(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: Christmas tree here.
ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: Make a T-shirt and then follow that shirt around the world as it gets made.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: We were Toxie’s last owners. She was our pet toxic asset.
ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
A hundred barrels of crude oil.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three…
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Yes, we did.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: …Two, one – we have ignition.
SMITH: Oh, whoa.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh.
SMITH: This is PLANET MONEY Studios from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: This is it, the last superhero episode we’ve planned, but, you know, who knows? You can never truly kill a superhero. But for now, this is it.
KENNY MALONE, HOST:
This is the fifth in our series. And we’ve explored copyright. We’ve explored the public domain, product licensing and soda pop trademarks. But, Robert, from the very beginning baked into this series has always been the idea of exploring the inner workings of the entertainment industry. And it was inevitable that we would end up at the movies.
SMITH: Movies are the reason superheroes changed from a geeky subculture into the dominant form of entertainment. And we were now ready to take Micro-Face, the audio-powered superhero that PLANET MONEY rescued from the public domain, into his final destiny.
MALONE: And when we went to our NPR bosses and we said we’re going to want to explore the cinematic potential for Micro-Face – I got to be honest – we assumed that we would get laughed out of the room.
SMITH: Instead, they said, oh, we have a whole department for this.
MALONE: That’s right.
MALONE: Here we go. We’re recording. OK.
KRISTEN HARTMANN, BYLINE: Delightful, OK.
SMITH: This is Kristen Hartmann. She is our colleague here at NPR. But she’s not a reporter.
HARTMANN: What I actually do all day is that I work to adapt our content for books, for television, for film, for education.
MALONE: She sells the rights to NPR’s awesome radio stories to studios who want to make blockbusters. You can imagine our NPR colleagues who make award-winning radio stories filled with characters and emotion and passion – they must be meeting with Kristen all the time to discuss deals.
SMITH: We have never talked with her.
MALONE: Not even once.
SMITH: But to be fair, economic dramas about fractional reserve banking – they don’t draw the Steven Spielbergs and the J.J…
MALONE: No, not until now at least because, finally, PLANET MONEY does have something with blockbuster potential. We have Micro-Face, a superhero.
SMITH: When we met with Kristen, we didn’t really know where to start. Do we need an agent? Do we look for studios ourselves? And Kristen was like, no, no, no, no, no. She revealed that NPR had actually already signed some kind of huge, company-wide movie deal.
MALONE: Can you tell us what that is?
HARTMANN: Yeah, of course. So in this particular case, we have a first-look deal with a company called Endeavor Content.
SMITH: We are going to have to break down that Hollywood jargon a bit. Let’s start with Endeavor Content.
MALONE: Endeavor Content is the film and TV financing arm of a huge Hollywood company that has helped to make everything from Quentin Tarantino’s last movie to the filmed version of the “Hamilton” musical.
SMITH: Next phrase there, first-look deal – what this means is that a few years ago, Endeavor Content paid NPR some flat rate.
MALONE: How much? – well, roughly [bleeped] dollars.
SMITH: We’re apparently not allowed to disclose that.
MALONE: No, and there’s a bunch of other parts of the deal that we also can’t disclose that we will also have to bleep because we’re not allowed to share it publicly.
SMITH: So Endeavor paid that flat rate and gets to say to NPR, we get first look at every single radio story and podcast that you make. We at Endeavor get to say, that might make a good movie or a TV show. We want that one.
HARTMANN: Like, right of first refusal – we have [bleeped] days on any new story to say, hey, we want to option that. And if we don’t say anything in [bleeped] days, go out. Live your life.
MALONE: What this means for us is that Endeavor has a limited window to listen to our Micro-Face series. And if they want to, you know, if they want to, they can pay more money and then buy the rights to turn Micro-Face into a movie or TV show.
SMITH: Which would be the dream – Micro-Face the movie – and when we talked to Kristen, Endeavor’s first-look window was still open on Micro-Face.
