With comic book and fantasy fare dominating the box office and TV ratings, The Hollywood Reporter gathered producers Shawn Levy ('Stranger Things'), Salim Akil ('Black Lightning'), Jason Blum ('The First Purge'), Jonathan Nolan ('Westworld'), Melissa Rosenberg ('Jessica Jones'), Robert Kirkman ('The Walking Dead') and Simon Kinberg (the X-Men films) for a thought-provoking discussion about how the geeks have come to rule Hollywood.
"High school was tough, but we won," Robert Kirkman jokes during The Hollywood Reporter's first Genre Roundtable as the conversation turns to the passionate fans who have made horror, sci-fi and fantasy film and TV projects the bedrock of the entertainment industry. In 2017, seven of the top 10 hits at the domestic box office and the most watched cable shows were superhero, horror or sci-fi projects. Adds Simon Kinberg, the guiding hand of Fox's X-Men universe, "In the echo chamber of the internet, the fanboys and fangirls are the loudest voice."
Those voices can be the most ardent supporters or deadliest critics of such creators and producers as Salim Akil, 53 (The CW's Black Lightning); Jason Blum, 49 (Universal's The First Purge); Shawn Levy, 49 (Netflix's Stranger Things); Jonathan Nolan, 42 (HBO's Westworld); and Melissa Rosenberg, 55 (Netflix's Jessica Jones), who joined Kinberg, 44, and Kirkman, 39 (AMC's The Walking Dead). Ahead of the July 19-22 Comic-Con, they gathered in Los Angeles to discuss fundamentalist fans, keeping movie franchises and TV series fresh and the things that really scare them.
Your projects all have rabid followings and fans who often share ideas online. Who here has used one of those suggestions?
SIMON KINBERG Is anyone gonna say yes?
SHAWN LEVY Even if it were true, it would be such a slippery slope.
JASON BLUM Why? When we did the first Purge, everyone said, "We want to know what happens when you go outside!" And when we did the second Purge, we were like, "We gotta show the streets."
KINBERG That's a little different than actually ripping off somebody's idea. Shawn's worried about getting sued. (Laughter.)
LEVY Everyone wanted Barb to somehow be miraculously alive.
MELISSA ROSENBERG Yes!
LEVY When it's about what people think they want, you have to trust that you know a little bit better. In the case of Barb, I'm not going to lie, we spent maybe 20 seconds talking about it — notwithstanding the slug of death that was coming out of her mouth in the nether.
KINBERG I co-wrote X-Men 3, the "Dark Phoenix" story, which is probably the most sacred of the X-Men storylines in the comics. Fanboys and girls did not love the movie [X-Men: The Last Stand]. When I wrote X-Men: Days of Future Past years later — it was a time travel story — I thought, "Well, here's an opportunity to rewrite this mistake — bring Jean Grey back to life." I got to go back and essentially erase a $200 million movie. (Laughter.)
JONATHAN NOLAN When I wrote The Dark Knight, [his brother, director] Chris [Nolan] had to figure out how we'd tackle the Joker. Chris had a good meeting with Heath Ledger. And no one got it — I didn't get it, the studio didn't get it. And the fan community was … we were fucking pilloried for it. "Disaster, worst casting decision ever!" Chris just stuck to his guns. It was a question of not giving the fans what they're asking for but what they want — which is, "Let's find a really fuckin' serious actor, somebody who's going to come in and just tear this role to pieces."
What's the most ridiculous spoiler or theory you've seen about your own show on social media?
ROBERT KIRKMAN Every week someone comes up with a brilliant idea of Rick Grimes is in a coma, and this is all a dream. I love it because someone comes at it like it's a new idea. I love the fan interaction. Being able to decipher that feedback, to see what people are saying, is a gift.
NOLAN The challenge is not to let it steer the ship.
How do you tune that out?
LEVY You have to do that magic trick of having taken it in but now being myopic and a little bit deaf to it and just listening to the quieter inner voices that brought you to the party in the first place.
