Marvel or DC: What’s your business model

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Superhero genre is here to stay forever. That’s according to Disney chairman Bob Iger who announced this week that their Marvel films (and Star Wars) will be gracing our screens for years to come. With a wealth of untapped characters and returning fan favourites, who can blame the studios for wanting to continue? It’s a business that’s growing year on year.

What’s interesting about Marvel studios, however, is the speed at which their box office smashing snowball built pace. Although Spider-man and Captain America movies have been around since the 70s, it wasn’t until 2000’s X-Men that a decent film was made; one worthy of our attention, at least.

Sony took it one step further with the release of Sam Rami’s 2002 Spider-man, and its sequel two years later has been hailed as one of the best superhero films of all time. Fox got in on the act, too, with their cinematic version of America’s favourite family, The Fantasic Four.

All around Hollywood, studios were grabbing a piece of the pie and cozying up with Marvel to produce their own films, and the genre started to grow. Meanwhile, in the background a juggernaut was building its strength and being prepared to unleash its might for the first time in almost two decades: Detective Comics’ Batman.

Healthy Competition

The rivalry between Marvel and DC has been on-going for well over 70 years now, and will probably exist until the Apocalypse. Indeed, when Apple launched their clever “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” ad campaign, comic books fans were quick to make their own version with Spider-man and Batman stating, “I’m a Marvel, and I’m a DC.”

Many would argue, that Marvel have long had the upper hand: stronger characters, better plot lines; potentially a wider appeal to kids and adults alike. But nobody was expecting the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, which some have referred to as The Godfather of our times. Quite a statement. In between, another DC hard-hitter was released, but Superman Returns didn’t go down as well as the studio hoped, despite an entertaining start to the movie. It seemed that Marvel still had the upper hand.

White Slave Masters

And then along came Disney. Or, as George Lucas recently referred to them as, the white Slave Masters (he later took it back, of course). In 2009 Disney bought the rights to Marvel Studios and suddenly plans were put in to place to slowly grow and nurture a franchise full of strange and wonderful super beings (with the exception of the X-Men, Spider-man and the Fantastic Four, who were still owned by other studios).

They played it safe, making stand alone movies with characters that were popular with the fans: Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, most notably. Slowly they introduced new characters here and there, before placing all their cards on the table and delivering The Avengers in 2012. That film went on to gross over $1.5bn at the global box office, and introduced us to even more characters: some we loved, some we needed to get to know a little better. It was like dining at Noma.

Disney named this creative process Phase One and it’s fair to say it ended on a high. There were a couple of flops in there, but overall the critics and audiences were pleased, and so were the bank managers.

Phase Two opened with slightly stranger concepts and locations that perhaps wouldn’t normally attract non-committed audiences. But, the brand was already strong and people were happy to splash their cash on a product they trusted. Humour, action, great special fx and characters we could easily identify with seemed to be Marvel’s ingredients, and Phase Two ended even higher with the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Placing your cards on the table

So what were DC up to during all of this? Well, Superman was given another shot and the critics were a lot more forgiving this time around. Overall, the film did well, although a lot of fans were very unhappy with the catastrophic level of destruction that took place at the end of the film. But DC had some serious catching up to do. With no legal battles between studios over who owned the rights to what, DC had a clear path to do whatever they wanted. And they went straight for the jugular.

Riding high on the success of the previous Batman films (and knowing that a potential Superman sequel might not do them any favours) the studio went and brought their main man back to our screens. Batman vs Superman was announced to rapturous applause at Comic Con and for good reason. For years, fans of the comics have begged to see this story come to life, and the studio listened. Adding Ben Afleck to the mix was a gamble, probably in the same way as introducing Daniel Craig as 007 was a decade ago, but a big name was needed to pull in the undeciders.

