Imagine you're a creative entrepreneur and you have an idea for a new comic book.
Maybe you wonder what happens when thirty square miles of land from another dimension mysteriously appears in Philadelphia and a scientist is tasked with rescuing people. You'll include elements of science fiction, horror, telling a story that is apocalypse-adjacent but with surprisingly comic moments... it's a very cool premise.
So you look for a publisher, and because your idea is great, you find one... but in order to make a deal, you have give up most of the rights to your work.
If you're a creator -- especially one without the negotiating leverage that comes with a track record -- that story sounds very familiar. The same thing often happens to any entrepreneur whose product is creative; because you're hungry, you'll sign any deal just to see your work produced. (See: Petty, Tom.)
And that's why Robert Kirkman and David Alpert co-founded Skybound Entertainment, a studio that enables creators to maintain control of their properties across all platforms. Partners have access to the company's film, television, comics, video games, licensing and merchandising divisions (what Robert and David call the "Wheel of Awesome") to build their franchises.
And that model works. Start with Kirkman himself, The Walking Dead is a worldwide cross-platform juggernaut as well as the highest-rated basic cable drama of all time.TWD has spawned the prequel Fear the Walking Dead as well as wildly successful video games, books, t-shirts and other merchandise...
But their model isn't limited only to TWD. Skybound recently signed an exclusive first-look deal with Amazon Studios to develop new television franchises from its content library. The studio recently announced the development of two film properties based on the Skybound comic book series: Kill the Minotaur and Invincible, which Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg will write, direct, and produce. Skybound also announced a partnership with Simon & Schuster for a new co-publishing imprint, Skybound Books, which will focus on science fiction, fantasy and horror properties.
And "your" idea for a new comic book that blends science fiction, horror, and a dash of fun in an apocalypse-adjacent world? That's actually Oblivion Song, Kirkman's latest comic for Skybound that debuts on March 7.
(Here's part two of my interview with Robert and David.)
You started Skybound about eight years ago, but you had been working together for over ten years at the time.
David: One day Robert was in LA and out of nowhere he said, "We should start a company together."
"What will that company do?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "But we should start a company. It will be fun."
Robert: That was the idea. We didn't have an idea for what the company would do. The idea was just that we should start a company. (Laughs.)
I feel sure it wasn't quite that simple.
David: Well, there is a back story. In 2005 we did a deal with NBC for The Walking Dead and it was a very frustrating experience. Robert told me he never wanted to do something like that again because it was such a waste of time. He said, 'Draw up the best possible deal for us... and then don't bother me about it until someone says yes.' Instead of saying, 'What would we settle for?' we said, 'What do we want?'
So that's what I did... and for four years people told me I would never work in this town again. But over those four years the comic book kept getting more and more popular, and the leverage came to us.
Robert: The deal with NBC included a freeze on rights while they developed the show. The comic was already successful enough that I was selling t-shirts and statues... I had a fairly robust micro-merchandising extension that I had to put on hold for the NBC deal.
I thought that was ridiculous: Why did I have to stop building my business for the "promise" of a TV show?
That's where the idea for Skybound really came from: The underlying notion of retaining control over the pool of rights is very important for creators, both creatively and financially.
And that's why we didn't call the company some derivative of "Kirkman" or "Walking Dead." We took what we learned from our experience and realized we can do it faster and better for the next creator. We realized we could empower ourselves -- and other creatives.
The name Skybound is an aspirational notion: There's nothing we can't do, the sky and stars are our destination.
So how do you actually do that?
David: Robert had become a partner in Image Comics (the company founded in 1992 by several high-profile to publish creator-owned properties.) Each partner has their own imprint and we set up Skybound to be our imprint at Image.
That allowed us to work with other creators to produce their own comics, and in time that became a fairly robust comic book division. We extended that to t-shirts and hats and apparel and other goodies, and that helped us learn how to help other creators extend the reach of their properties.
That extension really took off with The Walking Dead video games, though.
David: Yes, things really kicked into gear with the Telltale video games. We partnered with Telltale the games were extremely successful, both critically and financially.
That's really when we realized this wasn't a side hustle... but could actually turn into the kind of company we dreamed it could be.
Robert: The video games with Telltale highlight some key points.
One, we wanted the game to be defined by great storytelling. Telltale was already a very story-based company, but we still brought in our own writing team to help them shore up their storytelling capabilities.
That raises a larger point. Typically, a studio sends the creator away and says, "Thanks, now we'll do what we do." When that happens, the core of the premise and story gets lost.
The Walking Dead television show is better because I was involved in a way that is somewhat unprecedented in media development. I was in the writer's room. I was writing episodes.
I also worked hand in hand with a novelist to write the novels. I worked closely with Telltale to monitor their storytelling to really make it The Walking Dead. That extra level of care makes for the best level of product.
That's why, when we work with creators, we put them at the center of what they do. If we find a great comic book, if we develop a game, if we develop a show... we find professionals that work in that field to assist the creator, but he or she always retains a strong voice in the process.
They know their vision better than anyone. Why wouldn't you want them heavily involved?
Go back to the video games for a second. Surely you had plenty of offers. You could have just taken a check and gotten out of the way. That's what many people do. (And there's nothing wrong with that.)
Robert: Zombies are evergreen, and the game landscape was littered with giant zombie franchises. A comic book like mine couldn't compete with a giant franchise like Resident Evil.
So we took a step back and thought, "What are the core values of The Walking Dead? What is special about TWD? The answer is the narrative. It's like a soap opera set against the end of the world. You care about the characters.
So we needed a platform that allowed for character and narrative in the gaming world. We found that with Telltale.
David: We wanted an opportunity where our skill set and Robert's vision could be best used.
You're right. A lot of people did offer us a lot of money to do a TWD game, but we waited until we could find an approach that leveraged the company's and Robert's strengths.
That same approach is the core ethos we use with all of our properties: Great creators willing and able to work across all mediums.
Robert knows how this brand story should work across all different genres and all different mediums, and we want to help other creators be able to tell their brand stories across different mediums.
By retaining creative control you could make sure the game helped, rather than hurt, the TV show and the comic book. In "normal" business terms, it's a brand extension.
Robert: Exactly. We have friends that have worked on different franchises for different studios. They were turning a franchise into a series of video games, and the consumer license products group did not consult the author, the producer or the studio exec that championed the project in the beginning.
The game makers basically said, "We know what we're doing." And then the game sucked and hurt the performance of subsequent movies.
To us, there is no "ancillary." We treat every piece of TWD as a primary. You might come to the property through the comic, or TV, or a novel, or a game... and if your first encounter is bad, you're unlikely to continue. So if you play a crappy licensed game and that's your first-time encounter... to that person, your entire property is crap.
But if you read a TWD book and you like it, you're more likely to play the video game... you're more likely to watch the show... it becomes a virtuous cycle.
We're very aware that every new thing we do creates a massive risk for the entire brand, so we tread carefully. Our goal isn't to cash in. Our goal is to do everything we can to enhance that brand.
Otherwise, why do it?