Thursday, December 04, 2014

How DC Comics Sold Alan Moore In 1980 - The Swamp-Thing Movie Contract

People often ask, how is that DC Comics can license characters such as Constantine without worrying about crediting or even paying the creators? How is that the second Swamp Thing movie was made, using concepts and, in some scenes, entire dialogue lifted directly from the Alan Moore/Steve Bissette/John Totleben run without fear of retribution? 

Well, here is your answer. This is the rarely seen contract that DC Comics signed with Swampfilms Inc in October 1980. Swampfilms Inc was one of those faux Hollywood companies set up with the sole purpose to register a copyright, obtain rights and make a movie. Its VP was none other than Michael Uslan, who also managed to get the rights to Batman for every Batman film from the Tim Burton reboot to The Dark Knight Rises, and the forthcoming Batman v Superman. As an aside, Uslan, whose name appears on films generally before, and with far more prominence than the creators of the works he produces, is a very, very rich man due to his business savvy and his ability to obtain the rights to classic DC Comics characters for next to nothing. He now ‘Executive Produces’, which means he controls the film copyright, meaning he sits back, allows the movie to be made and cashes in. In the case of Swamp Thing, for a small consideration, DC Comics signed away not only the past works and characters, but all (then) future works and characters that would appear in the comic, Swamp Thing. 

This means that when Alan Moore and Co came onto the scene, years later, they had no idea that whatever they would do was already, for all intents and purposes, sold. They had zero right of recourse, other than to leave the book, but then who was ever going to tell them. Thus when they created Constantine, he was already spoken for. All Swampfilms Inc and Uslan had to do was continue renewing the rights, as per the contract, and they’d own anything and everything created. And nobody would ever have to credit them in the adaptations, although, by all accounts, the creators do get paid for having their work strip-mined. However no matter what the amount, what the creators get paid is a fraction of what the producers, such as Michael Uslan, realise from the same projects. 

As Alan Moore himself commented in the excellent booklet, Alan Moore’s Exit Interview (Bill Baker), “Now, ever since I started to do work that attracted interest from the film industry, which was pretty close to the beginning of my career, actually, I had taken a rather dim view of it. Possibly because my first exposure to having my work filmed was when they made the regrettable Return of the Swamp Thing which, due to the perhaps unwise contract that DC had signed with the producers of The Swamp Thing movie, back when DC were desperate to get any of their books filmed, the contract stated that the filmmakers were at liberty to take anything from The Swamp Thing title, from any point during the book's past or future. That was why the second Swamp Thing film featured ideas and lines of butchered dialogue that had been taken from my comparatively thoughtful comics, making them travesties of my work, basically, which I wasn't too happy about.” 

In the same booklet, Moore touches on the Keanu Reeves version of Constantine. “…as it turns out, the Constantine movie was made under that same open-ended deal that The Swamp Thing film had been made under. Constantine was a character that appeared in Swamp Thing, so, therefore, the filmmakers had got the right to make a movie of it, and use any of the materials they wanted.” 

(To be perfectly clear - the contract that follows is between DC Comics and Swampfilms Inc. It is not Alan Moore's DC Comics contract. This contract was drafted and executed years before Moore began working on the title)

And people wonder why Moore and Bissette have turned their backs on mainstream comic books. It’s one thing signing a contract for a work-for-hire deal; it’s another to enter into such an agreement not knowing that anything you create has been sold years before you walked into the deal.


Tom Stewart said...

Good lord.

ZenPupDog said...

Only the introductory paragraph shows FYI

Robert Stanley Martin said...

I'm always interested to see these contracts. Primary source documents relative to the comics field are always of value. Thanks for publishing it.

However, I'm not sure it's an especially big deal as far as indicting DC or the publishers in general for shabby practices. DC would incontrovertibly have had all the rights in question as soon as the checks were cashed from the submitted vouchers from Moore, Bissette, et al. Does it really matter whether a film licensor would gain the rights from an a priori agreement as opposed to an ex post facto one? It seems a distinction without a difference, at least to me.

Daniel Best said...

As I've pointed out, it might have made a massive difference to the creators if they'd known that everything they would do had already been pre-sold beforehand without any chance of sharing in the proceeds. At the time when Moore, Bissette and Co began working on Swamp-Thing, the climate of comic books was changing. Royalties were coming in and concessions were being made when it came to sharing in the profits of licensing and sales. It isn't out of the realms of possiblity to think that Moore, although knowing that he was doing work for hire, might have believed that when the Constantine character took off, he might have been in for a cut when the movie was made.

As it stands, under the terms of that contract, nobody needs to credit the creators nor do they need to pay them or acknolwdge them in any way, shape or form. That DC have splashed some royalty payments around means that they knew this was a shit deal.

If I asked you to write a book and you worked happily away, and I encouraged you to create new characters, how would you then feel if I told you, "Oh, no, I sold the movie rights to your character eight years before you thought of it?"

Robert Stanley Martin said...

Under the circumstances, I would know that I didn't own the movie rights in any case, so I can't see why it matters.

Matthew Roybal said...

Wow, great journalism Dan!