But unlike Marvel’s gestating Phase One, Two and Three model, where characters were gradually given centre stage over time, DC have decided to once again give us everything all at once. Later this year they’ll put all their cards on the table with the release of Suicide Squad. Staring Will Smith and Jared Leto as The Joker, the film essentially gathers a team of well-known (and not so well-known) DC villains. I consider myself pretty clued up on a lot of comic book characters, but there are a lot of them in this film I don’t know. Of course, that’s just because I grew up in the Marvel camp, but it’s still a risky gamble for DC to take. If this film bombs at the box office, then why would anyone want to go back to watch a solo film about Killer Croc or Harley Quinn? Maybe that’s the whole point, but with a solo Wonder Woman film just around the corner, and two Justice League adventures also pencilled in to the calendar, DC have a helluva lot riding on their next two films.

Jumping on the Superhero bandwagon probably isn’t such a bad idea. They’ve got a lot of ground to cover in Marvel’s wake, and it looks like they’re trying hard to do so. Regardless, I’m looking forward to March 24 when the Caped Crusader battles the Man of Steel.

Meanwhile, Marvel push on with Phase Three. Up next is Deadpool – their x-rated and violent attempt at the genre. And of course we’ve got characters whose names just sound plain silly. Ant-Man and The Wasp, anyone? Still, the critics and fans have already spoken and these crazy-sounding films are doing very well.

Photography Business Models

Which leads me to the point of this post today. What’s your business model: Marvel or DC? Are you slowly growing your business from the ground up and testing for weaknesses, or have you noticed a gap in the market and are going in, guns blazing?

Both are admirable models: one considers the options and takes carefully calculated decisions; the other makes a well-informed, quick decision and hopes for the best. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the DC campaign in a couple of years time.

Personally, if you hadn’t already figured it out, Photography by Matthew James has subconsciously adopted the Marvel model. I perhaps didn’t realise it until late last year, but Phase Three has just begun. Here’s how Phase One and Two panned out for me:

Phase One

  • Creating two websites: one for www.shootingcopenhagen.com, the other for photographybymatthewjames.com
  • Printing and distributing flyers for photography workshops
  • Cycling round the city, looking for potential clients and offering my services
  • Earning peanuts for working hard. Literally giving away my services for next to nothing, or in some cases for free
  • Networking. Joining as many social events as possible and getting my name out there
  • Focusing on wedding photography and building a client base

Phase Two

  • Following up with strong connections and landing work as a sports photographer
  • Clients such as Nike, Sparta and Deloitte come on board, which helps broaden my portfolio and expand in to new markets
  • Increased revenue from weddings
  • Evaluate my Cost of Doing Business (CODB). Introduce a day rate and a higher hourly rate for my services
  • Start shooting video for clients, including The Murmur at Roskilde Festival
  • Move in to an office in the city centre (better for meeting clients and being close to the action). Also hire an accountant
  • Work with marketing and photo assistants
  • Focus more on blogging, SEO, and online marketing
  • Update and improve website and portfolio

So now we move in to Phase Three, where things are starting to look and feel positive and moving in the right direction. Just four weeks in, things are looking like this:

  • Move away from wedding photography promotion
  • Increase hourly fee and day rate to reflect rate of inflation
  • Monitor success of SEO and marketing campaigns. See a marked improvement on conversions (people contacting me or hiring me)
  • New clients include Adidas, The Guardian and National Geographic
  • Invited as a guest speaker at events
  • Pitch Travel and Sport ideas to publications, getting my foot in the door
  • Start work on a printed portfolio to showcase to my Dream Clients
  • Begin hiring paid photo assistants
  • Saying no to underpaid jobs or clients who don’t really fit the style of photography I offer

So there you go… a summarised version of how things have been in the PBMJ camp. In a way these phases have felt necessary and healthy. Of course, there are many things I’d do differently if I had the chance, but learning from mistakes is a huge part of running a business. If money hadn’t been an issue in the beginning then maybe the DC model would’ve worked. I could’ve easily hired the right people to help me get where I needed to be in a much shorter space of time, and taken a few courses on business, video editing and marketing. But the truth is, it feels very rewarding to have done it this way round.

As always, I hope you can get something out of this. It’s a slightly creative way of looking at a business model, and there are many more out there. But trying to put together a business plan can seem daunting when you first start out. I didn’t bother making one at all, because I didn’t know how things were meant to happen. Now I realise that patience is key, and networking. These things don’t happen over night (unless you’re DC).

This blog post first appeared over at photographybymatthewjames.com

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