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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Inside ‘The Boys’ Publisher Dynamite Entertainment’s Risky Bet On The Series Success

The savage superhero satire The Boys has not only helped Amazon
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Prime Video stake a major claim in the streaming wars, it’s also propelled the publisher of the cult-favorite comic series to new heights with sales of the collected editions of the original stories. But that win wasn’t automatic. Dynamite Entertainment rolled the dice bigtime on the audience’s appetite for the original material and that bet ended up paying off.

Dynamite Entertainment had only been in the comics publishing business for a couple of years when founder/publisher and CEO Nick Barrucci heard the rights to The Boys were up for grabs in 2006. The original publisher, DC’s Wildstorm imprint, got cold feet over the book’s profane take on superheroes, which ruffled the feathers of some retailers and customers. Barrucci pitched series creators Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson on the company’s production values and hands-off editorial approach, winning the rights over better-established independents like Dark Horse and IDW.

The Boys was a strong seller for the company through the duration of its 72-issue run (plus a few tie-in series). Though it saw the usual attrition that long-running series experience at retail, Barrucci says the trade book collections of previous story arcs kept outperforming the market. It also attracted media interest early on, and was under option since 2006 or 2007 before finally making it to the screen in 2019 via Sony’s deal with Amazon Prime Video.

However, even the relatively strong critical and commercial success of The Boys could not prepare Dynamite for the impact that the show would have once it was released upon an unsuspecting world.

Barrucci, a co-producer of the series, says he knew the show was going to be a winner early on. Producers Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg were fans of the property determined not to compromise Ennis’s scabrous take on superhero culture, and they’d found the perfect collaborators in showrunner Eric Kripke and his team. Barrucci’s only question was whether viewers of the show would be interested enough to check out the source material.

This is one of the big uncertainties even in the “peak geek” era of comic-saturated media. Some productions such as Watchmen or Umbrella Academy trigger a buying bonanza, sending the trade collections of comic book stories shooting to the top of the best seller lists, while others hardly have coat tails at all. Barrucci believes that while there’s no magic bullet, publishers can maximize their odds of success by keeping the material as compact as possible so customers aren’t overwhelmed with dozens of books, and most of all by making sure the books are available in all channels to everyone who wants to buy them when they want to buy them.

With The Boys Season 1 heading for a summer, 2019 release – and the public reaction still uncertain – Barrucci decided to roll the dice with a very aggressive publishing strategy. Pre-orders for the deluxe Omnibus editions that collected big chunks of the storyline in 300-400 page hardcovers had been running at around 3200 in early Spring. Typically, a publisher would print maybe 6000 copies to cover expected demand, and lock in the low costs of overseas printing to ensure a nice profit.

But rather than take the safe road, Dynamite opted for gigantic print runs of 15,000 for the first volume and 8-10,000 for succeeding volumes. Barrucci, along with Dynamite President/COO Juan Collado and Executive Editor Joseph Rybandt, opted to do the printing in Canada, rather than Korea or China, paying a premium of $220,000 over the low bid for the ability to go back to press quickly enough that the pipeline would not run dry. He also had his sales and marketing team, headed by industry veteran Alan Payne, prime channel partners to ramp up orders slowly ahead of the launch.

Right after the annual Book Expo in June, Amazon began promoting the series in earnest and sales and orders started picking up. Dynamite immediately went back to print to stay ahead of demand. When the series dropped over the summer, the shelves of bookstores and comic book retailers were fully stocked with the $30 hardcovers. And sure enough, viewers intrigued by the show started buying. And buying. And buying.

All six volumes of The Boys omnibuses were tremendous sellers. Barrucci says the company sold nearly $5 million in omnibuses in 2019: very big numbers for a publisher in the second tier of periodical sales behind DC, Marvel and Image. The longest any edition was out of print was a week or two for Volume 3.

Barrucci said his main motivation was to make sure the direct market comic stores were never low on stock, as brisk sales of a big ticket item were crucial to their success. “We’d give retailers extra discounts, work with the distributor to give them extended billing, whatever we could do to make it work,” he said. “It was a risk to pay extra to print in Canada, but we thought, if customers have to wait 4-6 weeks for a reorder to come in, would they bother? Probably not.”

Following the success of the first season, Ennis came back to Dynamite for The Boys: Dear Becky, a mini-series exploring Butcher’s relationship with his wife, drawn by Russ Braun. The series was scheduled to start in April but bumped to June due to the pandemic, and has met with a lukewarm response among comic fans. Ennis’s cultural carpet-bombing is landing on a rawer landscape these days, and into a critical environment less welcoming of his fuck-all iconoclasm. Nevertheless, to the extent the series represents Ennis embroidering on plot threads better developed in the television series than in the previous incarnation of The Boys, it will probably draw its share of mainstream interest and sales when it is collected and released as a trade book in February.

Barrucci says that the media adaptation of The Boys has brought lots of benefits to Dynamite, including the opportunity to repay the confidence that retailers have shows in the company. He says that, like every comic company large and small, he’s entertained offers from prospective partners and media companies eager to capitalize on Dynamite’s catalog of corporate owned IP. The company, represented in Hollywood by UTA Promotions, has generally opted for a more selective approach to media exploitation of its catalog, taking shorter term and more limited options on characters rather than tying up whole story universes in more extensive (and more lucrative) deals.

The comics-to-screen pipeline has proven to be boon to the publishing side of the industry that is always trying to scramble up the side of a gravel pile towards a larger mainstream audience. Even so, when a show like The Boys breaks through to reach that promised land and taps a nerve in the larger culture, publishers have to be smart to ride the wave. Barrucci went with his gut, betting on the quality of his property, the integrity of the retail channel, and the taste of customers. It looks like that confidence was well-founded.

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