When "The Walking Dead" television series premiered on AMC on Halloween 2010, the zombie apocalypse series began its transition from Robert Kirkman's then-seven-year-old comic book title into a worldwide phenomenon.
The most recent season of the TV series averaged 18.4 million viewers per episode (including DVR views and re-runs in the week following each premiere) and is the most-watched drama series in basic cable history, according to AMC. Issue 115 of the comic sold over 350,000 issues, according to its publisher Image Comics, making it the top-selling comic book of 2013, and episodes of the franchise's video-game series by Telltale Games have been downloaded 36 million times.
Kirkman has had total control over the direction of the franchise as it has grown through different mediums, which also includes novels and a slew of merchandise. He's now looking to use the success of his biggest series to develop his company, Skybound Entertainment, into an industry heavyweight that lets creators retain the copyrights to their intellectual properties, an approach that has long been in the independent comic scene that has previously not been applied to a multimedia entertainment business.
Kirkman founded Skybound in 2010 with his former manager and "Walking Dead" TV show executive producer David Alpert as an imprint of Image Comics that gave both ownership and an unusual amount of creative control to series' creators. Kirkman and Alpert are now poised to turn Skybound into a full-blown media company with comics, TV shows, and movies all produced with a unique ethos.
"We have a pretty lofty idea of what we can be," Alpert tells Business Insider. "Really what we think Skybound can be is the next-generation media company."
The way Alpert sees it, there are two ways of running a business using intellectual property. In the traditional way, a business pays creators for their series and has the final say regarding the direction of the series through multiple platforms. In the new way, creators use the internet to fully self-publish and distribute their work. Alpert and Kirkman want to find the sweet spot in between these, where Skybound can provide creators with the resources to launch titles that they still have full control over.
"When you look at the bigger companies, they're licensing houses," Kirkman says, referring to the way that a comic series' creator is often barely involved with Hollywood film or television adaptations. "But to a certain extent, the people that originate a thing are the people that know it the best, and so with Skybound, if we take one of our comics and adapt it into a video game or a movie or a television show, the person that originated that will be involved in that. And I think that that will make that product that much better."
In a traditional comic book deal, a series creator signs a deal with a publisher who agrees to retain ownership of an intellectual property as long as the series is kept alive through new merchandise or reprinting within a set time period, such as a year. In a Skybound deal, a creator signs a deal that always allows him or her to retain ownership of the intellectual property while Skybound handles marketing and distribution.
Skybound is looking to work alongside creators rather than feeding them assignments.
"Creators don't pitch books to big publishers; they're hired hands placed on books at the publisher's discretion," Kirkman says. "So from the very get go things are different. At Skybound we partner with creators and profit with them, not before them or from them. It's more like entering into a partnership."
It's an extension of the philosophy Skybound's parent company Image Comics was founded on back in 1992. A crew of high-profile Marvel Comics artists, including Todd McFarlane, believed Marvel was watering down their creations by over-licensing them and so decided to start a company that allowed creators to retain their copyrights when they signed on. Led by popular franchises like McFarlane's "Spawn," Image grew into the third-largest comic book company in North America behind the juggernauts Marvel and DC Comics.
The massive global success of "The Walking Dead" across multiple platforms proved that the trust Image placed in a creator, in this case Kirkman, could result in a franchise as big as or bigger than any other entertainment mainstay. Kirkman has been a partner at Image since 2008.
"Even before I was a partner, I owned 'The Walking Dead' and controlled 'The Walking Dead,' and that's how I was able to turn it into a TV show and be involved in the TV show, and all that other stuff," he says. "At a lot of other comic book companies, you would see an executive at the comic book company be in the executive producer position that I'm in on 'The Walking Dead,' just because that's how those other companies work."
Kirkman and Alpert see Skybound as a way to replicate Kirkman's success with other creators. Over the past four years, Skybound has grown from three employees and just Kirkman's titles to a staff of 21 full-time employees and 10 active titles, with 15 in development. The company declined to share revenue numbers.
"It's pretty hard to imagine that they've developed an integrated media company with just a couple dozen people," Skybound managing partner Jon Goldman tells us.
"I think the growth of Skybound over the last four years has been tremendous. We started out inside a cubicle and now we have two buildings," Alpert says.
Besides "The Walking Dead" in all its forms, Kirkman's new comic "Outcast," his take on the exorcism subgenre, has sold out each of its four issues' first printings. The first issue of "Outcast" is in its fifth and final printing.
Kirkman and Alpert tell us that the pilot episode of an "Outcast" television series will be shot by the end of the year for Cinemax.
A pilot for another "Walking Dead" show has also gotten the green light. It takes place in the same universe as the main series based on the comic book but with entirely original content.
And Skybound's first feature-length film, "AIR," a sci-fi movie written by Kirkman and starring "Walking Dead" actor Norman Reedus, is scheduled to be distributed by Sony Pictures sometime in early 2015.
Besides Kirkman's properties, Skybound is unleashing more new comic series than ever before over the next two years, as well as multiple video-game titles.
Kirkman says that he and his team spend a long time vetting each series before bringing it onboard, and that they "always start from a place of fandom" when they decide to whom they'll reach out.
Alpert tells us that Skybound will attract talent by allowing creators to come to them with a singular pitch, rather than a "complete transmedia plan" as more traditional companies would expect. For example, a large company may agree to sign on a creator if they have a plan to turn their series into a video game in the second year and a movie by year three, Alpert says.
Alpert doesn't think giant media companies will be able to compete on the same level with Skybound because Kirkman is at the helm. "You get a classic media CEO or a president of a division and they're not going to be able to have the same level of conversation with a creator that Robert could," Alpert says. "We're a company that's led by a creative as opposed to a company that's designed to lead creatives."
If someone like Kirkman decides to start a similar multimedia company, then that'll be something they'll take notice of, but "in the marketplace today I actually don't think we have any competitors," Alpert says, though he thinks that they're at the start of a larger trend.
He likens Skybound to the media company Vice, which has its own way of doing things but is open to partnerships with larger companies. In the same way Vice partnered with HBO for its television news series, Skybound will be open to film distribution deals with companies like Warner Bros., for example. All comics will continue to be jointly published with Image, but Image is not involved with any other Skybound projects.
Skybound has a chance over the next two years to prove whether its creators-first approach to the entertainment business can work on a large scale. In the same way that Kirkman outlines years' worth of his series' plots so that he's never flustered by a deadline, Skybound has years' worth of material scheduled to release.
And it's all with the goal of replicating Kirkman's success for like-minded creatives. "If we can find the next Robert Kirkman today, then as opposed to theirs being a seven-year journey [as his was], we can make it a shorter journey for that property to achieve the same level of success," Alpert says.
Right now, Skybound's biggest project is the coming fifth season of "The Walking Dead," which starts Sunday. "Honestly it's kind of like we put the brick on the accelerator," Alpert says. "It's only going to get more intense and bigger and better." Here's a look behind the scenes from AMC:
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