Even before its first weekend box-office results rolls in, New Line Cinema's "The Mask" has worked more than a little magic for its comic-book progenitors, Dark Horse Entertainment. The film, expected to be one of late summer's biggest hits, has led to a deal with producer Larry Gordon for the comic-book wizards to develop eight films, many built around other well-known Dark Horse characters.
Dark Horse President Mike Richardson and Executive Vice President Todd Moyer will co-produce all films with Gordon, formerly of Largo Entertainment. The two are also in discussions with several studios, whom they will not name, for a separate production deal they hope will be announced later this week.
One of the suitors, sources say, is Universal Pictures, home of September's Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle "Time Cop," which Dark Horse also helped to create for Gordon.
Dark Horse comics that Richardson and Moyer will help Gordon adapt for the screen include "X," written by Steven Grant; "Pit Bulls," with "Mask" writer John Acrudi; "The Machine," written by Randy Stradley, and "Cemetery," written by Mike Barron on Gordon's original concept.
Two others will be based on titles owned by Dark Horse: a wisecracking spy thriller called "Accident Man," written by Pat Mills, and "Black Cross," written by Steve Grant and Chris Warner.
Mark Verheiden, who shares story credit on "The Mask" and screenwriting credit on "Time Cop," will write the remaining two films for Gordon, neither of which will be based on Dark Horse Comics: "Al & Gene," a fantasy similar to "The Mask," and a second that has yet to be determined.
Gordon is not the only producer eager for a piece of Dark Horse: Gale Anne Hurd's Pacific Western Productions will produce "Virus," a story by screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer ("Hard Target," "Darkman"), who also helped create Dark Horse, about an alien intelligence invading a Chinese frigate at sea.
What Dark Horse is doing with Gordon "is really sort of a first-time screenwriters' program for our comic-book writers. Dark Horse has become much more than just a comic-book publisher," says Moyer. In addition to "The Mask," Dark Horse's RoboCop was the inspiration for the three Orion "RoboCop" films and the TV series.
Dark Horse, which graphic artist Richardson started in Bend, Ore., in 1980 with $2,000 against his Visa charge card, was originally planned as a small retail store where Richardson could sell comic books while he wrote and illustrated children's stories in the back of his shop. Now it's one of the nation's largest comic-book publishers with 150 employees, a growing production company that hopes to develop a TV series based on "The Mask" and a related toy line for Hasbro. The company has publishing operations in both suburban Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles, as well as eight retail outlets, including Universal CityWalk's Things From Another World. Comic-book sales for 1993 were $32 million.
It can thank "The Mask" for its exploding growth.
Once Richardson began creating his characters in the back of his small store, he began to network, tapping into other writers and artists. Eventually he hooked up with Moyer, then an agent with Ira Schecter Co. in Los Angeles. Moyer left the agency in 1988 to join Richardson.
In 1989, Moyer and Richardson first approached New Line about adapting "The Mask" for the screen.
"We had bigger offers," says Richardson. "Warner Bros. wanted it, but (New Line president of production) Mike De Luca guaranteed us that he would make the movie. We didn't want to take the chance of selling it and never see it made."
The character went through several transformations, and the project was stalled a couple of times, Richardson says. "In the beginning, the comic book was very violent. When I pitched the project, it was around the time of all those 'Nightmare on Elm Street' sequels," which were produced by New Line. "But I didn't want this to be the next Freddy Krueger. I wanted the main character to be more like Tex Avery. The characters began to evolve and Stanley Ipkiss (the main character) became more of a repressed romantic." In the film, the nerdy Ipkiss finds an ancient, cursed mask, puts it on and is transformed into a whirling dervish embodying all of his repressed desires.
"The delays at New Line worked in my favor," says Richardson. "When they bought 'The Mask' in 1989, the project was on a two-year production schedule. If the project had been made then, it wouldn't have had Jim Carrey (who plays Ipkiss) and it wouldn't have had the unbelievable special effects of Industrial Light & Magic."
There is already a "Mask" children's book in the works, called "Merry ChristMask"--a tale in which Santa Claus is hurt and a little boy dons the mask and saves the day. There's even talk of doing a live stage show, adds Moyer.
Also under way are a CD-ROM interactive game based on Dark Horse's comic "Alien," plus video games based on the upcoming "Time Cop."
But, in the mean time, Dark Horse wants to continue focusing on the origin of all this merchandising: the comic books themselves.
"We wanted autonomy in developing all of our comics, particularly into screenplays," says Moyer. "Thanks to Larry Gordon, we now have that. It's something we plan to continue."