EXCLUSIVE: Todd McFarlane, the comic book creator behind Spawn, a filmmaker and entrepreneur, has launched a dedicated television development and production arm of his McFarlane Films, which has a first-look television deal with wiip (Mare of Easttown).
McFarlane Films’ initial television development slate, overseen by McFarlane and his President of Television, Sean Canino, includes two projects, McFarland and Thumbs, from Thomas Lennon, co-creator of Reno 911! and co-writer of Night At the Museum; Anders Weidemann, who adapted HBO’s Beartown and created Paramount+’s Interrogation; prolific graphic-novel author Sean Lewis; and ShadowMachine, a producer on BoJack Horseman and Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Pinocchio.
They join Sam & Twitch, a live-action TV series inspired by the popular characters from McFarlane’s Spawn comic, which was announced in June, with Jason Smilovic and Todd Katzberg writing the adaptation for McFarlane Films and wiip.
“The rare combination of artistic genius and trailblazing entrepreneurship that defines Todd’s career over the last 30 years is a true marvel,” said wiip’s Mark Roybal. “Wiip’s strategic partnership in television with McFarlane Films, led by Sean Canino, allows us to tap into a pipeline of global IP and collaborate with emerging voices in the comic book world which will bring audiences into new universes infused with Todd’s wonderfully twisted vision of the world.”
McFarlane’s Hollywood’s presence to date has been largely tied to Spawn, the Guinness World Record holder for the longest-running creator-owned comic book series, which he created. A 1990s HBO animated series adaptation won two Emmys, which McFarlane shared. The character of Venom, which McFarlane co-created, headlines a Sony Pictures film franchise which has grossed more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office to date.
“Having been in development with Jason Blum at Blumhouse, along with attaching Jamie Foxx on a potential Spawn movie franchise, other opportunities both in film and television came forward which led to this expansion in entertainment,” said McFarlane. (Get more of McFarlane’s unfiltered thoughts on Hollywood and his foray into it that could involve the building of an integrated film-TV Spawn universe, in Deadline’s interview below.)
Beyond film and TV, McFarlane has established himself as a multimedia maverick throughout the past three decades. He co-founded Image Comics, the world’s largest independent comic book company, at which he currently serves as president. He established McFarlane Toys, one of the world’s top five action-figure manufacturers with licenses ranging from the Disney Mirrorverse to Game of Thrones.
McFarland is a stop-motion, animated event series created by Lennon in partnership with ShadowMachine and wiip. The project is described as Night at the Museum meets Toy Story in Twin Peaks and will feature original McFarlane Toys. McFarlane and Lennon will executive produce the series, along with Canino and ShadowMachine.
“It is a good bet that when you combine the forces of Todd McFarlane and Tom Lennon, good things will happen…and that those things will most likely happen in stop-motion animation. We’re thrilled to be a part of the fun!,” said ShadowMachine’s Alex Bulkley.
Thumbs, on which McFarlane Films has partnered with wiip and Epicenter (Judas and the Black Messiah), is a live-action drama based on the bestselling graphic novel written by Sean Lewis (Coyotes) with art by Hayden Sherman. Weidemann will write the adaptation of the story, which follows 17-year-old Charlie “Thumbs” James, gamer and social outsider, who enters an esports tournament hoping to win a scholarship from tech billionaire Adrien Camus’ gamer academy so he can get his ticket out of his neighborhood, but soon finds himself fighting real life-and-death battles in a covert war between Camus’ teenage army and a neo-fascist anti-tech movement that is about to take over the U.S.
“The storyteller, father, and gamer within me all fell quickly and madly in love with Sean Lewis’ and Hayden Sherman’s graphic novel Thumbs, a vividly imaginative, fun-packed and disturbing ride into the not-too-distant future,” Weidemann said. “It’s a heart-pumping tale about gaming, the metaverse, and the entire fate of human existence. Simply put, it’s one of those stories I’d wish I was able to watch with my 12-year-old son. Hey wait: I will.”
Weidemann, McFarlane and Canino will executive produce, along with Allard Cantor and Jarrod Murray through Epicenter, with Lewis on-board as a producer.
“It’s exciting, obviously, and a bit overwhelming as I remember buying Todd’s books at my local pharmacy store,” said Lewis. “And when someone wants to do your’s and Hayden’s comic, Thumbs, as a show, whoa! And that person is Todd McFarlane. Wait, what? I’ve been lucky enough to work with Todd on his comics, and he’s a force of nature. He tends to will things into existence. From day one, it’s just been forward momentum for this project.”
