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Film Studio Born of Comic Books Grabs Hollywood’s Attention
« on: January 10, 2011, 04:18:33 pm »

January 9, 2011
Film Studio Born of Comic Books Grabs Hollywood’s Attention

LOS ANGELES — Ask Barry Levine, an upstart movie producer and comic book publisher, what he is working on, and he will stare you in the eye and start peeling off his shirt. There, tattooed on his shoulder, is a large image of Hercules.

“My baby,” Mr. Levine says, rubbing his inked skin.

“Hercules: The Thracian Wars” is a movie project headed toward Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but it is only one of Mr. Levine’s cinematic endeavors. In less than three years, his company, Radical Studios, has become a belle of the Hollywood ball, with movies set up at DreamWorks Studios, Walt Disney Pictures and New Regency Pictures, which is affiliated with 20th Century Fox. Scott Rudin, the Oscar-winning producer, is working with Radical to produce “Mata Hari,” the tale of a mysterious dancer and spy.

In recent months, Radical has also created a music division, started publishing games for mobile devices and expanded efforts to publish what it calls illustrated novels — elaborate comic books — in China.

Just who is this ostensibly radical guy?

Mr. Levine, 62, with a muscled physique rare for a sexagenarian, may not be quite as progressive when it comes to his business approach as he would like to think, but he is definitely one of the more colorful characters in an industry brimming with oddballs. He spent the 1970s and 1980s as a rock photographer, chronicling the likes of Queen, Kiss, Abba, the Sex Pistols and Mötley Crüe.

Gene Simmons, the Kiss impresario turned reality TV personality, has been a particular mentor to Mr. Levine, who credits Mr. Simmons with teaching him how to spin high-impact visuals into marketing gold.

“Barry is like a Detroit muscle car,” said Jon Levin, an agent at Creative Artists Agency who represents Mr. Levine and Radical Studios. “His engine just runs at a different speed than everyone else’s.”

Mr. Levine’s high-octane razzmatazz strikes some Hollywood executives as hucksterism. But there is no denying his company is tapping into — and helping shape — a new business identity for production companies.

Movie producing used to follow a standard model: find material to develop for the screen, sell the idea to a studio and help make the film. The money came from either an upfront fee paid by the studio or a slice of the revenue. The most powerful producers had the studios pay for their expenses — to keep the lights on while all of that plodding script-doctoring took place.

But studios have drastically cut those overhead deals, leaving many producers to devise a new way to pay development bills. Studios are also making fewer movies. Increasingly, studios expect producers to bring something more to the table than wit and charm — financing to help produce a movie, or proof that an idea will resonate with the public.

Against this fragmenting media backdrop sit companies like Radical Studios. Mr. Levine started in 2008 by publishing comics and graphic novels. That gave him a revenue stream and a library of intellectual property to use as collateral. Radical now has 72 publishing properties with more than 1,000 characters. The circulation for some has reached 30,000, which is viewed as strong.

Mr. Levine and his top lieutenant, a 30-year-old financial whiz named Jesse Berger, repackage Radical’s sleekly illustrated comics as movie pitches.

“It’s extraordinarily valuable in the current business atmosphere to be able to pitch studios a story that is visually represented — it validates the idea if you can give executives something to hold in their hands,” said the producer Mark Gordon, who is working with Radical to adapt its successful zombie comic “Driver for the Dead.”

They are also increasingly focused on digitizing that artwork for use in digital publishing, gaming and smartphone apps. “An enormous amount of energy right now is going into their expansion in Asia,” said David Schiff, Radical’s manager.

The true bar of success is actually to get a movie made, which Radical has so far been unable to do despite the flurry of development activity. Mr. Levine said it was impossible to say with certainty whether plans could advance first with Disney or DreamWorks or MGM. Already, one project has fallen apart because of scheduling problems: Radical’s “Caliber,” which was to be directed by John Woo.

“We want to make films,” Mr. Levine said. “We don’t just want to sell them and have them sit on a shelf.” Mr. Berger said budgets for the current slate of movies would range from $35 million to $140 million.

Radical is far from the only company trying to turn comics and graphic novels into movie pay dirt. Some prominent efforts, like Richard Branson’s Virgin Comics, have come and gone. In November, Legendary Pictures introduced a comics division, naming Bob Schreck, a veteran of DC Comics and IDW Publishing, as editor in chief.

The goal is a money machine like “The Dark Knight,” the Legendary and Warner Brothers film that sold over $1 billion at the global box office. Dark Horse Comics, of Oregon, has had success with properties like “300.”

But translating popular graphic novels into movies has proved treacherous. Two recent efforts, “Jonah Hex” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” have been box office disasters.

At the same time, comics fans have a strong distaste for materials that are little more than brochures for movies (something Legendary is striving to address by hiring Mr. Schreck). Some of Radical’s early publications were criticized by comics fans for this reason, and the publisher suffered a black eye when it was forced to stop production of its comic “Incarnate” after its creator, Nick Simmons, the son of Gene Simmons, was accused of plagiarism.

“I didn’t see the appeal of some of Radical’s early books, but they have gotten a lot better and produced some high-quality material,” said Jonah Weiland, executive producer for, which is considered an authority on all things comics. Mr. Weiland added, “Barry is a big personality, but Radical is for real.”

Radical has won respect from other creative people. Joseph Kosinski, the director of “Tron: Legacy” and creator of “Oblivion,” a science-fiction saga set for publication by Radical, clearly gets a kick out of Mr. Levine.

“Did he show you the tattoo? I think that’s his way of making sure everyone sees the blood he gives for these properties,” Mr. Kosinski said with a chuckle. He added, “It’s great collaborating with somebody who is an artist at heart.”

Disney bought the film rights to “Oblivion,” and William Monahan, who won an Oscar for “The Departed,” is writing a screenplay.

Radical’s finances are a little murky. The company’s primary backer is Lacho Calad, a Singapore investment vehicle operated by, among others, a man named Lee Han, according to Mr. Levine and Mr. Berger. They would not specify the size of the investment and were similarly private about revenue and profit.

Mr. Levine would rather show off his rabbit warren of offices. Over there is a newly built recording studio, where the president of Radical’s music division, Steve Lindsey, will shepherd scores for films, trailers and games. And here is a prized piece of art — a poster made of dozens of colored tablets of LSD.

“It’s behind glass for a reason,” Mr. Levine said with a smile. “We’re wild enough around here.”