Spawn, creative control and the comic book movie

Spawn 1997
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Kirsten examines Todd McFarlane’s attempts to get a new movie of Spawn off the ground.

When Todd McFarlane and seven other men who were frustrated with the way the comics industry was rewarding creators founded Image Comics in 1992, the company was established on a simple ethos: Image would not own any creator’s work; the creator would. That was almost three decades ago, and McFarlane is still very much committed to the idea. McFarlane would go on to create an iconic character for Image that same year: Al Simmons, aka Spawn. The son of a travelling salesman and a devil worshipper, Simmons is a decorated Secret Service agent and later joins the CIA. But when he goes abroad for a mission to Botswana, he’s murdered and lands down in Hell due to his dodgy deeds in life. Simmons makes a deal with the devil to serve as a Hellspawn in exchange for a trip back to Earth.

The $1 deal

In the same year that he was created, Columbia Pictures was interested in blessing Spawn with his own film, but McFarlane thought they weren’t going to give him enough creative control over it, so he sold the rights to New Line for a single dollar in exchange for more input, with the understanding that the studio wanted to keep the resulting project PG-13, despite the violent nature of the comics. At the time, it seemed like an impressive move for New Line to splash $20 million on a feature film for the cult character, which would go on to be released in 1997. This was a year before Wesley Snipes made a success of Blade, and Spawn would be one of the first films to feature an African American actor portraying a major comic book superhero on the big screen in Michael Jai White. When production finally got under way with rookie director Mark A.Z. Dippé at the helm, however, it turned out to be an escalating logistical nightmare. Though it was initially greenlit with $20 million, the scale of the visual effects that were needed to bring Spawn to life had the budget eventually topping $45 million.

Several companies were working around the clock to produce the effects, and more than half of them were delivered just two weeks before the film landed in cinemas, along with its cut-heavy PG-13 rating, as requested. Spawn made a little money at the box office, but it was critically savaged. The end product was arguably a bit of a mess – the overbearing visuals accidentally showcased to general audiences how weak the basic plot was, and fans of the comic felt the film just didn’t go as dark as it could have, leaving the movie with no real fan base to call its own.

Take two

McFarlane was left licking his wounds, and in 2009 announced that he’d started work on a script for a new Spawn movie that would finally do the comic justice – R-rated, and scary. Then, in 2016, McFarlane revealed that he’d completed a fresh Spawn screenplay, and said that he planned to direct it, refusing to repeat the bad experience he’d had on the 1997 version, and with the intention of having full creative control. This new Spawn, with its touted microbudget of $10 million, attracted Jamie Foxx and Jeremy Renner to the lead roles, and also Get Out and Whiplash production company Blumhouse, which has had huge levels of success in making movies with low budgets. A filming start date of February 2018 was pencilled into the schedule, and it appeared that after two decades of promises, fans were about to get the ‘proper’ Spawn movie of their dreams.

February 2018 came and went, and in October 2018 the film’s production start date was shunted back to June 2019. Something was afoot with the new Spawn movie, and when it didn’t begin shooting in June, McFarlane was pressured to answer questions about its status during a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, where he heavily hinted to the crowd that he wasn’t being allowed enough creative control over the project with Blumhouse. He also stated that the movie’s budget had now doubled to $20 million, a figure that Blumhouse would realistically baulk at.

Surprising many in attendance, McFarlane floated the idea of turning Spawn into a Kickstarter. He theorised that if 20 million people gave him a dollar, he could make the movie properly, and when he got that money back he’d dish out a refund to everyone who pledged. It was unclear if this new budget estimate included a rewards package for investors, but McFarlane claimed the endeavour would be doable if a distributer subsequently came onboard and agreed to put out the finished film. This, though, is problematic. While something like the Veronica Mars movie did extraordinarily well with its own Kickstarter and eventually found a distributor in Warner Bros., Spawn is an entirely different proposition. An R-rated comic book movie isn’t exactly catnip for studios that are for the most part looking to Marvel as the blueprint for success – even Fox’s Deadpool movies are currently in limbo after the company’s acquisition by Disney – and, in general, less successful comic book properties being rebooted for mass consumption have been more miss than hit at the box office in recent years.

What next?

It’s unclear where the tipping point is for McFarlane, or whether he’ll ever get Spawn made with his admittedly admirable outlook – one that’s quite fairly based on his past experience within the film industry. How much creative control can you have over a genre movie when you refuse to compromise? As Marvel confirms its plans to reboot Blade, and with the rebooted Hellboy film already flopping at the box office this year, potential studios waiting in the wings to distribute a crowdfunded Spawn could feel very wary of watching history repeat itself. That said, the success of Joker may have swung the pendulum again, with it proving just how much money an R-rated movie can make. Could that yet be to Spawn and McFarlane’s benefit? Time, once again, will tell.

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