Here is Deadline’s interview with McFarlane.
DEADLINE: Your first experience in television, I assume that was the HBO series Spawn. Were you involved creatively in it?
McFARLANE: Oh, yeah. I was. I lived here in Phoenix, so I was flying into Century City every week while we were doing that, for three years. I was at the tip of the spear on that one. I made this silly deal where I would sign them over the rights, but I have to have like a decent amount of authority over everything. I let them know, upfront, I knew nothing about animation at that point, so they were going to have to take a leap of faith that I was just going to figure it out on the fly, and we did the three years and were pretty successful.
Here’s the thing about an outsider, right, is that the outsider — in that case, that was me, and I’ve been there before — the outsider doesn’t know what the rules are, and because of that, we’re a lot more inquisitive, and we ask questions, and we don’t know what we don’t know. As a guy who’s been a CEO now for 30 years as well as being a creative guy, I understand how businesses and projects work, but from a creative [standpoint], I would be in a room with 40 people that probably collectively had close to 800 years’ experience, and I would ask questions all the time, be at the front, going, hey, can we do this, can we do this.
There’s really only a couple valid reasons. No, we can’t do that, Todd, it’s going to cost too much money, it’s going to blow the budget. I get it. No, we can’t do that, Todd, it’s going to take too much time, we’re going to blow the deadline. Okay. I get that. Sometimes, it was a combination, but every now and then, Nellie, you’d ask a question, and guess what, you’d get the home run, and you know what the home run was? You’d get a pregnant pause, and the room would be silent, because they were trying to figure out is this going to wreck a deadline? Not really. Is it going to cost more money? Not really. And my question was, well, why don’t we try it? Why don’t we try it?
I understand it’s not how you’re used to doing it, but you’re telling me it’s not going to wreck any of the budget or the time constraints on it, so, why don’t we just try it and see whether it works? And the only reason, at that point, was because people were comfortable doing it a certain way, on that show, we were doing something that there was no comp for. So, it’s like, guys, we can’t talk about Saturday morning cartoons and compare it to this R-rated, dark, sort of gritty sophisticated animated show. It’s not the same thing. So, we can’t apply the rules. We are literally on our own island with this, which basically means the only people in this room that are going to edit us are ourselves.
Why would we do that? Why don’t we bang against the walls and have upper management, the people that are basically paying it for it all, why don’t we get them to basically tell us to slow down? Why are we slowing ourselves down? I don’t get it. I’ve found it in other businesses, too, that people do something a certain way for a long enough period of time, they become institutionalized, a little bit. They talk a mean fight, especially creators, let me tell you.
Creators are wonderful for this, man, if I was in charge, I don’t know why we need those executives, blah, blah, blah. And then you give them freedom, complete and utter freedom, which is what we did on that show, and they just repeated what they’d already done. It was like, so, the bark was way louder than the bite. I’m a biter. So, it’s like, come on, let’s go. Let’s go until somebody says no.
DEADLINE: Do you still consider yourself outsider when it comes to television?
McFARLANE: Heck yeah. Because I don’t know the rules. And that can either be a blessing or a curse. My good days, Nellie, are when I’m with smart people, and I’m the dumbest guy in the room. Those are really good days for me because I’m sitting there going, man, look at all these people we got here, and they got all these wonderful ideas, and twice as good as anything I could come up with. I don’t want to be in a room where everybody’s looking for you for the answers, because I don’t have them. I want to have a collective team of people that are just as excited and anxious to try something and be a little fearless.
All that is dependent upon how much money people are spending and what their comfort zone is, but I think if you could educate people and give them your reasoning and your rationale as to why you’re doing it, you can do it. Look, here’s what I know about running any business and going up against big Fortune 500 companies my whole life. They, at times, a matter of fact, a lot of times, don’t know any better than you, because if they did, they would’ve put f*cking Squid Game out two years ago.
Why don’t they do it two years ago, five years ago, six years ago? Because they didn’t know. They didn’t know it was going to be a giant hit. They didn’t know Game of Thrones was going to be a giant hit. They would’ve done it five years earlier. They’d don’t know until it basically comes, and it jumps out, and it becomes a success, and then everybody then tries to do a bunch of knock-offs. But it’s not like they sat in that room, saying, man, you know, I bet if we do this show, it will be a home run, and we can just basically create masterpieces at will. If they could, they’d be doing it every day.