KINBERG In the same way that you have religious fundamentalists, you have fanboy and girl fundamentalists. Being true to the essence of the book is what you're trying to do, but [you can't be] true to every letter. If you actually read the Bible literally, you're a crazy person and stoning people to death. You have to acknowledge the fan in yourself first before the fans out there — stick to the thing that got you excited in the first place.
SALIM AKIL On my show, we're also dealing with this idea of being one generation out of Jim Crow. There are not a lot of African-American superheroes. I can't ignore that. I had seen superheroes fighting in space, superheroes fighting in made-up worlds, but I was always wondering, "Why don't nobody take they ass down to Chicago and clean that up? We could use Batman down there, right?" I knew I had to address some of those real-world issues because if I didn't, those fanboys and fangirls — but also the African-American audience — would call foul.
ROSENBERG Having written all the Twilight movies, I will tell you there is no more fierce a critic than a tween girl. You take your life into your own hands if you mess with their stuff. (Laughs.)
Jonathan, before Westworld kicked off its second season, you did a tease on Reddit for the fans that promised to reveal the whole season, which was a fakeout. Why?
NOLAN One of the things that was galvanizing about the first season was that Reddit community. I'm not on social media, I don't give a shit about Twitter or Facebook. I think they're broken systems.
KIRKMAN How dare you! (Laughs.)
NOLAN I know. Terrible. With Facebook and Twitter, you can't vote people down. That sounds polite, but it actually means the conversation veers toward negativity. With Reddit, you can vote opinions up and down. It actually winds up being a more civilized conversation. It's hard not to be charmed by a group of people who are putting as much time into thinking about your show as you did. So we felt like the best way to celebrate that was to fuck with them a little bit. (Laughter.)
Walking Dead has killed off several beloved characters and strayed from the original material. That can really piss off fans. How do you decide to deviate?
KIRKMAN It's a weird process. I'm an executive producer, so I'm actively participating in changing material that I wrote. Early on, I was in the writers room full-time and they would forget. "We're getting to that thing in the comic that didn't really work — Robert, oh, hey!" (Laughter.) By the time we're adapting issues, it's 5 years old. I'm sick of it, and you've got this brilliant staff of writers coming up with new ideas.
Was there a time when the network or studio thought you went too far?
AKIL Our first season of Black Lightning was a test because there was a scene where he was arrested, the drugs were planted on him, and he couldn't use his power because he didn't want to out himself. He went through a cavity search. He groaned, and a little spit fell out of his mouth. The network was very supportive, but S&P [standards and practices] did not like that — they took it all the way to the FCC. We won, and it was one of the most talked-about scenes on our show.
Diversity has been an issue in the genre space. At the Oscars, Frances McDormand brought up inclusion riders. What's your take on them and the larger discussion?
BLUM The audience is diverse — horror skews 55 percent female. So it obviously makes sense that there should be more scary movies made by women, African-Americans, Hispanics.
AKIL Personally, I've been doing it so long that it almost would be an insult for me to have to write something down. I also don't think people should be forced. If it's forced, it's not going to work.
ROSENBERG I don't know that it will, though.
AKIL Well you're changing it. Ava [DuVernay] is changing it. I'm going to help change it.
ROSENBERG The DGA has pushed for shows to hire more women — the attitude about that in executive suites was just horrific: "Oh God, we've got to get the chick in there, and she's going to suck." But I think it helped female directors get credits under their belts.
AKIL Do you? Every program that I have ever heard about, it's just a program for corporate America to be able to say, "We have a program." Showrunners, the people who actually hire, are the change-makers.
BLUM There's a middle ground, which I think is super effective. SAG has that minority rule [diversity in casting financial incentives]. If you cast a certain number of minorities, you pay a lower rate. It hits you in the pocketbook. That's more effective than forcing you.
AKIL What's driving this is the fact that people now know that there's a business out there. You're not going to be able to tell authentic stories if you don't hire people who know how to authentically tell those stories. I could always tell, "Oh, a white writer wrote that about a black person."
KIRKMAN As a straight white male, I'll say you can never underestimate the ignorance of a straight white male. (Laughter.) I don't think that people are necessarily aiming to not hire women and minorities, it's just something that we don't think about, which is the unfortunate thing.