MALONE: So if Endeavor hasn’t said anything about optioning our Micro-Face podcast series, which I assume they haven’t ’cause we haven’t heard anything, then we can…
HARTMANN: They have not said anything to me, but I have a meeting with them on the 31, so…
SMITH: Woo, if that meeting goes well, we could expect to make [bleeped].
MALONE: Oh, yeah, with, like, [bleeped] percent on the back end.
SMITH: We will be [expletive] in the [expletive].
MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I’m Kenny Malone.
SMITH: And I’m Robert Smith.
MALONE: For the last three months, we have been building up to this. A forgotten superhero became our story. That story became a comic book. A comic book became 19 different products in the NPR store.
SMITH: And all of this built an audience, a potential audience for something much bigger than just a podcast.
MALONE: Today on the show, we’re going to see how far we can take the Micro-Face story. Can Micro-Face make the jump to the silver screen?
SMITH: And if not, what screens can he jump to?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MALONE: Last episode, we explored the idea of licensing Micro-Face for merchandise like slapping a Micro-Face logo on, for example, aged Gouda cheese.
SMITH: But what we’re talking about today is a completely different kind of licensing. We would be licensing Micro-Face for what is called a derivative work.
MALONE: A derivative work – a new creative work based off of or derived from our character Micro-Face. When it comes to success in the entertainment world, especially superheroes, it’s all about audience – how many people know your character? And the absolute best way to build audience is through derivative works like TV and movies.
SMITH: Don’t get me wrong – a branded cheese product is great. But the movie is the dream. So Kristen Hartmann, NPR’s movie guru – she’s off waiting to hear if Endeavor Content wants to make us an offer – fingers crossed.
MALONE: Come on.
SMITH: We tell her, look. Play it cool. If they love Micro-Face, then seal the deal.
MALONE: And while we waited an undisclosed period of time for an answer, we decided that, you know, maybe we should pursue some other creative entertainment avenues for Micro-Face, just in case the movie does not come through, because – we should make it clear – very, very few NPR stories ever get any kind of offer.
SMITH: But we did have a backup plan. We had gotten a few emails from people who had heard our series and were proposing derivative works that were – how do we say – sort of movie adjacent.
MALONE: Yeah, movie adjacent is good. Yeah.
SMITH: There were three proposals. And we figured, let’s hear them out – no idea too small.
BILLY ISSERTELL: Hey, how are you?
SMITH: We took a meeting with Billy Issertell, a senior at the Penn State University.
ISSERTELL: I’m the co-founder of The State Radio Players, and I want to license Micro-Face for a radio play adaptation.
SMITH: Using the power of audio to tell stories.
ISSERTELL: Something you’re familiar with.
SMITH: I like it.
MALONE: Billy tells us that during the pandemic, he and some other Penn State stage actors had decided to take up old-timey radio plays to stay away from each other. And a superhero with audio superpowers – well, that was clearly a good fit for the radio players.
ISSERTELL: You guys have already kind of been doing the radio play style with a little bit of your skits while you read.
SMITH: Ooh, skits – was that a little bit of a diss? Do you think you could do better?
ISSERTELL: Listen. I’m not dissing on it. I really like it. But I think that, if given the opportunity, we could certainly bring a little something extra to the storytelling.
SMITH: We told Billy, go for it. Send us some samples when you’re done.
MALONE: Now, that one was easy. But negotiating a deal for a derivative work can get quite complicated, as we learned in proposal number two, which was a little out of left field for us.
TIMOTHY C TAKACH: My name is Timothy C. Takach. I am a composer, performer and music publisher. And I would like to license Micro-Face for a new piece of music.
MALONE: A new piece of music.
SMITH: OK. Sing a few bars of your No. 1 hit. Five, six, five, six, seven, eight.
TAKACH: (Laughter) My No. 1 hit.
MALONE: Timothy says it’s a little hard to explain. But, you know, he writes music for choirs. And he did this one piece that was a collaboration with a poet.
