A recent article from Forbes.com titled “Where Does DC Comics Fit in AT&T’s Vision for WarnerMedia?” from Hollywood and entertainment contributor Rob Salkowitz recently made the rounds on social media. It started chain reaction of wild speculation foretelling doom and gloom for DC Comics. AT&T acquired DC Comics parent company Time Warner in June 2018 for $85B. Distribution giant AT&T is now flush with heavyweight content and creative entities like Warner Bros, HBO and Turner. This has left some speculating what place, if any, DC Comics has within ATT&T and WarnerMedia.
Rob Salkowitz, an expert in digital media and the global digital generation, regularly writes about comic books and comic related movies for Forbes. He’s best known in comic circles for writing Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment. The late Stan Lee was quoted saying “Even I learned new stuff. If you’re a comic book nut like me, miss it at your own risk” about Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. The contents of Solkowitz’s book clearly have merit.
But it’s not faultless. One of the books big conclusions in 2012 was “the rise of digital comics distribution as a significant market force.” Digital comics aren’t the comic book market game changer forecasted. Digital comic sales boomed from 2012 until 2014 when they flat lined and have maintained steady between $90 and $100 million annually. Comic industry sales have grown $300 million in total during this stagnation. Also he’s built part of his industry reputation on identifying market trends at San Diego Comic-Con. Which makes him uniquely qualified but also likely susceptible to his own professional biases.
He has two main arguments driving his theory regarding WarnerMedia’s lack of interest in publishing DC Comics. Earlier this month at San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), DC Comics no longer hosted their own stand-alone exhibit. DC was incorporated into the multi-level WarnerMedia exhibit with other assets like HBO, DC movies and the CW Network. He also sites a recent Variety.com profile on AT&T CEO John Stankey. Salkowitz claims, “DC was one of the only WarnerMedia brands that was not mentioned”. This is demonstrably false.
DC Comics moving from its longstanding position at SDCC may seem like WarnerMedia placing the brand on the back burner. But the change wasn’t unexpected. DC announced on 14 July that “DC and Warner Bros. are combining their booths into one big, amazing megabooth offering you the chance to get up close and personal with all of your favorite entertainment.” Which falls in line with points of emphasis AT&T CEO John Stankey’s Variety profile specifically states. “He (CEO John Stankey) is purposefully taking a hammer to the walls that separated HBO, Warner Bros. and Turner.” The WarnerMedia SDCC megabooth is likely a part of new corporate synergy. Across the board AT&T is streamlining their corporate structure and overlap between content and creative entities.
DC Comics had a major presence at the WarnerMedia’s SDCC exhibit. They featured nearly 70 DC writers and artists. WarnerMedia presented four days of panels at SDCC. DC Comics talent and topics represented roughly a third of the panel times. Tom King, Scott Snyder, Frank Miller, Dan DiDio and others were featured just as prominently as A-list WarnerMedia properties like Game of Thrones, Westworld, Supernatural, Riverdale, and the CW network DC live action TV shows.
Why wouldn’t WarnerMedia consolidate its Warner Bros. Studios, HBO, CW and Fox Network TV shows, DC Universe and DC Comics properties into one exhibit? It saves money, promotes corporate synergy and is logistically more manageable. Rob Salkowitz’s speculation about DC Comics no longer hosting their own SDCC booth may be correct but he never sites a specific or anonymous source corroborating his theory. However, the WarnerMedia/SDCC exhibit fits the vision mentioned in AT&T CEO John Stankey’s recent profile.
Forbes contributor Rob Salkowitz also sites AT&T CEO John Stankey not including DC Comics in his Variety profile as another “smoking gun.” One read of the full Variety article and his theory falls apart. Stankey never mentions the CW network, the Turner networks, New Line Cinema, Castle Rock Entertainment or the Cartoon network in the interview. Should we to assume these entities are on the chopping block as well? In the Variety profile he mentions AT&T’s three big content and creative brands; HBO, Turner and Warner Bros. The only specific entity Stankey ever mentions is HBO Max. The soon to be launched international streaming platform. John Stankey not including DC Comics during the interview is a red herring. He didn’t talk about any individual corporate entity other than HBO Max. Which is apparently a very high priority to AT&T.
He supports his claim WarnerMedia has no vision for publishing DC Comics in the future with mostly circumstantial data but no corroborating evidence. His speculation that AT&T’s massive $164B debts spell doom for DC Comics are off-base. Time Warner was structured to sell off key assets before the AT&T acquisition. If AT&T didn’t want DC Comics they didn’t need to include America’s oldest comic book publisher in the transaction. Others point to the closure of niche streaming services like Filmstruck following the Time Warner purchase. AT&T are planning to launch a mega-streaming service. Filmstruck’s contents are likely needed to beef up their new platforms to compete with soon to be launched Disney+, Hulu and streaming giant Netflix.
DC Comics brand also brings significant value to the table. The DCEU clearly hasn’t matched the success of Disney’s MCU. But comic book movies are a multi-Billion dollar industry. Producer Greg Berlanti and his creative and production team have a creative and commercial hit with CW Networks Arrowverse (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning). Streaming service DC Universe isn’t the hit Time Warner imagined when it launched but it’s producing quality original content like Doom Patrol, Titans and Swamp Thing. Comic book based content are substantial draws for streaming services.
DC Comics is also home to a collection of assets not even Marvel Comics can touch. Their array of superhero logos and icons are recognizable world-wide. DC Comics licensing and merchandise creates more than four times the entire comic book market annually. In 2016, consumers spent a whopping $4.5B on DC Comics merchandise. AT&T likely places significance on the content vehicle (comic books) that made these symbols enormously valuable assets.
Today’s comic book market is in a down cycle. DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio has been trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns for years. Current comic book sales aren’t nearly what they could be during the current comic movie boom. Most of that is due to managerial incompetence on the part of DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Dan Didio outed himself as out-of-touch with DC’s consumer base at SDCC. He believes deconstructed, ultra-dark material like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns make DC Comics special. During DiDio’s search for the next Watchmen, customers are being inundated with comics that don’t fit DC Comics hope filled Universe.
Until DC Comics realizes why their new content aren’t resonating with customers they’re likely stuck in a rut. At this point, a regime change is likely necessary to get DC Comics back on course. DiDio destroyed iconic Vertigo incorporating fringe ideology and identity politics into DC’s brand. Batman is nearly unrecognizable after trying to redefine the character. Superman has been ripped to shreds in the name of DiDio’s boundary pushing.
Rob Salkowitz’s conclusions may be proven correct. But the driving force behind his theory, DC Comics moving to the WarnerMedia exhibit at SDCC 2019, is easily explained. ATT&T CEO John Stankey never mentions any entity other than Warner Bros., Tuner, HBO and HBO Max in his Variety profile. There isn’t substantial proof DC Comics don’t have a future at WarnerMedia. Salkowitz’s argument is based on conjecture and lacks necessary corroborating evidence.
DC Comics publishing represents little to no impact on AT&T’s massive debt holdings. The biggest detriment to DC Comics future is lackluster or incompetent leadership and direction from Dan DiDio and associates. If WarnerMedia ends up licensing out DC Comics IP’s it will likely be due to managerial malpractice. There’s no indication new Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman stories won’t be published in the near future. The comics may not be a huge moneymaker but associated merchandising and IPs are huge cash cows.
Rob Salkowitz’s provides a somewhat compelling supporting argument for his theory regarding DC Comics presence at SDCC 19. But he never begins proving his initial concept correct so it’s all moot until he provides significant corroborating evidence.
For a more in-depth look at the Forbes article and what it all means please view the video below.