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Robert Kirkman hovers over a glass-shard fire pit in an event space on the roof of the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, his hands shoved sheepishly into his jeans pockets. Nothing about the man’s appearance suggests that he’s tonight’s main attraction. The hotel is hosting a celebration of the upcoming Cinemax show Outcast, a gorefest about demonic possession. With his full beard and burly build, Kirkman looks more like he should be splitting logs than schmoozing TV executives.
And then there’s his voice: a raspy, Southern-tinged rumble that suggests he’s just getting over a very bad cold. But without Kirkman, who created Outcast, wrote its pilot episode, and is executive-producing the series (which will air early next year), no one would be here drinking Outcast-themed cocktails and ignoring series star Patrick Fugit (Gone Girl), who’s milling around nearby while television VPs in expensive suits and women in strappy high heels lavish attention on Kirkman, selfie sticks in tow.
The 36-year-old budding mogul is best known for creating the zombie-apocalypse phenomenon The Walking Dead, a comic-book series turned TV show that has been the most-watched drama on all of television among 18- to 49-year-olds for three years running (Fox’s Empire edges it out in total viewers). Kirkman’s video-game version of The Walking Dead, made with TellTale Games, has sold 44 million copies. And then there are figurines, hats, Nerf toys, and even Walking Dead Risk and Monopoly games.
As the show enters its sixth season, Kirkman is using its success as a launchpad for what he hopes is a developing entertainment empire. In addition to Outcast, Kirkman is overseeing AMC’s Walking Dead spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, which premieres August 23. This summer his production company, Skybound Entertainment, also released its first feature film, Air, a sci-fi thriller starring Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus. Skybound—which Kirkman runs with his manager and business partner, David Alpert—also has a slew of other projects in the works: comic books, video games, toys, live events, and even original content for Samsung’s Milk virtual-reality headset, which is due out at the end of the year.
Many of these exist in a broad metaverse in which everything is loosely connected, an approach familiar to fans of another enterprise that’s found huge success turning comic books into popular entertainment: Marvel. But while that company—which has generated billions from international smashes such as the Iron Man and Avengers series—functions as a brand-first character factory, Kirkman is committed to an unusual (for Hollywood) strategy of putting comic-book creators at the core of everything his company does. It’s a philosophy born from Kirkman’s own experience as a writer at Marvel, where, he says, “Your book could be published and you’d be like, ‘Oh, they didn’t even tell me they were changing what this guy was saying.’ ”
Though it’s unlikely that guests at the Outcast party grasp the true scope of Kirkman’s plans, he’s thinking much bigger than undead flesh eaters. He wants to create a very different kind of comic-book-based entertainment company: the anti-Marvel.
By the time Kirkman (barely) graduated from high school, near Lexington, Kentucky, he knew a few things for certain. He wasn’t going to college. He didn’t want to work for anyone else. And he’d do anything to create comic books. Kirkman had loved comics since he was a kid, and had plastered his walls with posters of Spider-Man and G.I. Joe. He never had any kind of career goals—until the day he realized the names on the covers of comics belonged to real people who actually got paid to dream up superhero stories.
In 2000, while Kirkman was working as a purchasing agent at a Kentucky lighting-supply company, he started a publishing company, Funk-O-Tron, and created his first comic series, Battle Pope, which followed the exploits of a demon-fighting, scotch-swigging pontiff. Two years later, Kirkman was hired to write for the indie publisher Image Comics, which had been formed by a group of disgruntled Marvel artists who wanted creators to keep the rights to their own work. He soon started pitching his own titles: Tech Jacket, Invincible, and, most notably, a series about a guy who wakes up from a coma and finds himself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
At the time, Kirkman didn’t consider himself a horror guy. But he loved zombie movies like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and he always felt unsatisfied when they ended. What happens next? he wondered. Does everyone just get on with their lives? It didn’t make sense. The Walking Dead was his answer to that question. Illustrated by Kirkman’s high school buddy (and Battle Pope collaborator) Tony Moore, the series debuted in 2003 and caught on quickly with an audience that went beyond comic-book fans. Some 145 issues and 145 million copies later, it’s one of the all-time best-selling series not put out by the two big publishers, Marvel and DC.