TAKACH: The poet – she collected all the things her 4-year-old boy said to her. And then I set that to music for choir.
(Singing) Music lives inside my legs. It’s coming out when I talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ONE BOY TOLD ME”)
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Music lives inside my legs. It’s coming out when I talk.
MALONE: Here is Timothy’s song being performed at Lincoln Center.
SMITH: Timothy’s for real.
MALONE: And he told us that, like, he thinks choral music might in fact be the perfect way to explore Micro-Face’s psyche – the journey of finding his newly amplified voice, the burden of listening to the world’s pain through his super hearing.
TAKACH: That’s one thing I love about choral music is that it – you’re able to dig into human emotions and bring them to the surface through singing.
SMITH: Do you know what else choral music brings to the surface? Lawyers.
MALONE: If it were up to us, we would just say, like, yeah, Timothy, do it, like we did with the radio play. But unlike a student group, a deal with Timothy is functionally a deal with a for-profit business. He makes his living writing and selling sheet music.
SMITH: So for us to say yes to Timothy meant that NPR had to say yes to Timothy, which meant that NPR’s lawyers had a lot of questions, like, is this a commission? Are we paying Timothy to write something that we would own that would cost NPR thousands of dollars? And do we want to own a Micro-Face choral work?
MALONE: We don’t really want to own a Micro-Face choral work. And so instead, we agreed on a royalties deal. We’re going to let Timothy write his choral piece. He owns it, and then he pays NPR 15% of any sheet music he sells. It costs five bucks to buy. NPR gets 75 cents of each sale.
SMITH: And Timothy is already noodling around on some ideas for his Micro-Face piece. He’s interested in how superhero stories are about both despair and hope.
TAKACH: So the chord structure sort of reflects that. And we start off in minor key.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TAKACH: And then we move quickly to a major chord after that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MALONE: It’s a bit heartbreaking, isn’t it?
TAKACH: It is, and I think that’s why that kind of progression gets used so often in popular music – is because it has that mixture of sadness and positivity.
SMITH: OK, great – going to add some words, the different choral parts.
MALONE: And the beauty of this is that the more of these kinds of creative works we greenlight, the more ways there are to tell Micro-Face’s story living out there in the world, which helps build a bigger fan base, which is better for making more deals in the future. This is your classic virtuous circle business situation.
SMITH: Our final idea, idea number three, for a derivative work is sort of a cross between a radio play and a choral work. And it happens to be Kenny’s and my single favorite form of entertainment. We’re talking, of course, about the Broadway musical.
MALONE: We even made a joke in one of our episodes about a Micro-Face musical, a joke that apparently was being piped directly into the earbuds of exactly the right person.
KIT GOLDSTEIN GRANT: So I love writing musicals about weird, specific things.
SMITH: Kit Goldstein Grant studied at Juilliard. She’s had her musicals performed at festivals around the world.
GRANT: So, like, I don’t like writing a musical that’s about, like, love or something. I like to write a musical about a guy with a microphone suit, you know, like, about something very specific and very different and unusual.
MALONE: So there’s Kit trapped in Queens, N.Y. The theater scene shut down for COVID. And she hears our Micro-Face episodes. And while she takes her baby out for a walk, she says a song just came to her.
GRANT: Tell me if you can’t hear. Here it goes – oh, I should give you some context, which is this is…
SMITH: Yeah, yeah.
GRANT: …Obviously, like, this would be Micro-Face’s sort of I am song where he is, like, realizing what he is here to do and what he’s going to be doing with this great suit that’s arrived in the mail. So yeah, here it goes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I can whisper softly, and you hear it all around. I can play a bass that rumbles, rumbles through the ground. Throw my voice and tell those robbers, hands up in the air. They run the other way, and then I catch them in my snare. It’s time for Micro-Face. It’s time for Micro-Face, the sonic superhero that the world will soon embrace. With this invention I go. Spread omnidirectional good (ph).
