Behind Netflix's Bold Bet on Comics King Mark Millar

The prolific creator shopped his library to studios, but now he’s being counted on to deliver a wave of new titles as the streamer gears up to compete with Disney.
Twentieth Century Fox; Adam Gasson/SFX Magazine via Getty Images; Universal Pictures; Image Comics; Marvel
The creator behind 'Kingsman' and 'Wanted' can now mine projects like 'Jupiter's Legacy' and 'Reborn' for Netflix.

A day before Disney unveiled plans for a competing streaming service to Netflix, the digital giant made a preemptive strike in what may become a new intellectual property arms race, snapping up Mark Millar’s “mini-Marvel” imprint Millarworld.

The prolific comic creator, who launched his company in 2004, is said to have approached studios earlier this year offering a deal for his library and future stories. But because some of his marquee properties, such as Kick-Ass, Kingsman and Wanted, already are spoken for, it was difficult to determine the deal’s value, a studio source tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Netflix, however, determined the answer was quite a lot. Terms of the Aug. 7 deal were not disclosed, but two sources pegged it in the $30 million to $50 million range. Complicating things were side deals Millar had to make with his co-creator artists to sew up rights in order to make the ironclad sale to the streamer. Some artists may have walked away with six- or seven-figure payouts, sources say.

Also part of the deal are future works; one source says Millar has been holding back a wave of titles in anticipation of such a deal. “You get whatever he comes up with next, that’s the value here,” says one executive with knowledge of the deal. Additionally, there may even be a component that has Millar act as a story consultant for other Netflix projects.

"Millar has been very successful at creating comic worlds that can stand on their own in other media, and there are very few people that can say that," says Milton Griepp of comic industry analyst ICv2. "The stories resonate, and with his marketing, his comics sell like mid-tier Marvels or DCs in a very tough market in which it’s very rare for comics outside the major universes — Marvel, DC, etc. — to do so. Acquiring Millarworld is one of the very few ways that Netflix could have immediately bought a credible comics universe with proven potential."

Deals with comic book companies are not slam dunks. Universal had a multiyear first-look arrangement with Dark Horse Entertainment that yielded only the 2013 flop R.I.P.D. But owning a publisher, one that continues to generate fresh content, may offer different results. Fox hopes so, too; in July, it acquired a minority stake in comics company Boom! Studios.

Millar is no ordinary comic creator. You would have to go back to Stan Lee and his voluminous output during the golden age of Marvel to find a comic book writer whose work has so often been translated to the screen. Before launching Millarworld, which employs only a handful of staffers, Millar worked at Marvel in the early part of the 2000s, with the ideas and concepts he developed there popping up in Marvel Studios' The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War and Fox's Logan.

There are a number of titles that have already been farmed out to others and will be off the table for Netflix. Millar friend and frequent collaborator Matthew Vaughn owns the rights to Kingsman and Kick-Ass after directing and self-financing bigscreen adaptations of those properties. Fox has the rights to the Flash Gordon-inspired Starlight, as well as superhero series Superior and the kid-focused Kindergarten Heroes. Universal has Wanted, which it adapted as an Angelina Jolie film in 2008, as well as Chrononauts.

“The key to this deal is Millar himself. He’s a bankable creative powerhouse and brand persona whose name above the title can generate interest,” says Rob Salkowitz, author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.

Netflix can mine Millar properties like Reborn, a drama that suggests that the afterlife brings you into a war alongside those you knew when you were alive, and MPH, about speedy teens in rundown Detroit. The crown jewel may be Jupiter’s Legacy — featuring multigenerational hero stories — which could lend itself to cinematic universe treatment.

"[Netflix] figured out that instead of getting 10 ideas from 10 different people … they go, 'How do we start buying clumps of ideas?'" explains Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, who co-founded Image Comics in 1992, paving the way for some creators of the publisher's books (such as The Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman) to reap millions by retaining rights to their properties.

McFarlane sees Millarworld as being just a first step for Netflix to buy out more creators, adding: "If I were Netflix, I would consider it not to be a whole pie I bought, I would consider it to be a portion of a pie."

As for the future of Millarworld, the September-launching Kingsman: The Red Diamond comic book series, tying into the second Kingsman movie, marks the company’s first comic book without any direct involvement from Millar himself. (Rob Williams, writer of DC's Suicide Squad comic book, steps in to replace him.)

Millar, who has withdrawn from the press and refused interviews since the Netflix deal was revealed, is teasing all-new properties and concepts as part of the next phase of Millarworld. As he wrote about the buyout on Aug. 7, "I’m going undercover between now and spring as I stockpile all the new projects we’re putting together, but you’ll hear about them very soon."

Aaron Couch contributed to this report.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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