• Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

What Public-Domain Superman and Batman Mean to Hollywood and Creators

As Superman and Batman Enter the Public Domain, Hollywood Faces Opportunities and Risks

Within the next 15 years, the original versions of Superman, Batman, the Joker and Wonder Woman will all enter the public domain due to copyright expiration. Ollie Millington/Getty Images

Even in an election year, there are few things more divisive than comic book franchises. These entertainment monoliths draw outsized reactions from an array of audiences eager to contribute their own two cents. For every apoplectic keyboard warrior out there who thinks they can do better than the major studios, congratulations, you’ll eventually get your wish. Sort of. Within the next 15 years, the original versions of Superman (2034), Batman (2035), the Joker (2036) and Wonder Woman (2037) will enter the public domain due to copyright expiration. There are limits to what can and can’t be used, of course. But this allows non-affiliated creators to potentially monetize the early versions of these characters with their own stories. This raises two crucial questions: How will major studios adapt? And will creators—with the assistance of A.I.—threaten traditional entertainment? 

This isn’t the first time significant intellectual property (IP) has entered the public domain. Far from it. Earlier this year, the copyright for Disney’s Steamboat Willie expired and, within 24 hours, two horror-comedies starring that specific version of Mickey Mouse were announced. In 2022, Winnie the Pooh entered the public domain. Last year’s horror reimagining Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey earned $5.2 million against a $100,000 budget (a sequel was released in March). 

To its credit, DC Studios has not ignored this looming splintered reality. In 2023, co-CEO James Gunn said that including characters from the 1999 comic series The Authority in the new Superman film was partly driven by the expiring copyright. Jay Kogan, DC’s deputy general counsel, highlighted the importance of keeping characters fresh to differentiate from new versions way back in 2001.

While Blood and Honey’s impressive financial performance is an exception to the rule in the track record of “unofficial” features, it’s fair to wonder if major studios see this as a warning shot of what may be on the horizon“We are about to enter an era of experimentation with IP like Winnie the Pooh and Steamboat Willie,” Andrew Rosen, a former Viacom executive and the author of The Information’s The Medium newsletter, told Observer. “That means we are going to have a lot of duds. The experimentation will be more important than the duds. Creators operate faster and cheaper than Hollywood studios.”

Public-domain IP presents the potential for creativity but also the risk of chaos

Big-screen entertainment is ruled by two cosmic forces we trick ourselves into thinking we can dictate: execution and timing, according to David Offenberg, a finance professor at Loyola Marymount University specializing in the entertainment industry. Execution translates to strong storytelling, proper casting, high quality production and an endless list of other contributing factors that have to go just right for a film to be good, while timing relates to scheduling both in and outside of a studio’s control. Avoiding a crowded release weekend so your title can flourish is helpful; releasing a film when there isn’t a blizzard hitting the East coast obviously helps but can’t be controlled. 

“Execution is always a huge issue because studios get to employ the greatest creators in the world with huge budgets and really smart people, but still make so much mediocre product with great IP,” Offenberg told Observer.

From Mickey to Superman, popular characters will be entering the public domain over the next 15 years. Visual Capitalist via Getty Images

Blood and Honey currently has a rating of 3 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 2.9/10 on IMDb and 16 percent on Metacritic. Audiences likely bought a ticket out of morbid curiosity rather than quality, and it’s not as if the film was a box office behemoth. Its sequel earned just $687,000 on a $1 million budget this year. (Both films over-index with Gen Z, according to Parrot Analytics, where I work as Senior Entertainment Industry Strategist). Executing properly is immensely difficult in the best of circumstances in Hollywood. Outside of that framework, it can be even more challenging. 

Of course, public-domain IP works both ways. Disney has famously remixed classic fairytales to deliver arguably the definitive versions of old characters in the minds of global audiences. These films certainly didn’t hamper interest in the source material. As much as studios want to be precious about their IP, there’s no doubt that viral fan engagement helps drive interest back to the originals. But on a more technical level, companies will be wary of how a potential influx of new unrelated stories affect the grand plans for the primary brand. 

“The challenge for IP brands like Marvel and DC is that they depend on design, tone, and style consistency,” Andy Williams, a children’s content producer and a former Nickelodeon executive, told Observer. “That’s what gives the brands much of their power and makes us believe that these characters all exist in the same universe. This distinction obviously gets eroded when everyone can take a stab at producing their own versions. There is potentially more creativity unleashed but also the risk of more chaos and confusion.”

Though this won’t pose a threat to Hollywood in the near future, it provides an opportunity for the industry to reinvest in development after years of recycling older IP. Trends come and go and audiences tire of being served the same story over and over (RIP Westerns). New ideas sourced from any manner of inspiration—original, book, podcast, article, etc.—may come back in style if well-known properties are commonly leveraged by both Hollywood and independent storytellers. New-to-screen concepts are harder to sell these days but remain vital for the creation of new franchises and supporting a healthy mid-budget entertainment tier. As Offenberg surmised, “The greatest writers need to be paid to create new worlds to be explored in the years to come.” 

Will creators destroy or reinvent Hollywood?

Soon, specific works from authors like Agatha Christie, H.G. Wells, George Orwell and F. Scott Fitzgerald will enter the public domain. While this happens every year, amateur creators have never enjoyed access to such high-quality production tools as they do today. By the 2030s, there’s no telling how advanced tools can help deliver new stories. 

“It’s going to be like fan-fiction on steroids,” Williams said. “Creators will be able to do their own riffs on established IP.” Williams sees a major dilemma unfurling for entertainment studios. These companies want to utilize A.I. to cut costs and streamline production while protecting their IP from unauthorized use. 

Rules and regulations around A.I. are still evolving in this embryonic stage, and legal battles may be inevitable. The YouTube model, where studios either block usage or negotiate for compensation, offers one potential albeit complicated solution. The more immediate challenge may be the sheer volume of IP-centric content that can be created. More than 500 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. YouTube accounts for the second-largest share of US TV usage by media company (behind just Walt Disney), according to Nielsen’s The Media Distributor Gauge.

“An avalanche of derivative-looking work could flood the market, and if oversupply hurts demand, then it follows that a glut of A.I.-generated features would damage the IP’s brand at the studio level,” Williams said. Every franchise IP rights holder will tell you that there’s a careful balance to being top of mind for consumers and over-saturating the market. 

On the other side, there’s a contention that all this may only apply to the hyper-online crowd. The tidal wave of usage from TikTokers and YouTubers may easily pass over the attention bandwidth of general everyday consumers, especially among older audiences. Plus, there’s the reality that, at present, the mediums are not a reliable source of income. In 2023, 48 percent of creator-earners made $15,000 or less and only 13 percent made more than $100,000, according to influencer marketing agency NeoReach (via The Wall Street Journal). 

“Chances are no one will watch thousands of Superman stories because execution is hard. Only the extreme outliers break through the cultural conversation,” Offenberg said. So is this trend a doomsday scenario for Hollywood or nothing of real consequence? It’s impossible to say for certain at this early juncture. What looks realistic, however, is that studios will have to tweak their IP development strategies to adjust to a world more capable of rapidly delivering quality entertainment outside of the studio system while digital creators will have splashier characters and tools to play with moving forward. The convergence of the two may very well reinvent Hollywood entirely. 

“What is ultimately most important to observe here is which content works with audiences and why,” The Medium’s Rosen said. “Odds are 90 percent to 99 percent of it will be forgettable. That won’t matter as much as what the creators learn and where they take the IP from there.”

As Superman and Batman Enter the Public Domain, Hollywood Faces Opportunities and Risks

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