The Walking Dead got Kirkman noticed, and in 2004, Marvel called, offering him a job as a writer. Working for the company behind Spider-Man and X-Men is the ultimate dream for anyone who grows up obsessed with making comics. How could he say no? Kirkman—who continued writing The Walking Dead on the side—was almost immediately miserable, he says, frustrated by Marvel’s rigid structure and lack of creative freedom. “It was them deciding what book I’d do, them deciding what artist I would work with, them telling me which story I’d write,” he says. “They would call me into the office and say, ‘I read your Image books and they’re better than your Marvel books and I don’t know why. Why don’t you give us the good stuff?’ And I would say, ‘Because I pitch you guys the good stuff and then you tell me I can’t do it or to hold off.’ ” (Marvel declined to comment for this story.) Kirkman quit in 2008. Soon afterward, he returned to Image as a partner, where he was given his own comic-book imprint.
By now, Kirkman was working closely with Alpert, who’d signed on as his manager and producing partner. A polished, even-keeled Long Islander who was captain of the swim team at Harvard and studied law at NYU, Alpert was aggressively working to get Kirkman established in L.A. He’d made a deal at Paramount for Kirkman to adapt his comic book Invincible into a movie (the project never went anywhere), and had even sold Battle Pope to SpikeTV.com as an animated web series (eight episodes aired in 2008).
In 2009, they landed their biggest coup. After four years of shopping around The Walking Dead as a TV series (NBC had optioned it at one point and then ended up passing), Kirkman and Alpert finally closed a deal, with AMC. The network was starting to invest heavily in original programming and was eager for a populist, ratings-friendly show to complement more cerebral fare like Mad Men. At first, Kirkman wasn’t much involved; veteran director Frank Darabont served as showrunner, with Kirkman acting mainly as a consultant.
But Darabont was fired during production on season 2, so Kirkman moved to L.A. and joined the writers’ room. He handled the transition well, according to executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. “A lot of people come in thinking they’re going to reinvent the process,” she says. “He was very smart in observing and paying attention. He didn’t believe it was his place to veto everything.”
When Kirkman and Alpert closed the TV deal, they had insisted on keeping the merchandising rights to the Walking Dead comic book, which meant that through their newly formed production company, Skybound, they could sell T-shirts, toys, video games, and anything else that didn’t use specific images from the TV show. When Skybound’s Walking Dead video game came out, it was a critical hit as well as a sales one; by contrast, AMC’s version, produced by Activision, bombed. “I don’t mean to be a jerk about it all, but the Activision game was an embarrassment,” says Kirkman. “As good as some of the merchandising that AMC produces is, there’s not a soul to it. There’s not an extra level of consideration that comes from a human being that cares.”
The savvy move provided a licensing windfall that allowed Skybound to be more than a vanity company. And it gave proof to Kirkman’s vision of keeping creators at the core. “It was like, Okay, now it’s not just a guy in a cubicle,” Alpert says. “We were able to say, ‘Hey, we can do this for other people.’ ”
Skybound’s sleek glass-and-concrete offices, located in Culver City, California, are a geek’s paradise. Alpert’s Tesla is parked right outside. (Kirkman, who’s more inclined to collect Garbage Pail Kids than Corvettes, drives a Hyundai SUV.) And the lobby is full of toys, comic books, and other tchotchkes inspired by The Walking Dead and other Skybound properties, most involving severed limbs and torture devices. Millennials in skinny jeans and plaid button-downs scurry around the office, where there’s an air of nervous energy—San Diego’s Comic-Con, the massive annual geek-culture convention that’s the biggest event on the Skybound calendar, is 52 days away.
