Interview: Hank Kanalz, Senior Vice President of Digital for DC Entertainment
BY flightpath, August 30, 2011
DC Comics – home to classic superheroes Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and more – made headlines this summer with the announcement that it would be rebooting its entire line with 52 new No. 1 issues. In “The New 52,” characters are being de-aged (and in Superman’s case, de-married), redesigned and revamped in efforts to connect DC with a wider audience, and hopefully reverse the trend of the industry’s rapidly declining sales. It looks like DC might be onto something; according to USA Today, pre-orders for the debut issue of the new Justice League have passed 200,000 copies, already making it the year’s biggest seller. In another big move coinciding with the relaunch, DC, which is owned by Time Warner, will now release every comic in digital on the same day as the print version, marking a true acceptance of the format as playing a key role in the future of comic books.
In advance of tomorrow’s historic launch, we spoke with Hank Kanalz, Senior Vice President, Digital of DC Entertainment, about the decision to go same-day digital, fighting piracy, and why he’ll never get rid of his print comics.
Flightpath: We’re right around the corner of the big relaunch. What’s the feeling around the DC offices right now?
Hank Kanalz: You know, not to sound cliche, but it’s positively electric. We moved into a brand new space, we’re all under one roof working on this incredible project. It’s so exciting. We’ve had daily updates on what’s going on, hourly check-in points on moving towards this launch. I’m knocking on wood – everything’s going according to plan.
Flightpath: The relaunch represents a real move towards embracing digital with same-day digital and print releases. What made now the right time for that?
Hank Kanalz: It was a very clean time, you know, with the 52 new number ones as a jumping on point for new readers. So what better way to get new readers than to go as wide as possible with all these number ones? And to go as wide as possible, you have to go digital. We could’ve kept this all in print, but if you want to reach an audience that can’t necessarily get their comic books, digital is the way to get to that audience.
Flightpath: I know that the whole industry had kind of resisted same-day digital releases for different reasons – not wanting to anger retailers, not wanting to cannibalize sales of the print version. Was the decision to go same-day digital a no-brainer with the relaunch, or was there some internal debate about it?
Hank Kanalz: From my perspective, it was definitely a no-brainer, and it’s something that we’ve been pushing for for quite some time. We were pushing for this, in my group, obviously long before The New 52 was announced. As a company, historically speaking, it’s something that we’ve always been looking at. And when we restructured, it became a top priority for us, so we went from 0 to 100 miles an hour in a matter of minutes.
So yeah, it was very much a no-brainer. But if you take a look at what’s out there too, we’ve been noticing that there’s a lot of the pirate sites, so we were already losing some of our audience to piracy. So why not give people an honest alternative to get their comic book material, right?
Flightpath: Yeah, I wanted to ask about that. How big a problem is comic book piracy? I remember years ago, a friend of mine sending me a PDF; someone had just scanned their comic and uploaded it, and I never would have thought in a million years that anyone would do that. Do you see that as something impacting your business?
Hank Kanalz: Oh, absolutely. It impacts the entire entertainment business, not just us. We’re certainly not alone, and we’re fighting this together as a company. Warner Bros. – Time Warner specifically – we take a big stand against piracy. I don’t know if we’ve ever done a study to look at the financial impact, I don’t know if that’s possible, but clearly it’s impacting our business in general.
Flightpath: The LA Times says that print comic book sales have dropped consistently over the last three years, and they’re down 7 percent in 2011. Why do you think that is, and do you think that releasing them same-day digital, and just having more digital initiatives, will help reverse the trend?
Hank Kanalz: I definitely do. I mean, that was a very candid article. I read it, and I was like, “Wow, I’m really surprised at how candid the article is!” [Laughs] But, you know, it’s the world we live in. Obviously, as the SVP of digital, I firmly believe that this is additive and this is definitely something that grows the entire business. This is not just, “Here’s another way to turn a buck.” This is something that I think will have a very positive impact on the industry in general, print specifically, and then comic shops as well. This is a terrific way to get new readers into our business.
You are never going to replace that tangible feeling of holding a comic book. You know, we have an archive library here too. Walking into that library, there’s this terrific smell of collected paper comics. And for that reason, I will never get rid of my comics. It’s my collection. It’s part of who I am, and the years I’ve been collecting.
But yeah, we absolutely believe it’s completely additive, and it raises all the boats. We’re talking about DC, but this is not just a DC thing.
Flightpath: I’ve been waiting for a day where I could buy graphic novels and download the single issues. At the same time, I do still love the single issues that I had growing up, and I’ll always keep them. If you look at the music industry, vinyl is making a comeback. I don’t think print will ever go away, in the same way that vinyl still means something to people.
Hank Kanalz: I don’t think it will ever go away either. But this is a great sampling opportunity. How unique is it to get someone to try something for free, or for 99 cents, or $1.99, or even $2.99? Here, try this one thing, it’s only gonna cost you two bucks. If you like it, you can buy a whole bunch more in the same format, or push this button here, and we’ll tell you exactly where your closest comic book shop is. And go there, and pick up everything that you can get your hands on and can afford to.
