday, two special editions of “Bloodshot” No. 1 and “Harbinger” No. 1 in Mandarin will be available at Tencent’s ad-supported comic site.
Shamdasani said he grew up reading Valiant comics in the 1990s in Hong Kong, now a semi-autonomous Chinese territory. The comics’ “inherent diversity” makes them particularly suitable for the increasingly globalized market, he said, mentioning that the title character from the Dr. Mirage series is an ethnic Chinese paranormal investigator.
Although Valiant in its early years focused on publishing rather than licensing, Shamdasani said, “today the world is very different. The next phase of our growth was to find a partner to co-produce and co-finance films.”
DMG saw a range of opportunities for the Valiant characters, including animated series and licensing for online gaming, toys, apparel, live events and theme parks. China is rapidly building theme parks, but many lack compelling attractions built around well-known characters or stories.
Comic books (often read online via PCs or phones) and Japanese anime are popular in China, though Western titles have much less of a following.
“When we did ‘Iron Man 3,’ no one really new Marvel at all,” Mintz said of the reaction in China. “They hadn’t read their comics growing up, a lot of them weren’t clear on what it was, and doing that wasn’t actually very straightforward.”
Even the Iron Man mask caused confusion. “Everyone thought it was ‘Transformers,’” he said.
By taking on the Valiant characters, Mintz said, “the idea is to start from the roots and grow it, rather than jam something in.”
“Iron Man 3″ ultimately proved a huge hit in mainland China, but the addition of “China-only” scenes designed to enhance the film’s appeal to mainland audiences drew mixed reactions, with some viewers regarding it as a condescending ploy.
“‘Iron Man 3′ was version 1.0,” Mintz said. “There’s always learning to be had.”