Kleefeld on Webcomics #64: Skirting Puttnam's Law

Although largely retired these days, David Puttnam is a movie producer who got his start in the 1960s. He didn’t make blockbusters, though, and focused on doing just what interested him. He’s probably best known for the Academy Award winning Chariots of Fire from 1981. His pictures, for the most part, were not great financial successes, often despite being critical ones. Puttnam clearly knew the movie business and simply chose not to make popcorn flicks. He was rewarded in 1986 when Columbia Pictures named him as their new Chief Executive Officer.

Puttnam reigned as Columbia’s CEO for only about a year. Officially, he stepped down of his own accord, but conventional wisdom says he was forced out. Because he wanted to do something different.

Once installed at Columbia, Puttnam made great number of enemies very quickly. He railed against talent agents who controlled much of the movie industry and the stars that he felt were extorting the studios. He cancelled many contracts and fired Ray Stark, another of Columbia’s big producers. He bad-mouthed the status quo and suggested that studios shouldn’t be throwing all their money at big budget features, going so far as to allegedly tell his board of directors: “I wouldn’t make a Rambo, no matter what the size of the built-in profit guarantee. If someone wrote me a check for the total box-office gross, I wouldn’t take it.” He wanted to make movies that were well done, regardless of their commercial viability. He wanted to make movies differently.

Whether or not his ideas would have worked is up for debate. He wasn’t in the position long enough to make any substantive changes in that regard. Victor Kaufman took over the role, having previously oversaw things at Tri-Star Pictures ranging from Rambo: First Blood Part II to Monster Squad. Some successes, some failures, but precisely what everyone expected out of a movie studio.

A recent piece in the LA Times suggested that one of the constants of modern life, right up alongside Murphy’s Law, might be Puttnam’s Law: it’s okay to screw up, just so long as you screw up the same way everybody else does. It’s better to try just a slight variation on something that’s already been tested than to gamble on something entirely different. Most people have a vested interest in the status quo, and would rather see a typical superhero movie like Green Lantern fail amid a sea of at least moderate successes than try something unconventional like Brother Power the Geek.

That’s goes right to the heart of webcomics’ appeal. Without a corporate structure in place to restrict creativity, the relative handful of individuals who do want to do something different can throw their ideas out there. Why not a strip where all the characters are drawn as dots? Why not a strip about a young boy dealing with transgender issues? Why not a strip with no consistent style or format that discusses scientific issues? The ideas might succeed, they might fail. But there’s no precedent for them either way.

DC Comics announced earlier this week that they’re launching a new digital-only comic. Featuring Batman. To go alongside the other two digital comics they’re making featuring Batman, and the one featuring the Superman characters from Smallville. They might all be excellent comics with brilliant storytelling and art, but it’s still essentially the same thing that they’re already doing. The same goes for their New 52 initiative on the print side; despite all the cosmetic changes, they’re continuing to tell the same types of stories with the same themes to the same people. Some books will probably sell, some probably won’t. But they won’t sell in exactly the way that DC might expect something not to sell.

(On a somewhat ironic technical note, the Batman image seen here accompanied DC’s announcement about the new digital stories. But the file name was “Batman Digital_300_CMYK.jpg” -- the CMYK referring to a color palette designation that is unique to printing and not well suited to tablet, laptop or computer screens and the 300 referring to a resolution 3-4 times higher than most computer screens can render. Despite being a digital-only initiative, DC was still clearly working on it as if it were a printed series. Anything else might be seen as unconventional.)

Webcomics are outliers relative to mass media entertainment. They don’t need to follow -- oftentimes can’t follow -- established patterns in other comics. In terms of format, style, genre, theme, subject, frequency... you name it, there’s a webcomic that’s broken with past conventions. Maybe they succeeded, maybe they didn’t. But they don’t have to cater to, as Puttnam called it, the "lowest common denominator of public taste." Because if you take out the institutionalizing forces in making traditional comics -- the publishers, the syndicates, etc. -- you take out the people telling you to follow Puttnam’s Law.

Related Posts:

Kleefeld on Webcomics #63: Besting Demons

Kleefeld on Webcomics #61: Going Mainstream


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