What if someone says, “You’ve got to read Planetary. It’s an amazing series.” You’ve got a couple of options. Find a comic shop, get a back issue, try it, and then purchase your trades or your hardcovers. Go to our app though – real easy, and sometimes we run that first issue for free or 99 cents – try it, if you like it, you can buy all 27 issues right there. Or you can go to your bookstore, and now you know that if you’re going to invest the money in it, that you’ve tried it and you liked it and you want to buy more. I can’t see how it’s not additive.
Flightpath: It seems to me that all the digital stuff you’re doing is a way to break down the barrier of having to go to a comic book store or having to find this stuff on your own. It just makes it a lot easier.
Hank Kanalz: It really does. I actually have some friends who thought that Green Lantern was a movie character. They had no concept that it was based on a comic book. It became the topic of the barbecue. “How could you not know he was a comic book character?” They don’t have access, so they didn’t know. And they loved the movie! “So if you love the movie, then step into my library.” So I set them up, and then I was realizing when I was stacking some books [for] them, it would be easier if I just got them the digital [copies], so they don’t have to carry it on their vacation. It’s just so convenient.
There probably are people who don’t realize that Batman is a character that comes from the comic books. They know him and were introduced to him by either the cartoon show or the movies. There’s a generation that was introduced to Batman in the ’60s with the Adam West version. It’s a completely different entry point. So I would like to have our material readily available, and the best way to get it readily available is this, as digital. So you’re looking at your DVD, and in there you can have a preview of a book. It’s great.
Flightpath: Can you talk a little bit about the actual digital delivery? How’s it going to work, from what’s available to actual ownership of digital files?
Hank Kanalz: When you make your purchase, you’ll be able to download the files to read onto your device. If you’re going to be reading it through the Web, it streams, so you don’t actually have the files downloaded to your hard drive. But if it’s on your iPad or on [other platforms], it downloads the file. So you can load up your iPad and then get on a plane and read an entire series, depending on how you’ve structured your memory allocation on the device itself.
We’ve been experimenting with different ways for people to purchase in bundles or series or collections. There will be more developments with that over the next couple of months, but right now we’re selling the backlist as individual issues. We run the occasional sale, where you can buy everything in the sale or you can select the different items that are for sale. We have character 101s, so there’s a “Batman 101,” which is basically your introduction to Batman and then 101 of his essential books that we have available digitally, that we recommend you try. So we do that with all our characters, and we rotate those through. And we get new customers that way too, so whenever we get new customers, they start their library with this great sale and they add to it after that.
Flightpath: And what about price-point?
Hank Kanalz: Our standard price is $1.99, and then we have select backlist items that are either free or 99 cents. For the same-day digital books, we’ll be matching the price for the first month as the [$2.99] print price. It’s very interesting. I really thought that people would wait until the price drops, but people want their comics and they want them now. So they’ve been purchasing at the same price. And we want price parity because we want people to choose, but we don’t want them to choose because of price-point. We want them to choose because of their preferred format. Some people actually don’t want a big long box in their apartment or house; they don’t have the room, their spouse won’t let them, they just don’t want to deal with moving it – they prefer to keep their comics digitally. So we want to give them that choice. But then after a month, which is pretty much the period of time that comic shops will sell their frontlist books before they put them in the back bins, we’ll drop it to $1.99, and it becomes a backlist title. If the comic book happens to be $3.99 on the stands, then it will drop down to $2.99.
Flightpath: On an iPad, double-page spreads might not fit the aspect ratio of the screen perfectly. Do you think the digital format will cause the art form to change and evolve?
Hank Kanalz: I don’t think so. We don’t have any intentions of limiting double-page spreads; they’re just too spectacular and fun. All we really do when we prepare for digital is we set it so that all you have to do is turn your iPad to landscape, and then it really does look beautiful. And depending on how the artist constructed the pages…if it’s a full-bleed page, we really try and accommodate that, but then we have the black framing, so it’s really not noticeable that it doesn’t fit perfectly in there. It has the same dramatic impact, I think. And then the difference though, is now that with the iPad, you can zoom in and you can see all the stuff that you would otherwise miss.
Flightpath: Let’s say someone might love comic book movies, but they don’t buy comics or they don’t know where to start. Is there one title from the new DC relaunch that you’d recommend as a good place to get on board?
Hank Kanalz: Oh, goodness. It’s so hard to be objective. We’re so immersed in it. My entry comic book that really got me hooked was Justice League, because it has all the characters. [Justice League No. 1’s] got such a nice feel, and it really is drawn cinematically and paced cinematically. I’m not just saying that because it’s coming out [tomorrow], and we’ve been working hard on this issue. It looks terrific. That’s a great starting point. I would say that, obviously if they’re a fan of a particular movie, then stick with that. If you’re a Batman movie fan, then Batman and Detective Comics are obviously the way to go. But Justice League has it all. It has all the characters, it’s a great starting off point, and you don’t need to know anything that happened prior to that point.