ROSENBERG It's really true. We were doing a hospital scene and I realized that all the doctors were in white coats, the nurses were all women and the patients were all minorities. "Oh my God, this is my show and I let this happen?" I just wasn't paying attention.
NOLAN The first season on Person of Interest, [then CBS boss] Nina Tassler said, "You have to hire at least one female director." I thought, "We're doing 23 episodes. That's ridiculous. We'll hire 50-50." I couldn't hire one female director. The ones that the studio and the network would sign off on were all booked. In terms of getting women in the director's chair, it goes all the way down the line. You have to hire women in your camera department, in your AD department, in your writing staff. It's up to us.
A related issue is pay equity. It came out that Claire Foy had actually gotten less than Matt Smith on The Crown. Are any of you having conversations about if everyone is getting what they deserve on your projects?
BLUM It is complicated because if the man is more famous than the woman, the man should make more, and if the woman is more famous than the man, then the woman should make more. Now clearly there have been instances where that has not happened, but the problem and what really does not help the argument is to insist on parity when the level of celebrity is different.
LEVY Film and television traditionally has been a quote-based business, which means what you get paid is based on what you have been paid. There have been instances where it is absolutely a gender bias that is inarguable, indefensible and kind of just ridiculous. There's other situations where it is based on body of work that is not related to gender as much as history and on quotes. We could spend a whole roundtable on that topic, only to say it's incredibly complex.
NOLAN People come in with a quote and the problem with the quote is, it may be based on a system of bias. For the first season, when you have no idea what you have, it's rational on some level that you come in with a quote. I'm very proud that on our show that moving forward we'll be in a position where all our leads are getting paid the same because the show is a hit and the contributions of each and every one of our leads is part of that being a hit.
HBO recently said that they were going through every show to make sure there were no issues. Was your show part of that review?
NOLAN It wasn't a review — [co-showrunner] Lisa [Joy] and I have been pushing for three years to get to this place. As soon as the first season hit, we were already in production on the second season, we knew that we had the leverage to negotiate to say, "It's a hit, we've got to make this right."
Simon, you've worked on nine X-Men films. Is there a point when it's too much?
KINBERG I hope never. We have found in terms of doing stand-alone movies like Logan and Deadpool that we can smuggle a different genre into the comic book movie. Logan was a Western, and Deadpool was like a Monty Python, R-rated comedy. Genre material has sort of pushed out a lot of drama and comedies. If you can smuggle those kinds of movies into this very digestible genre, then you can have more fun.
BLUM I tell our directors that our low-budget horror movies should play like Sundance independent movies. If you remove all the scares, will the movie work?
LEVY I refer to it as a Trojan horse. None of us spends time going, "How can we service the genre tropes more?" We're spending our time on stuff that you would be asking about any comedy or drama.
ROSENBERG We have always approached Jessica Jones like that. It's noir, its a detective series. If it looks like it came out of a comic book panel, that's not what I want to see. One of our models was Chinatown. The genre is all there, I don't need to lean in to it.
AKIL We're a family drama. Sometimes I forget that these people actually have to have something fantastical happen.
KIRKMAN I don't know what you guys are talking about with all this Trojan horse stuff 'cause Walking Dead is not a soap opera!
When it comes to the fifth season of a show or the ninth movie in a franchise, how concerned are you with the barrier to entry for new fans?
KINBERG I feel the obligation is the opposite. It's not a barrier of entry in terms of catching the audience up, it's actually a barrier of catching the audience off guard. You want audiences to feel that it's not the same movie. It is as fresh as any other movie out there, it's not being compared to previous X-Men movies, it's being compared to Black Panther, to Avengers, to Arrival, anything within the genre spaces we're talking about.
Your job is to scare and thrill audiences, so what were you afraid of as a kid?
ROSENBERG The Zodiac Killer.
LEVY Oh wow. You took it to a real place.
AKIL You're from the Bay Area? I grew up in Richmond.
ROSENBERG So you were around that town.
AKIL So I was afraid of police. (Laughter.)
A version of this story first appeared in the July 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.