Dane Styler writes for Bleeding Cool:
If you are by any measure versed in either television or comic books, you may have heard of a little show called The Walking Dead, or perhaps of the eponymous and long-running comic book series from which the show derives. You might even be able to mention by name Robert Kirkman, writer and co-creator of the book and executive producer of the AMC series.
But did you know the company behind the Walking Dead franchise, is flipping the script on how the entertainment industry works with, and more importantly, for creators?
Skybound Entertainment, a multi-platform entertainment company, was founded by Kirkman and CEO David Alpert in 2010, and now has developed properties in comics, television, film, interactive gaming, animation, online digital content, and virtual reality space. It’s essentially a creator’s wet dream, as Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka waltzes through their heads singing “Pure Imagination.” As a company led by creators and for creators, those are Skybound’s rather lofty ambitions.
At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con Skybound panel, Alpert noted that modern creators do not tend to think within the boundaries of a singular medium, despite historical means of distribution.
“We allow creators to have access to all the different divisions of Skybound, whether it’s film, television, comics, novels. video games, live events, VR, AR, licensing, merchandising,” explained Alpert. “If we have a creator with a strong voice and strong vision, we would make this pitch to the creators as to why they should work with us, and the joke would always be that they say, ‘That’s awesome!’”
And the nickname stuck.
Traditional Business Hierarchy vs. the Wheel of Awesome
Instead of putting the business itself at the center, Skybound places the focus on the creators, who remain at the center of their projects, maintaining control at all time as they drive the extension of their intellectual properties (IPs) in the directions they want to go.
“Because Skybound is so creator-focused,” explained Kirkman at the same panel, “we allow the creators to always have a voice in what they see coming from their ideas. It’s really about what the story dictates and what their concept would most thrive as.”
With creators and their IPs at the center of a multimillion-dollar company, essentially circling them with a full range of resources to leverage, the traditional hierarchy of a business becomes obsolete. Alpert said that the reason for a wheel model was to eliminate that hierarchy.
But another possible reason Skybound has avoided a vertical corporate structure could have something to do with their souring partnership with AMC Studios. On Monday, Kirkman, and other executive producers of The Walking Dead television production filed a lawsuit against AMC for breach of contract. The lawsuit accuses AMC of exploiting and manipulating their own “vertically-integrated corporate structure” to avoid sharing more of the show’s profits with the producers.
In an interview with Bleeding Cool back in March of this year, President of Skybound Interactive Dan Murray talked about how most media companies are built as verticals. “When you think of most corporate media companies, there’s a vertical here for film, and there’s a vertical here for TV, and another one for music. So they tend to build IPs vertically.” In light of lawsuit’s revelations, we now know at least one reason why a media company might choose this approach.
Reinventing the Wheel with Creative Collaboration
Murray went on to describe how the Wheel of Awesome changes all of that, and how Skybound as a media company instead uses the various departments as spokes:
“At Skybound, we tend to think of IPs as circular, and putting the creator at the center. So building everything around the creator, and having the creator’s voice connecting through that wheel directly to the fans, is how we feel new media should be made. Everything is done with the creator in mind.
“Everyone is a creator themselves, and everyone wants to be connected to the creator, creating a community.”
Catherine Winder, formerly of Lucasfilm Animation and now CEO of Skybound North in Vancouver, elaborated at the panel that they found the wheel model allows for the different departments to work in concert with each other, to a greater capacity than media companies could before. “We work in parallel and collaborate as we go and develop our characters further, and build out the world so it all works cohesively.”
Sean Furst, Co-President of TV and Film, had this to add at the panel: “We have all these different departments that are building their own businesses, but when we all get together, we share amongst each other those ideas. Through that collaboration we find new opportunities for our creators.”
Not in the Business of Building Brands and Franchises…
With all those opportunities for creators, one would imagine that that they would all be rushing to franchise their IPs into million-dollar paychecks, much like Kirkman has done with The Walking Dead, and that they would be leveraging Skybound to get them there yesterday. But keep in mind that The Walking Dead is a cultural phenomenon. The book outsells anything else at Image Comics by a wide margin, sometimes three times over, and is usually in the top 10 for all published comic books from month to month.
Despite the inclusion of building brands and franchises in Skybound’s mission statement, Kirkman stopped short of saying that his company’s primary objective is focused on franchises before serving the creators and providing awesome content for the fans:
“I think that’s a byproduct of it, but it’s really a desire to do the coolest things and tell the coolest stories, and the coolest things tend to get bigger and bigger, and tend to grow, and that yields itself to franchise storytelling.
I didn’t set out to build a Walking Dead franchise. I just wanted to do a really cool comic book about zombies and people struggling with the zombie apocalypse. But as you get deeper and deeper into that, and as its popularity grew, we had all these other opportunities around it that turned it into a franchise.
What we try to do at Skybound is a lot more organic and a lot more story based. If the story is there and the passion is there, then it just automatically grows into that.”
For an example, Kirkman offered that his Thief of Thieves book has the potential to grow into other platforms due to the characters in the story. While the book explores the life and world around its lead character, there is a co-existing character whose own story is explored in the game.
Alpert added that the success of the Walking Dead games taught them they can tell, and even expand, the greater story in a variety of ways such as gaming platforms, from new angles and through different characters, so long as you don’t break the rules of the world:
“The reason that was still Walking Dead, even though we had different characters, was because there was a world and there was a rule set. There were themes that were not being broken. Having that allowed us to expand out that universe.”
Skybound and Beyond!
The success of Skybound and the Wheel of Awesome remains to be seen long-term, as is its influence, if any, across the breadth of media industries in how they do business with creative talent. But with over 30 comic book titles and creators from which to mine new stories, and a growing slate of television productions and video games, it is safe to say that Kirkman’s company is not fading away into the night anytime soon.
As far as he is concerned, comics are driving everything in entertainment today, and his company seems to be positioning itself to make full use of that expected momentum. July saw numerous announcements of expansion into new mediums, from the film adaptation of Kirkman’s Invincible, venturing into animation, and a even new imprint of novels. And just this month, Kirkman signed a new exclusive development deal with Amazon studios to produce Skybound’s future television properties.
If that wasn’t enough for the little entertainment company that could, they are also exploring the immersive depths of virtual reality to find new ways to elevate player involvement, and they have built a full-service production studio in Vancouver to facilitate the production of shows in North America, Latin America, and Asia.
It is as if we are witnessing the birth of a new kind of Disney, built on zombies and post-apocalyptic dread instead of wholesome family fare and whistling mice on steamboats, yet nevertheless still recognizing the insatiable and endless commercial hunger for new stories. A Disney that puts stories first, and gives the storytellers the keys to the kingdom.