Right now, Kirkman’s projects are driving most of the company’s revenue—and not just on the TV front. In May, The Walking Dead and Outcast comics sold roughly 69,000 and 29,000 copies, respectively, while Skybound’s other books each sold fewer than 10,000. But Kirkman is overtaxed. He currently has three comic-book series going, in addition to work related to his three TV shows. Last October, when he was flying back and forth between Outcast‘s South Carolina set and L.A., where Fear the Walking Dead was in preproduction, Kirkman was forbidden by Alpert from coming up with any new ideas. “We were working on those shows like crazy and Robert would be like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got this great movie idea,’ ” Alpert recalls. “I’d be like, ‘Why are you telling me that? What are we going to do with that? Now you’re just teasing me.’ ”
Moving forward, Alpert wants to reduce the big gap between his star and the other Skybound players. The goal is to eventually “have a small group of creators who we’re as passionate about as we’re passionate about Robert, and do as much stuff as they want us to do.” Kirkman, who’s been up since 5 a.m. writing when we meet one Friday afternoon, explains that Skybound is “designed to appeal to the Robert Kirkman who was doing Battle Pope,” a talented outsider who will benefit from editorial support and Hollywood connections. Maybe the creator’s idea ends up being published as a comic book, or maybe it becomes an online video or a video game—or even a movie.
The model isn’t all that different from the way most production companies and studios think about projects—who doesn’t want to build a franchise?—but Skybound is committed to keeping creators directly involved rather than casting them to the side, as often happens in Hollywood (with the exception of superstars such as J.K. Rowling). Of course, not every comic-book author has what it takes to steer movies and TV shows, and Marvel’s approach—putting its properties in the hands of successful Hollywood professionals—has paid off with phenomenal box-office and critical success.
Christian Cantamessa, a video-game writer and designer with no film experience, is perhaps Skybound’s biggest test of the company’s creator-first concept. Cantamessa cowrote a script called Air and said he wanted to direct it; Skybound said, Why not? He is also involved in developing a video game based on the film and is talking with Skybound about other movie and TV projects. In April of this year, Skybound signed a first-look deal with Universal, which means that Cantamessa’s next movie would likely be on a bigger scale than his debut, a limited-release film with a small budget. Universal or any other studio is unlikely to hand over a big-budget movie to a newbie. “Some guy or girl who’s written a comic book, if they write a script, no matter how good it is, it doesn’t matter,” says one agent who works with A-list writers. But if Skybound can help build raw talent into names with smaller projects, then Skybound’s mantra of “Creators first, creators center, creators forever,” as Alpert puts it, has a shot at surviving as the company expands into a bigger operation.
Alpert argues that Skybound’s real strength is the content it’s creating—the characters and stories that are, in the end, what drives a company like Marvel. The Disney-owned comics giant had a 70-year head start on Skybound, but the general principle is the same: Stockpile original ideas that can be pushed out and marketed through various media with the endorsement and imprint of a respected creator. Kirkman, Skybound hopes, will be a modern version of Stan Lee. “I talk to producers all the time, and the biggest thing for them is finding intellectual property,” says Alpert. “ ’How do I get the rights to this? How do I put it together?’ Skybound is designed to solve that issue. I can say, ‘Hey, I know what the next 12 projects I want to do are, because they’re right here.’ ” Outcast, for example, started out as an idea for a comic book, but when Kirkman casually mentioned the concept to an executive at Fox International Channels, it was fast-tracked as a TV show. It debuted as a comic book last year, seeding the audience for the show.
Kirkman and Alpert could rinse and repeat with this formula, but they aren’t interested in forcing projects for the sake of filling up a slate. “I don’t think either of us sits around going, ‘We have to have a movie this year, let’s make sure we have five next year,’ or, ‘I want to have 17 TV shows by 2020,’ ” says Kirkman in a not-so-veiled shot at Marvel recently unveiling its film slate seemingly into perpetuity. “Our goal is to continue growing and not let exciting things slip through our fingers. We’re not a company that sets cold, arbitrary goals and then cuts corners to try and meet them. That’s not our style.”
Unlike Marvel and other franchise factories, Skybound prides itself on its indie status. There are no shareholders or investors, therefore the company can grow organically at its own pace. That doesn’t mean Kirkman lacks ambition. Quite the opposite. Though he’s up against decades of Hollywood tradition and competitors who crank out superhero sequels with nine-figure budgets, he still thinks his creator-focused model can have a big impact, both creatively and financially. “I want to eventually tear the system down,” he says quietly at one point. “And then build a better one.” Kind of like re-creating society after the zombie apocalypse.