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Flipping through Comic Book Movies with F.J. DeSanto

By Rob M. Worley     September 19, 2007

Consider this: in the last decade, the comic-book faithful have been able to go from wincing when releases like 'Howard the Duck' or 'Supergirl' finally creep out of the pipeline to being able to swell with pride when films inspired by comics account for at least a half-dozen #1 films each year.

Frank Miller's teaser poster for 'The Spirit'

When a production house calls itself "Comic Book Movies," it might seem (to the uninformed, anyway) like a blatant attempt to crassly ash in on the popularity and profitability of superhero-inspired inema. However, a few minutes of talking with F.J. DeSanto, the company's Senior Vice President of Production and Development and co-producer of Frank Miller's movie adaptation of Will Eisner's 'The Spirit', quickly dispels that notion. The company, headed by Michael Uslan and Jonathan Roberts, may be relatively new, but their dedication to translating four-color classics to the silver screen has strong and significant roots. Because Uslan has shepherded the 'Batman' movie franchise from the late 1970s until today, CBM finds itself poised to build on the success of the Dark Knight's Hollywood triumphs.

"Along with Ben Melniker, Michael optioned Batman in '79 and started shopping around L.A. going, 'Hey, look at this dark, serious Batman, everyone," DeSanto recounts. While there was initial resistance to a psychologically complex take on the Caped Crusader, with Hollywood still thinking of Batman as the campy character they'd seen on TV, Uslan persisted.

Batman...he does love to brood

Ten years later, Tim Burton's 'Batman' debuted and moviegoers who hadn't read comics like 'The Dark Knight Returns' and 'The Killing Joke' were introduced to a version of the character that was different from the one they were familiar with. The movie was a huge success and is rightfully considered a harbinger of the current wave of comic book film.

"At Comic Book Movies, we're taking Michael's vision for building franchises to that next level," DeSanto, who started working with Uslan in 1995, told us. "Over the years I've spent working for Michael, it was initially a struggle to get studios to accept the comic book itself as acceptable source material. Then after movies like 'X-Men', 'Spider-Man', etc, the challenge became convincing studios that there was more to comic books and graphic novels than capes and cowls. We knew there's a world of wonderful material out there that we could develop as franchises, but it was always difficult to do on our own."

Cyborg009 is in development at CBM

Key to that plan is Uslan's partner in CBM, Jonathan Roberts. "He's the business guru of the company. He saw what we were doing, understood it immediately and said, 'Hey, you're already doing it for other people, you have the vision and understand the needs of the marketplace, so why not assemble a solid slate of projects, develop these things yourselves, get all the right talent and elements together, and then take it to a studio and finance it and get it made? Jonathan and his team have created the structure for CBM that gives Michael and I the freedom to do what is we do best. It's been liberating and extremely productive, and we're excited to get these franchises launched."

With their team in place, Comic Book Movies is now developing comic-based properties in-house based on everything from long-running comics to newer titles and even some completely original concepts. But the focus isn't strictly on American comics, either.

"When we started this company, I saw it as a real opportunity to do something no one else has done and that's to start a real initiative to do manga and anime in live-action. I've been an anime geek since a kid; 'Gatchaman', 'Yamato', 'Macross' all that," DeSanto told us. While the big staples of American comics have already appeared on screen, few producers are making movies for the manga fans. "There's an entire generation reading the books of Naruto the way that I looked at Batman and Robin. We want to tap into that. We're starting with several of the classics from the late Shotaro Ishinomori, who created legendary properties such as the robot soldier team 'Cyborg 009' and the vigilante epic 'Skullman'. We're developing those watershed manga properties as movies."

DeSanto admits that the process of adapting cultural icons that are as important to fans in Japan as 'X-Men' are to fans in the U.S. sometimes seems daunting. "CBM wants to be the ones who figure out how to translate manga's unique storytelling methods to the screen. It's a lot of work. You have to digest volume after volume of the original versions, and once you do that and map it out, it becomes apparent that a 300-page book is maybe like 10 minutes of screen time. As producers, it's our job to figure out what the heart and soul of a manga property is and how to present the dynamics, action and tone of it in the form of a worldwide feature film that a large audience will embrace. The key is to do it in a way where the masses really gets what's so compelling about these settings and characters without insulting the core material. The cultural and aesthetic differences of manga and anime-a very decompressed storytelling style, for example-make that part of the job complicated, but also challenging and fun."

Skull Man is in development at CBM

DeSanto sees movies like '300' and 'Sin City' as pointing the way to doing Manga justice without losing the important artistic and stylistic elements of the source material. "We've already seen how you can make something great out of an American comic that appeals to everybody. I think if done right you can make something great out of a Japanese comic that appeals to people beyond the manga and anime fans," he says.

While the company is actively developing the CBM slate of new material, the process of developing comic book properties independently became refined as Uslan and DeSanto navigated the Hollywood waters in an effort to launch the upcoming movie based on Will Eisner's 'The Spirit.' Although it predates the Comic Book Movies umbrella, Uslan and DeSanto have been working for years to create a movie that is true to Eisner's comics.

Just as Hollywood was slow to spark to Uslan's vision of Batman as a moody, mature film, they've also had trouble "getting" into 'The Spirit'. Uslan rejected offers to make the character supernatural, or to put him in a costume. Things changed when Uslan walked into a meeting at an independent company called Odd Lot Entertainment:

"Years ago, he met Deborah Del Prete and told her, 'I have the single greatest comic book creation in the history of man.' She looked at him and said, 'Oh, you have 'The Spirit?' And the skies opened and the sun shone through and the choir sang, because we found someone who understood," DeSanto said. Once Del Prete's team got involved, Uslan and DeSanto began courting legendary comics creator Frank Miller in hopes of him taking his first solo turn behind the camera. After some initial reluctance, Miller signed on to write and direct the film, which sees Uslan producing and DeSanto co-producing.

"I think Frank felt confident that people who truly loved Will's material were behind this film", DeSanto says, "and that helped him overcome any reservations he might have had about coming onboard the project. The advantage Michael and I have is that we have one foot in the world of movies and the other in the world of comics, manga and anime. The relationships he and I have built over the years in both give us access to people and properties others normally couldn't get. There's a trust and respect for the properties and people see that and understand, and that's the foundation Comic Book Movies is being built upon."

While the lid of secrecy on the movie is tight, DeSanto's enthusiasm is high. "I'm so honored and thrilled to be involved with this film. I can't say much about it, but Frank's gonna knock it out of the park. The people that are involved with it all get it, all love it, and all know the material. There are a lot of 'Will is looking down at us' conversations. We know he's watching and we know he's sitting on Frank's shoulder sometimes giving him a hard time. But that was their thing, their dynamic."

DeSanto believes that "getting it" is a big part of what makes the Comic Book Movies operation work. Whatever film grows out of their efforts, fans can rest assured they'll approach it with a sense of protective custody about the source material.

"Michael and I are fans. We are of that ilk. We both taught ourselves to read at an early age from comic books. We're not some Hollywood guys who went, 'Oh my God, this comic book thing is taking off!', but on the flipside, we're not just fanboys who just go and set up movies" DeSanto enthuses. "Michael has been doing it for 30-plus years. I've been extremely lucky to have him as a mentor, to see how to inspire the same kind of passion in the hearts of people we want to partner with and even how to keep momentum up when obstacles arise. Michael says it best when he says we're living in a golden age of comic book movies, and now Comic Book Movies, the company, is determined to bring our fellow fans what we all want."

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