MALONE: Robert, sitting there listening to this song, I remember I looked at you on the Zoom screen. You looked at me on the Zoom screen, and I think we had the same thought.
SMITH: We could not have imagined a better ending to our weird, little superhero series. Kit understood Micro-Face better than we even did.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Get ready for Micro-Face.
GRANT: The end (laughter).
SMITH: I’m inspired. Wow.
MALONE: It’s so good. It doesn’t deserve to be this good.
SMITH: It does not. I’m not even sure why we’re having a discussion.
MALONE: (Laughter) This is a yes.
SMITH: Why aren’t we just signing contracts?
GRANT: Sounds good to me. Like, sign me on up (laughter).
MALONE: This ended up being the most complicated legal deal of all because when the musical is ready, we want to produce the first performance as a special PLANET MONEY livestream Micro-Face event.
SMITH: And so what would likely happen is we would license Micro-Face, our character, to Kit. She would write a musical about that character, and then I think we’d have to license the musical about our own character back from her in order to be able to perform it for us.
MALONE: It was very complicated, and I was left to meet with the lawyers and licensing teams because at this very moment, Robert decided to go on vacation. And he told me don’t call him with any work stuff. But something came up that he absolutely needed to hear.
SMITH: Kenny Malone.
MALONE: Where are you?
SMITH: I’m in Chicago.
MALONE: So I just got an email, I think on Monday.
MALONE: We’re going to get a film rights offer.
SMITH: Holy crap.
MALONE: Can we talk tomorrow, though, real quick?
SMITH: One second. Here comes the L. Chicago, baby.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MALONE: So funny story here – the deadline for NPR’s first-look deal with Endeavor Content – it passed. They never said a word about Micro-Face or wanting a movie deal. You know, their loss. And Kristen, NPR’s movie person – she said, hey, look. If you can get somebody else, another producer interested, go for it. And then a PLANET MONEY listener called with a real offer.
SHAKED BERENSON: My name is Shaked Berenson. I’m a film producer. And I’m here to take Micro-Face to the big screen.
MALONE: I mean, I’m not sure we actually expected anyone like you to show up.
SMITH: I believe.
BERENSON: (Laughter) OK, perfect.
MALONE: Shaked is an independent film producer, and he makes these small kind of, like, cult classic films.
SMITH: We looked him up on Rotten Tomatoes. And his films have crazy names like “Big Ass Spider!” (laughter). But, apparently, they are very well-reviewed. In fact, when we started the Zoom meeting, he had strategically placed his camera so that a shelf full of film awards are visible right behind his head.
MALONE: Am I seeing correctly – behind you there are several Rotten Tomatoes certified fresh trophies?
BERENSON: Yes. One of them is for “Turbo Kid,” which I’m going to talk a little bit about. I actually just got another one for a movie called “Bloody Hell” that we just released in January. So Rotten Tomatoes been good to us (laughter).
MALONE: I’m very, very excited.
SMITH: I got to admit I have not seen any of these movies. “Turbo Kid” is apparently about a kid on a BMX bike fighting corporate types in the apocalypse. I guess Shaked’s last movie is called “SlaXX” – S-L-A-X-X – about a killer pair of pants.
MALONE: And I’m just going to step in. I know killer pair of pants sounds bad, but I have seen “SlaXX.” And it is great. It also has 97% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I had also seen “Turbo Kid”, like, way before we started this project. It is also great. And, like, quite honestly, I could not have imagined a better person to show up and show interest in Micro-Face because Shaked is making movies that are, like, part joke, part serious – highbrow, lowbrow. These are all ways that we have been talking about Micro-Face.
SMITH: Once we realized who Shaked was, we started to get a little nervous. I mean, movies, even small budget independent ones, are a big deal. And sure, we believe in Micro-Face. Honestly, we didn’t think anyone else believed in Micro-Face enough to spend the kind of money it takes to make a movie.
