Undervaluing King's IPs

By | Tuesday, April 25, 2023 2 comments
Flash Gordon, The Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician are three of King Features' "big" adventure properties, all of which being created and becoming immediately successful in the 1930s. Over the past century, their individul and collective popularity has waxed and waned as one might expect. The Phatom and Mandrake have pretty much always had a connection of sorts, by virtue of both being created by Lee Falk, but King Features brought all three together most formally in the Defenders of the Earth cartoon that began in 1986. But none of the characters have ever really re-captured the popularity they originally had. Why? There are, no doubt, many reasons for this but I believe they all get back to King Features themselves and how they don't place any value on them.

Take a look at the various non-comics productions the characters have had over the years. Whether you're looking at the Flash Gordon live-action movie or the Phantom 2040 cartoon or the Mandrake made-for-TV movie, they all suffer from corners being cut to save money. The individual productions have some talent behind them (at least in most cases) and some have some really interesting and intriguing ideas in place, but there is always some central element that got skimped on. Phantom 2040, for example, has a fantastic storyline, some brilliant character design work, great voice acting... but the animation itself is bad that there are places where you can't even tell what's happening on screen. The Mandrake movie? His magic is almost entirely limited to rudimentary sleight-of-hand tricks to save on the effects budget. Sadly, one of the biggest recurring problems across the board are sophomoric scripts that seem to have been banged out over a weekend, so something could be rolled into production sooner.

Now, clearly, if you're putting out an inferior product, people aren't going to jump on board. For as much as the Flash Gordon movie is loved as a cult favorite, it did poorly at the box office, getting pulled from theaters inside its first month. Particularly in the shadow of Empire Strikes Back which had been released earlier in the year, it did not hold up to any scrutiny as a space epic as, I gather, producer Dino De Laurentiis focused on making it a comedy since it was based on a comic strip. He clearly had either no regard for or interest in the actual source material.

Now how is all this ultimately King's fault? After all, they're just licensing their characters out and it's the various production companies trying to cut corners on scripts and animation and whatever. Well, King is undervaluing the characters and licensing them out for far too little. They're looking at themselves as a newspaper syndicate that happens to own some intellctual properities, and not as a licesning company that holds the rights to some great characters. This was the problem Marvel had for decades and why you saw Spider-Man show up on The Electric Company and why first season of the Marvel Action Hour was absymal and why anyone thought putting Reb Brown in a Captain America costume was a good idea and why someone contracted Roger Corman to produce a Fantastic Four movie. It wasn't until Marvel's post-bankruptcy that they started to look at their IPs seriously and licensing them for their actual value.

What that meant was that movie studios who were trying to do things on a shoestring budget were now priced out of getting a hold of the characters. Now, instead of getting smaller production companies like Grantray-Lawrence or Constantin Film, the only places that could afford to get the rights to the characters were places like 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures. Places with substantially larger budgets that did not need to cut corners to try to produce blockbuster entertainment. Marvel began valuing their characters in such a way that, if you wanted to make a TV show or movie using them, you had to have a ton of money to throw at the project. When they started doing that, we started seeing Marvel movies like Blade from Warner Brothers, Spider-Man from Sony, and X-Men from Fox. Production budgets were now in the hundreds of millions of dollars ($139 million for Spider-Man) compared to maybe a few million from just a few years before ($3 million for the 1990 Captain America movie).

Now, granted, just throwing money at a project doesn't necessarily mean it will be a hit, or that it's executed well. The 1996 Phantom movie had roughly the same budget as the first Blade movie, but was a critical and commercial failure. But perpetually trying to do things on the cheap will almost guarantee that you won't get a hit. And that's largely why none of King's adventure character licenses have held any traction in popular culture for decades. They continue to value the characters as if they're worth no more than the newsprint they had been printed on for decades. But recall that Star Wars -- argueably the most successful franchise of the last half century -- largely came about becuase George Lucas wanted to do a Flash Gordon movie but couldn't get the rights.

But King seems content to let the properties languish. Their respective websites have been culled back to the generic Comics Kingdom template, and both the Flash Gordon and Mandrake comic strips have just been in re-runs for years. Whatever interest that seems to pop up occasionally -- like the Neca action figures that started coming out a year or two ago -- are very much driven by other companies actively seeking out the rights from King in order to expressly focus on a nostalgia-driven idea. (Note that the figures are expressly designed not off the original characters concepts, but the various media adaptations from the 1980s and are marketed towards 40-50 year old collectors.)

If you try to lift the original characters directly from their 1930s' interpretations and drop them into 2023, sure, they won't work. If for no other reason than there's plenty of blatant racism and sexism in those. But that doesn't mean that the core concepts are necessarily invalid. But because King Features has continually undervalued those IPs' worth, they keep getting low-budget (or, worse, low-budget looking!) adapations that reinforce their belief that the characters are best relegated to the funny pages of decades ago. I'm no intellectual property rights agent myself, but I know enough to see that they have not learned any lessons in licensing even after watching Marvel's successes in about the most direct comparison they could possibly have been shown.
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Billy Hogan said...

My favorite adventure comic strips are The Phantom and Prince Valiant. I did enjoy DC Comics' Phantom series from the early 1990's. While I never saw the Flash Gordon movie, I did like the Phantom movie, although The Rocketeer movie from Disney was better. Making the Phantom's skull rings have mystical powers was a bit of a stretch from the source material, my biggest problem with the movie was how campy Treat Williams played the main villain. He would have fit right in to an episode of the Adam West Batman series as a guest villain. Otherwise I thought the movie did a good job of adapting the Phantom tropes. Taking the concept of the Phantom chronicles and having the Phantom talk with the ghost of his late father was an interesting choice. But yeah, the film could have been better.

I've always wanted, to like The Phantom and it seems like the type of thing that should be right up my alley, but I've never been able to get into it. I've looked at different eras of the comic strip, various comic book adaptations (including that DC version you mentioned), the cartoons, the movie... But none of it seems to click for me and I've never been able to figure out why.