So, they’re doing, which we all do in business, educated guesses. Because we’re all taking educated guesses, that means there’s still opportunities to maybe bring something, show something, do something that people will enjoy.
DEADLINE: Why do you think now was a good time for you to step into TV in a major way? Does it have to do with streaming and the new ways of storytelling it offers?
McFARLANE: Nellie, I’m going to tell you why. I’m getting older, I’m not a young kid. Here’s what I know about all businesses. You walk into a room and say you want to play their game, the first question they’re going to ask is why should we let you play, and what have you done that we should even pay attention to?
I’ve been biding my time in other industries, playing the same game, going up against big industry giants, finding an alternative to them, and competing, and succeeding way more than I should, given the size and scale of those creative endeavors and/or businesses. So, okay, so, if I can go up in the comic book industry against Marvel and DC and not only survive but actually succeed, and at times, succeed at a higher rate than some of their stuff.
Those are companies that are backed by billion-dollar corporations behind them, and then I can go and make toys and go up against the Hasbros and Mattels. Those are big public companies. They’ve got a lot of resources and a lot of people behind them. Why would either of those, any of those companies I just mentioned, why would they give one inch of shelf space to an alternative version, right? Because they’re not supplying the audience with everything. So, there’s opportunities, then, for guys like me to seek gaps and say, well, I’ll fill some of those gaps.
I got my track record. I’ve got people. I’ve got outside money if I need to bring it. I’ve got enough success, I’ll spend my own damn money if I have to. It would be way nicer to be able to find partners that have been doing this business for a long time and are way smarter than me to collaborate with. Though, I don’t know. We’ll see, but I’m cocky enough.
And somebody should be asking the question, every time this guy has taken on a task, he’s succeeded, and now, he’s saying he wants to take on the task of Hollywood. Will he succeed? I don’t know. You and I will come back in five years, and we’ll see what that answer is, but so far, the résumé’s not bad, and now, he’s going to spend his energy, and he’s going to come and play in this game?
Again, he’s not the biggest guy that’s there. I just survive amongst giants. I don’t want to put words in anybody’s mouth, but literally, I am the proverbial David to the Goliaths. All I do is live amongst giants, and the question isn’t, Nellie, whether David can slay the giant. That’s the wrong question. The question is why can’t the giant slay the David? Why? Why is Hasbro letting me have any space in Walmart? Why is Mattel letting me outsell some of their comic books? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them, right? So, either I do a really good job, or they’re basically not getting the full value that they need out of their system. I don’t know.
So, either I’m smart, they’re dumb, or it’s somewhere in between. I think it’s somewhere in between. So, there’s always opportunity. I think there’s opportunity now, and because, to your point with streaming, I think the kind of story that can now be told, the bandwidth, the road of those stories, it’s wider than it was five, 10 years ago, right, which is good. That means there’s almost an endless amount of ideas that are spinning in everybody’s creative head that we can now contemplate. And one of those might actually be successful.
DEADLINE: We announced your first TV series project with wiip, a few months ago, Sam and Twitch. Can you give me an idea where it is in the development process? Have you taken this out?
McFARLANE: It’s out to directors, right now. The script’s out to directors.
DEADLINE: What about the new projects, McFarland and Thumbs?
McFARLANE: Tom Lennon’s project was sort of a bit of a fluke that he had the idea already, and it was based around toys, and then this is where your reputation precedes you. He knew I was doing some stuff in Hollywood, and he’s going, the dude makes toys. He collected a bunch of them, and he was like, hey, Todd, I got this crazy idea for this show, and it involves toys, oh, and by the way, you understand that component because you live that life, so, here’s sort of this, Toy Story meets Night at the Museum in the world of Twin Peaks. Cool, right? It just was like a bizarre enough sentence that I went, what? And then he started talking it out, and we started throwing ideas back and forth, and designs, and we’re ready. We’ve got I think like a 1-minute, 2-minute pitch trailer that to some extent I don’t even know if we need to say anything.
You just need to watch this 2-minute trailer, and either you’re going to get it, or you’re not. You think that’s sort of funny and interesting and provocative? Or you think it’s dumb, and you can pass on it? Those are both valid answers.
And ShadowMachine, one of the animation houses out there; they are having success with BoJack Horseman, and they’re doing their interesting, 3D Pinocchio with Guillermo del Toro stuff. This is going to be stop-motion, an odd, quirky thing. So, that was it.