MALONE: And as a result, we did not approach this negotiation in, let’s say, a confident manner. We kept asking Shaked things, like, why are you talking to us about this? Why is a real film producer interested in Micro-Face? There are so many other ideas out there.
SMITH: But he told us, you know, that’s the problem. There are so many ideas out there.
BERENSON: I have in my inbox, maybe – just from this weekend, I probably got 12 emails of people like, I have an idea for a horror movie. I have an idea for an action movie. You have to start filtering those ideas somehow.
SMITH: He says his filter is that he has to look for something beyond just an idea. Is there a big star interested? Is there already money attached? Or in the case of Micro-Face, is there already a built-in audience around the idea?
BERENSON: So the building audience off your podcast – that’s really the value. I mean, we can take my professor, or we can take a different character. But if you guys bring your audience and your creative storytelling talent, that’s really the two things that we value.
MALONE: I mean, OK, flattery is good. But there is also a refreshing clarity here. Shaked is saying that he is largely interested in investing in PLANET MONEY, and the character Micro-Face – like, almost an afterthought. He is clearly confident that he can make any character work. After all, he has done a movie where the main character was a pair of pants. So he’s looking for characters that come with something extra. And in Micro-Face’s case, that is PLANET MONEY and our audience.
SMITH: And then we get to the part of the meeting where Shaked writes a number on a piece of paper and slides it over the desk to us.
MALONE: Although, we’re on Zoom, so he sends us an email.
BERENSON: I would like to offer PLANET MONEY $1 million.
BERENSON: Does that sounds good?
BERENSON: …So it’s not like you’re going to get a check for a million dollars right away, OK?
MALONE: Oh, oh.
BERENSON: We have certain goals and milestones that go from this moment all the way down to actually getting a million dollars. So…
MALONE: I see – we’re a ways away from a million dollars.
BERENSON: You’re ways away from a million dollars.
SMITH: And the more he talks, the further that million dollars seems to get from us.
MALONE: But to be fair, what we are about to look at with Shaked – this is how a film rights offer works.
SMITH: Here’s the fine print. Shaked doesn’t have a million dollars for us right now. He wants the right to go out and look for that million dollars or more. He wants to see the comic book, find a screenwriter, a director, maybe get an actor attached and then shop around the Micro-Face property. And for all of this, he pays an option fee to NPR.
BERENSON: The option fee is $1,500.
MALONE: Very far from a million dollars. Shaked is offering to write a check to NPR for $1,500. And in turn, he wants NPR to give him the exclusive rights, for 18 months, to try and make a Micro-Face movie.
SMITH: And then the way that NPR gets more money than just the $1,500 – and this is pretty typical for a film option deal is that if Shaked actually gets a Micro-Face film made, then we would start to get more money. We’d get a percentage of the film’s budget. He’s offering us 2.5% percent of the budget, up to a million dollars.
BERENSON: Right – so – if we’re making, you know, a $40 million movie, that’s a million dollars, you know?
MALONE: So what this means is if he ends up getting a $40 million dollar movie made, then we would get that million dollars. That’s 2 1/2 percent of 40 million.
SMITH: And then there’s a chance for even more money. If the film is a hit, we get a percentage of the back end. I’ve always wanted to say that – a percentage of the back end. The back end is a percentage of the profits after the film has paid for expenses. It gives us an incentive to make the movie a hit. The offer Shaked sent us gives NPR 5% of the back end with a few caveats.
MALONE: Now, look; all of this is like an opening offer. NPR would still need to negotiate with Shaked. But Shaked does offer something more valuable than money – well, at least to Robert and me, who coincidentally get no cut of this deal as NPR employees, but whatever. Shaked said that if Micro-Face somehow does get made into a movie, we can report on the whole process – the casting calls, the financial dramas, the hot gossip from the movie set.
SMITH: Ooh, scandal.
