Confessions of a comic book geek

Alumni, Headlines — By on October 11, 2017 3:03 pm

LA-based alumnus Shane Thompson talks to Judy Wilford on a recent visit to his home town.

If Shane Thompson hadn’t been a kid who loved comics, he wouldn’t have been doing what he’s doing now. If he hadn’t had a passion for collecting Star Wars figures and smurfs, he wouldn’t have been nearly as good at what he does.

And the job couldn’t even have been his childhood dream, since nothing like it existed then. Shane, an alumnus of Auckland (BA 1995) is based in Los Angeles as vice-president of Integrated Marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures – which means he works across all the marketing departments including the team responsible for all the ancillary products that help support the movie they are working on, but are in a separate revenue stream from the movie itself.

These include the sound track, video games, mobile games, DVDs, blu-ray and direct digital marketing through TV.

They also include consumer products such as the toys, collectibles, action figures and t-shirts he used to collect.

“Interestingly,” says Shane, “that’s where a lot of the money is made. We might spend $150 million to make the movie, plus tens of millions more to market it. “But when you have to split profits with the movie theatre chains and other participants – that means you have to sell $500 million plus worth of tickets to make it break even. This means a lot of the profit comes from the ancillary revenue down the line.

“We have to ask ourselves the questions: Are we going to make $50 million from the products? $10 million from the sound tracks? $40 million from home entertainment? These are all factored in when they greenlight the movie.”

Shane’s first step towards this kind of work came in the year 2000, just a few years after his graduation from Auckland and a few months into his OE in London. A former colleague from New Zealand was working in a licensing agency that had just signed up on a new brand from Japan called Pokemon.

“It was new, it was big in Japan,” says Shane, “but it hadn’t yet gone offshore. An American investor had just bought the rights for the rest of the world and suddenly had this property that was exploding and they had no idea how big it was going to get.

“My former colleague said why didn’t I apply for the job. So I went in and met the head of creative. I didn’t have the background or experience but I think it was my passion and interest in learning about it that got my foot through the door. They only offered me three days a week”, says Shane wryly. “They weren’t sure how long this Pokemon craze was going to last.

“I was earning £16,000 a year, could barely afford to rent a room but I knew it was something I was excited about.” Over the next few months Shane learned as much as he could – before receiving another call from his helpful former colleague. This time the job was with the company working on the Spider- Man movie. “Again it was being a comic book geek that got me the job,” says Shane. “A little passion and enthusiasm goes such a long way.”

Next came an unexpected offer of work from Warner Bros. on Batman Begins, which was filming in London and being directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale and Liam Neeson.

“It was one of those interesting crossroads in your life. They wanted someone while they were filming, they said it would last nine months and they couldn’t promise beyond that.” In other words it was another risk, but one that paid off well.

“I was a production liaison, working on set every day, helping gather information for the companies developing all of the products and video games. They needed to know what the characters looked like, what kind of shoes they wore, what their clothes were made of. I would supply dimensions, samples, swathes of cloth.

You have to develop relationships with the film director, the actors, the art and costume designers. You’re embedded in the production.

“In this first movie I think the filmmakers and studio saw that I really wanted it to succeed. Luckily that has led to me working on every movie of those filmmakers since.”

These have included the later Batman films (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), plus sci-fi dramas, Interstellar and Inception, the recently released World War Two drama Dunkirk for Nolan – as well as Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman for producer Charles Roven.

When I talked to Shane in Auckland, filming had just started on Aquaman on the Gold Coast in Australia. He’d taken a flying trip across the Tasman but was due back next day to plan the Aquaman range of toys in liaison with the movie’s production designer, and global toymaking company Mattel.

“We have to think, are we doing 20 or 30 products? What are they going to be? Will there be 12 action figures, eight vehicles, three play sets? They want to know what little children would want to play with, how they would interact with them.

“And that’s what you want – to have people fully involved with the movie. They don’t just want to watch it on the big screen. They want to interact with it, take it home and play with it. You’re building life-long fans.”

Next steps are to have the models built, returned to the film-makers for approval, painted in the US then sent on to China for mass production and distribution, carefully-timed to place them on the shelves just eight weeks before the movie opens.

“That’s when it all comes together,” says Shane. “Warner Bros. will be selling the movie. You’ll see it on the TV, the buses, the billboards; the kids’ll be buying the toys.

“It all comes together in a crescendo by the time the movie starts. And I’ll see people wearing our t-shirts and think ‘wow, that’s great. They’re helping promote the movie and they’re even paying to do it.’” Shane admits to being “a big kid at heart,” who would have been a great consumer of the products.

“I’m lucky to have held onto that part of my childhood because I still look back on it fondly. Here in New Zealand my mum still has my comic book collections in boxes.

“For years, and years she used to ask ‘When can I get rid of those boxes of comic books?’ – that I’ve been collecting probably since I was eight.

“But now I don’t think I’d ever be able to let them go. If I hadn’t been a child who always had his nose in a comic book, I wouldn’t have this understanding of the worlds that were created in those books. Even within my company now I think one of the reasons I’ve been successful is that I’m one of those people who are seen as experts, one that the others can turn to and ask, ‘Would that have happened in the comics?’ And I can say – ‘yeah’. “There’s a lot to be said for finding a way to combine your career with your childhood passions and I think it’s such an amazing place to get to in your life. “I’d do this for much less money.” He sits back for a minute. “But I’m also glad they’re paying me what they do,” he adds with a warm smile.

I asked Shane about his most exciting moments.

Wonder woman movie poster“One of them is going on right now,” he says, “because I worked on Wonder Woman, which seems to be having a cultural zeitgeist moment, and deservedly so. It’s a wonderful movie, the highest grossing film by a female director, and the first movie with a lead female superhero that’s doing so well.

“Watching the series in the 70s, I was that kid glued to the TV who would try to spin around like Wonder Woman did to get into her costume. Linda Carter was my idol.”

The value of “Wonder Woman” as a role model was affirmed by her selection last year as “honorary ambassador” to the United Nations for the empowerment of women and girls.

Shane was involved in promoting the film in the context of that programme, a highlight of which was the speech made on the day of the presentation by Wonder Woman actress, Gal Gadot. (Though a personal highlight for Shane was meeting Linda Carter, the original Wonder Woman from the 70s series).

But there was a disappointment, as Shane explains. “The programme wasn’t so well received within the UN as we had hoped. When the announcement was made a group of women within the UN protested that Wonder Woman was not a good role model for women and girls: she was a fictional character who wore skimpy clothing and girls shouldn’t have to aspire to be a particular body type. This was frustrating because I don’t think people fully understood that this character had been around for 75 years and stood for so many great things to so many people and they had reduced her to one physical aspect.

“But many women were also supportive. They were saying: ‘Why can’t we be smart and strong and still be beautiful and feminine?’”

This job that he loves doesn’t come without stresses, Shane admits.

“You’re working in LA, with top directors, top talent, sometimes temperamental personalities. I just try to do the best job I can and not get too involved with that.

“Sometimes when we’re having a bad day we look at each other and chorus together: ‘But we’re making dreams come true’. It’s somewhat sarcastic but also somewhat real.

“Or someone will ask me ‘How are y’ doing today?” and I answer ‘Livin’ the dream’. And once again it’s partly ironical – but then, it’s also true.”

Shane was the first in his family to go to University; he has now generously funded a scholarship to give others the same chance.

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