New Delhi: Stephen Wacker, vice-president for creative development – Marvel Television and New Media, was in India last week to review operations in the fast-evolving local market. In an interview, he spoke about keeping the age-old brand alive and relevant for younger generations, opportunities with digital media and why the next Marvel superhero could be from Mumbai. Edited excerpts:
What have been the most important changes in Marvel’s journey as an entertainment brand across all these years, worldwide and closer home in India?
With the Disney purchase nine years ago (in 2009, The Walt Disney Co. acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion), it became more apparent to the people at the company that Marvel could be a brand bigger than it was, that it could reach everyone, from adults to children, men and women alike. The movies and TV shows have helped with that and I think that’s made our appetite bigger. Disney has opened doors for us into areas we would have taken longer to get into, like the family world. With Disney, I have no fear that there is a person on earth that we couldn’t reach with our stories. Having Disney makes people trust Marvel more as a brand. I think we’ve helped them too, to reach people who love our comics and characters. A lot of people believe Disney faced a challenge in reaching the boys who love all the action and adventure, and Marvel knows that world very well. So I think it’s a good relationship in that sense.
What helps Marvel stay relevant to the youth today that has access to multiple entertainment options?
It can be a challenge because kids have everything in front of them and can go anywhere they want. For us though, it’s probably a very easy answer. As long as we tell compelling stories that say something about the world these kids experience, that’s our best chance of hanging on to them. More than the trappings of a costume or a superpower or anything like that, the stories we tell are about the people behind the mask. Keeping those stories compelling and full of twists and turns so the audiences are always wondering what happens next. That sort of excitement is integral to the Marvel brand. It’s serialized storytelling, it lends itself to cliffhangers, twists and turns and if we deliver on that, then I think it keeps our audience engaged.
What opportunities has digital streaming brought to you as a brand?
It’s changed our focus in a lot of ways. In the US, we have our own YouTube channel called Marvel HQ. Plus, our TV shows stream on Netflix, Hulu and Freeform. All our partnerships are very important to us and each of the shows on the different platforms has a different tone. Some of them are edgier, whereas some like Runaways on Hulu are geared more towards young adults and are mysterious. YouTube, on the other hand, has been great for kids and now that they have a Marvel-branded space, they can find all the animation in one place. So each of the services becomes a destination and it’s all about finding out what audience works for them. Plus, Disney has its own streaming service coming up next year that Marvel will be part of.
Digital is a part of our entire ecosystem. I don’t think I’m breaking any news to say streaming is important for everyone. What we’re going to do is keep trying to create new content, something that feels special to that individual service and that just comes from working with the partners. Then our new media group in New York is focused on creating short-form content for the web, for the rebranded Marvel website and we’ve had meetings with every major service to figure out what works just for them. We can go beyond fictional storytelling and explore non-fiction, tell stories about how our characters were created, the history of the company, what’s happening this week- that kind of a thing.
How much of a focus is localization of content in order to appeal to different markets?
It’s becoming more and more of a focus. I think it’s the natural next step. We’ve had 10 years now of people getting to know our characters and we’ve gone through a couple of waves of North American protagonists, I think now audiences are going to be hungry for a hero who lives in Mumbai or Delhi. I think we would do something like that down the line, it’s just about making the finances work, making sure we do it right creatively. I think that would be terribly exciting and there is a hunger for that around the world. I’ve seen that happen in the comics that I’ve grown up on since the 70s where we have characters from all over the world. The Fantastic Four would go to Africa or the X-Men would go to Australia, that’s how you got to know the rest of the world. I think that will increasingly seep into other entertainment forms, be it movies or TV.
How are the different verticals of Marvel’s business growing and where do you see most opportunity?
It’s an exciting time at the company because there’s stuff happening everywhere and there is a massive amount of content coming in, be it games, new media or TV. The next big opportunity is probably in the new media space—short form content that will either live on the Marvel website or other services, content that doesn’t have to be an hour or two-long, just 10 minutes of a quick adventure which people can come in and out of over a coffee break. We have so many characters and stories that have been created organically over decades that I could see someone staying in the Marvel universe for the better part of the day where they go from a game to a TV show and it becomes a real part of their life and lifestyle. Another part that’s growing right now is the games area too, we just launched our first console game in several years in North America and there’s a lot of room for growth there because it’s international. All of us working at Marvel at any one point of time are keeping a history going but we’re also laying the ground for what’s next.