DEADLINE: What about your relationship with Wiip? How did you pick them as your partner and how is that collaboration going?
McFARLANE: Good. I’m represented on the TV end by CAA so we were looking to see who we would buddy up with. Wiip was new so it was a little bit of an underdog there, and I’ve lived my whole life as an underdog. So, I completely get those people, I go, come on, let’s go against the establishment a bit.
In the early conversation, most of my contact is with Mark Roybal. I remember when we were developing a couple ideas with them, they were shooting Mare of Easttown in Pennsylvania, and he was like, yeah, I’m in Pennsylvania, shooting this thing. In all honesty, I thought he was saying it was called Mayor of Easttown. I’m like, oh, okay, you’re doing a show about some mayor, cool.
But then eventually it came on TV, and I was like, what, that was actually what you’ve been working on? Dude, that’s quality, I’m jealous of that show. That’s the kind of shows that I’d like to do, that are smart, intelligent, well-acted, well-written. You know the directing and visuals on it are good, and you can put that in front of almost anybody, and it’s hard for me to imagine that people would go, no, I hate it. It might not be their cup of tea, but they’re not going to hate it. So, I think they got a pretty good sensibility. Hopefully, some of it will spill out in some of the projects we’re working on with them right now.
DEADLINE: Speaking of that, anything else you can share at this point, about what else you might be working on? What genres are you focusing on; will you mine more of your comic book properties, including more Spawn-related shows?
McFARLANE: Well, you and I have been talking mostly about television, but the movie stuff is all there. There’s bigger conversations going on not only about Spawn. I have close to 400 characters in that world, and there’s a bigger conversation to be had about, what do you do with 400 characters, do you keep them in a shared space, or do you break them off and just segregate them away from each other?
So, those conversations are going on because the thing is, Nellie, that Marvel and DC, obviously, they’re the big two, but they’re taken, right? They’ve already been married; they’re Disney and WarnerMedia. How does Sony, Universal, Paramount, Lionsgate, some of the streamers, Apple TV+, they need content, and they cannot get Marvel and DC because those companies are not going to be sharing their IPs.
If you want comic book material and/or superhero stuff, you have to ask, okay, Marvel is number one, DC’s number two in comic book, who’s number three? That’s Image Comic Books. I’m the president of Image Comic Books. We’ve been, for 30 years, the third-largest. I believe 24 of our titles have been optioned and/or made into movies or TV.
So, at some point, if you can’t get the 95 out of the top 100, then you have to look at the alternatives. That’s why I keep telling people you should be creating independent comic books, because if you’re number 143 on the chart of the top 200, by the time that people have to go and draw a black line and redact every Marvel and DC comic book because they can’t get it if you’re Sony or if you’re Paramount, you may find out that 143 puts you at number 3 of available properties that are out there.
DEADLINE: Is a big Spawn film-TV universe a possibility?
McFARLANE: It’s possible. It’s the question I keep asking people. Marvel did it. DC did it. Can it be done again? I don’t know. But let’s just be clear. DC started theirs in the ’30s, 1930s. Marvel started theirs in 1960. So, they’ve had 50-, 60-year head starts. It’s not like it’s going to happen overnight, but if you’re looking for properties that are out there that are superhero that are intertwined, or whatever else, and you want to base it on sales and branding and how it’s done over the years, at the top of the chart, it’s Spawn and his world, right now, and nothing is close. Nothing is close.
I have a silly… Nellie, I’ll give you my definition of Hollywood. It goes something like this. You work in it for 40 years, you do three projects, you die, and they call you prolific at your gravesite. I’m used to putting out comic books once a month and putting out toys pretty much monthly, too. So, it’s a strange business that takes years in the making to basically decide you want to make a cake and eventually eat it. It’s like, all right you guys, I don’t even know how you guys plan, I don’t even know how people in that city that are actors and writers, how they even plan their budget from year to year, so, because it takes forever to get two yesses.
So, in the meantime, I’ve got my day job that I’ll keep. I’ll keep inventing new ideas, and characters, and creators, and relationships so that when you guys decide to move, because they move at a glacier’s pace, then I’ll be ready. But in the meantime, I’ll be over here, in this corner, doing my international stuff that’s working quite well.
Oh, by the way, I’m going to take that attitude and bring it into your city. Come on, somebody. Come on, somebody!