A strange new power

Times Staff Writer

The Oscars present Hollywood as it wishes to be -- refined, glamorous and high-minded -- but on Saturday night at the Greek Theatre, the Spike TV Scream 2008 Awards showed the movie industry as it truly is in 2008: obsessed with superheroes, overflowing with fake blood and relentless in its pursuit to sell popcorn to teenagers. And despite a name that sounds like a B-movie convention, the Scream Awards turned out to be so of-the-moment in their target audience that top studio executives, major stars and A-list directors not only attended, they talked backstage about the show as a sign of the times.

“There’s a feeling that film and comic books and all these genres that didn’t used to get respect are having this truly dynamic moment right now,” said Zack Snyder, director of “300" and the upcoming R-rated superhero epic “Watchmen.” “Just look around tonight and you get this feeling things are going into interesting places.”

The Scream Awards, which will air Tuesday night on the Spike TV cable channel, are hardly a ratings powerhouse, but you wouldn’t have known that from the celebrity turnout. Anthony Hopkins, Samuel L. Jackson, Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman appeared to present or receive awards, and two of the most successful filmmakers alive arrived on stage in dramatic fashion -- “Sweeney Todd” director Tim Burton floated in via hot-air balloon like the Wizard into Oz, and “Star Wars” mogul George Lucas entered accompanied by a marching regiment of clone troopers.

Backstage, Lucas, standing not far from black-clad rock star Marilyn Manson and comic-book industry icon Stan Lee, seemed a bit dazed by the strange confluence of pop culture streams. “This,” he muttered, “is something.”


These are lean times for corporations that routinely gamble more than $100 million on major films. Last week, Paramount, citing financial constraints, pushed back the release of “The Soloist,” which was considered to be a strong Oscar contender.

At the same time, studios are scrambling to buy the rights to obscure superheroes, and there are no fewer than two dozen projects based on comic-book characters or video games that are in various stages of production. The reason is simple: This summer, “The Dark Knight,” the latest Batman film, racked up $527 million at the box office in the U.S. alone, making it second only to “Titanic” as the highest-grossing film in history.

“Iron Man,” “Hancock,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “The Incredible Hulk” were other major hits in a season that might be remembered as the Summer of Glove. More than that, you have to go back to 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” to find a year when the top movie wasn’t a hero movie or an animated film.

The Scream Awards presented a pop-culture environment where filmmakers like “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan shared the same stage as comic-book writers such as Mike Mignola, creator of “Hellboy,” who said that in the old days Hollywood would strip-mine comics and scoff at the creators. Now, they walk on the same red carpet, which on Saturday night had giant posters of the Green Lantern and Spider-Man above it.

“Comic books have given birth to all of this,” Mignola said. “Comic books are the baby that gave birth to a giant. And sometimes it was a difficult delivery.

“After this summer, everything is getting green-lit in Hollywood; there are so many projects in the pipeline that they won’t all fit into the summer release schedules,” he added. “So you’re going to see summer last all year long. Comic-book movies are going to be year-round. It’s the center of entertainment right now.”

Casey Patterson, executive producer of the award show, said the event began three years ago with an emphasis on horror, a genre that was surging at that time thanks to movies such as the “Saw” films and “Hostel.” But in subsequent years, the show widened to embrace comic books and fantasy.

Burton, Lucas and horror icon Wes Craven were handed career awards on Saturday night, underlining the range of Scream constituencies. The biggest winner was “The Dark Knight,” with 12 awards.


The winners for the Scream Awards are determined by fans who vote at the network’s website; nominations are influenced by an advisory board that includes author Stephen King, filmmaker Kevin Smith and graphic novel writer Neil Gaiman. The categories picked by the Viacom-owned Spike aren’t especially staid -- there’s a trophy for most memorable mutilation, for example.

It will be interesting to see whether Nolan and the late Heath Ledger, who played the Joker in “Dark Knight,” will be in the running for Oscars, Patterson said. Traditionally, old Hollywood ignores superhero fare in the marquee categories.

“It’s not that comic-book movies are coming to the mainstream; it’s that the mainstream is coming to comic-book movies,” Patterson said.

This summer, Comic-Con International in San Diego drew 130,000 fans, and Japan’s Comiket, a mass gathering for comics fans, quadrupled that number. Science fiction is a hot genre on prime-time television, and many shows, such as “Heroes,” reflect the comic-book ethos.


On Broadway, Tony-winning director Julie Taymor is working with U2’s Bono and Edge to put together a Spider-Man musical that will reportedly be the most expensive production in the history of theater. Then there are video games -- such as “Spider-Man: Web of Shadows,” one of this year’s most anticipated new releases -- which stir even more interest among Hollywood executives who know that film franchises such as “Harry Potter” and “X-Men” can pay off big in games, toys and other merchandise sales long after a movie’s final weekend at theaters.

In other words, prepare for a steady parade of masked men in the seasons to come. Right now Warner Bros. has a string of superhero projects underway (another Batman film, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern and possible Green Arrow and Flash movies among them) and “Watchmen” due in theaters in March. Lionsgate has “Punisher: War Zone” due Dec. 5 and Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” on Christmas Day.

Sony has “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in May, and there’s talk about a fourth movie for “Spider-Man,” a franchise that racked up a staggering $1.1 billion at the U.S. box office since its launch in 2002. Hollywood newcomer Marvel Studios, meanwhile, has announced plans to make four more movies (another Iron Man movie and then Avengers, Captain America and Thor) after releasing two of this year’s top 10 hits, “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.”

Taking the long view on all this was Lee, co-creator of Spider-Man, Hulk, the Fantastic Four and most of the other signature Marvel Comics characters. The 85-year-old got some of the loudest cheers of the night when he went on stage, showing that the audience knew comic-book history.


Afterward, backstage, Lee was giddy.

“It’s hard to believe how far everything has come. Who would have expected all this when we were sitting there thinking up superhero stories and just hoping kids would like them?” he said. “I don’t see any end in sight for all this either. There are so many stories, and there’s a huge appetite for them. It reminds me of when Hollywood was making westerns. There was always another one you could do, another cowboy story and another way to tell it.”

Perhaps, but in 1959 there were 26 westerns on American prime-time television and now there are none, which suggests that superhero saturation may have consequences down the road.

For the moment, though, there is no end in sight, and Gerard Way, lead singer of the rock band My Chemical Romance, said the sector would thrive not only because of its commercial viability but also because of the nature of its creative community right now. Way writes “The Umbrella Academy,” an acclaimed graphic-novel series for Dark Horse Comics, which he says has been approved by Universal to be a film as soon as 2010.


“The people that are making these movies are coming to it with a love of the comics and a respect for them, and I think that’s why the fans are so passionate about these movies,” Way said. “It comes down to the fact that for the first time, it’s fans who are making these movies, and that makes all the difference in the world. It’s not just capes that people like, it’s watching movies made with great ideas and imagination. That’s what makes them fly.”