A row of black-hooded men, hands lashed behind them, stands trembling with fear. Flames curl around their feet. Beneath their hoods, the men are weeping. Before them is a long cage. Desperate hands flail between the bars. They belong to classic superheroes: Batman, The Thing, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, The Flash and a dozen others, reaching for help.
"It's up to you, Spawn," says Superman, rising from a bench in his cell. "It is now or never."
McFarlane's superhero, who is outside the cage, musters his strength and strikes. There is a violent explosion, but when the smoke clears, the cage stands, unscarred. A demon wearing a dress of dollar bills cackles in the background. "You failed, buddy boy!"
Spawn protests. "But I have to save them!"
"You can't," says a pig named Cerebus.
"Who . . . who are they?" Spawn stammers.
"Superheroes. Like you."
Spawn gestures to the sobbing, hooded forms. "And . . . these men?"
"Their creators. The ones who sold them."
Spawn's creator is Todd McFarlane, a self-avowed "arrogant psycho" who made himself a millionaire by refusing to take his place in line. Five years ago, McFarlane led a cabal of Marvel Entertainment's hottest young artists and writers in a mutiny that revolutionized the treatment of creative minds in the comic-book industry. Since then, he has parlayed his most famous character, Spawn, into a multimedia entertainment dynasty, which he oversees from a studio atop the garage of his Ahwatukee manor on the edge of the South Mountain Preserve.
At 36, McFarlane has the number-one comic book in the country, his own phenomenally successful toy company, a hit animation series on HBO and, most recently, Spawn: The Movie, a $50 million special-effects dazzler from New Line Cinema. While weaving this cross-promotional web, McFarlane defended the aesthetic honor of his creation to the death of many business deals. In the process, he became an icon for the creative guy who beats the greed heads at their own game, selling his ideas without selling them out.
When McFarlane started shopping Spawn to TV and Hollywood--both of which have a long, inglorious history of buying off creators and watering down their characters for mass consumption--he laid one deal-breaker condition on every bargaining table: total control of marketing and merchandising.
"I knew I had to get that, because it would remove any incentive on their part to let trinkets drive the content," he says. "Look what happened to the Batman movies. The second one was really dark, and McDonald's said they didn't want any more Batman toys in their Happy Meals. So what happened to Batman number three and four? Pussy! They made them pussy, so they could put images of Batman on toothbrushes and pajamas and little fuckin' glow-in-the-dark stickers. If they would hand it over to me, I could make a Batman movie that would rock. But it wouldn't make a lot in ancillary rights."
Two years ago, in talks about an animated series, CBS asked McFarlane to lighten up his content for a network audience. He spiked the deal. HBO called a year later, and he had just one question: "I went in there and said, right off the bat, 'Can I use the word "fuck"?'" He could. HBO granted McFarlane total creative and marketing control of the $6 million project. The first of six half-hour episodes of Spawn: The Animated Series appeared May 16. Broadcast at 12:30 a.m., EDT, it drew 6.5 million viewers. Another six episodes are now in production.
Same story when McFarlane licensed Spawn to Sony for a video game. He got final approval of the game's design. Spawn: The Eternal is scheduled for release in mid-August. According to Sony, presales already exceed 700,000 units.
The deal McFarlane negotiated for the Spawn movie, however, is unprecedented. He got to pick the director, screenwriter and special-effects team, and instead of being paid a flat sum for his concept, he's on a stair-step percentage plan that kicks in at $30 million gross. If the $50 million movie bombs, McFarlane gets nothing. If it breaks even, he gets a little. But if it makes a ton, so does he. McFarlane walked away from deals with several major studios until he found one, New Line Cinema, that would meet his terms.
"The last 500,000 million comic-book guys who came to Hollywood just bent over and took it," says McFarlane. "That's what the big studios want you to do. They want to take your idea, and give you some money and send you on your way, and they expect you to be happy with that deal, because you get to ride in a limo and go to a premiere and act like a big shot and say you made a movie deal. Well, Spawn's my baby, and I wasn't about to sell my baby on the black market for someone else to raise." Furthermore, "There will be no Spawn coloring books. No fucking Spawn the movie toothpaste, okay? Let's keep some integrity for the content. Let's maintain some dignity here. That's what I'm saying."