MALONE: Hell, Shaked said maybe Robert and I could even get producer credits.
SMITH: Assistant producer.
BERENSON: I think you have the perfect combination of know-how to tell a story because you guys are storytelling – storytellers like myself. And when you combine that with the brains of economics, the sky is not even the limit.
SMITH: Money and storytelling – I think we just got Holly-wooed (ph).
MALONE: As of this moment, there are a lot of people at NPR in contract negotiations with Shaked closing a deal, hopefully.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: And on the final page of our comic, we see a crowded auditorium.
UNIDENTIFIED PRESENTER: And the Academy Award for best picture…
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: “Micro-Face,” the movie.
ARONCZYK: “Micro-Face” is nominated for six Oscars, including best sound mixing and best sound editing.
SMITH: That’s just amazing. Let’s get some more people up here onstage.
MALONE: Here, here, here. Here’s Peggy Loucks. Peggy, your father created this character, Micro-Face.
PEGGY LOUCKS: Oh, Dad, I hope you’re watching because I know you’d be just the way I am, and I’m just shaking in my shoes here. And, oh, what a wonderful day.
SMITH: And, Alex Segura, co-president of Archie Comics, come on up here.
MALONE: Yeah, Alex, you helped us reboot this, but also, you did also say Micro-Face had an unfortunate name.
ALEX SEGURA: Oh, it’s still unfortunate, but we made it work.
SMITH: Oh, and here is Micro-Face’s friend from the public domain.
GENE LUEN YANG: (As Green Turtle) Hey, guys.
SMITH: Ladies and gentlemen, the Green Turtle.
YANG: (As Green Turtle) Nice.
SMITH: You know, when we started this series, we thought it would be easy to make a superhero – just sit back and make money just like Marvel Studios does. But we realized that there are a million tiny decisions to make, a million ways you can send your character off in the wrong direction. It’s kind of like being a parent, I guess. Oh, and we are so proud of our little Micro-Face tonight.
MALONE: And let me just say, I know it’s been five years, everybody, but the comic’s on its way. It’s coming. We promise. Thank you. Thank you so much.
ARONCZYK: And in the final panel of the final page, we see sitting in the back of the auditorium is Micro-Face. But he’s not applauding. He’s listening.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Micro-Face, help me.
MALONE: (As Micro-Face) Hold my superhero soda. I’m off.
ARONCZYK: And with that, we close our comic book.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ARONCZYK: But remember; life is not a comic book. In reality, Kenny and Robert still had Micro-Face work to do and Micro-Face products to sell.
(SOUNDBITE OF INON ZUR’S “HEROES LEGACY”)
SMITH: All right. One more time for the very last time, Kenny, let’s shill some products.
MALONE: Hulk shill.
SMITH: We will let you know about the progress of the movie and the musical and the radio play. If you want to keep following this project, the best way is to buy the Micro-Face comic book. We’ll be sending regular updates on the comic book production and what we’ve learned from writing a comic book. You can get that at npr.org/micro-face.
MALONE: While you’re there, pick up a product or two. We got T-shirts. We got socks. We got Micro-Face Gouda cheese. We have the best superhero soda around. And you can now preorder the sheet music to Timothy C. Takach’s song “Amplify” – great for high school choirs or church choirs. I’m looking at you, Mom. That is available at npr.org/micro-face.
SMITH: Today’s episode was produced by James Sneed. It was edited by Liza Yeager. Our sound engineer is Gilly Moon. Bryant Urstadt is PLANET MONEY’s editor. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer.
MALONE: The song from the Micro-Face musical was sung by Tristan J. Shuler (ph). Special thanks this week to Jocelyn C. Hagen (ph) and Chris Carrasco (ph). Very, very special thanks to Jacqueline Vong, who spent a lot of time talking us through the world of toymaking. I’m Kenny Malone.
SMITH: And I’m Robert Smith. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF INON ZUR’S “HEROES LEGACY”)
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