By Benjamin Mullin, The Wall Street Journal
Former chief of 21st Century Fox is beginning to invest some of the $2.2 billion he made from the sale of the company’s major entertainment properties
James Murdoch is planning to splurge on comic books.
Mr. Murdoch, who served as chief executive of 21st Century Fox, will personally reap $2.2 billion from the $71.3 billion sale of the company’s major entertainment assets to Walt Disney Co. , according to people familiar with the matter. He is looking to take the bulk of his proceeds and strike out on his own.
One of his first bets is a $5 million stake in a comic-book publisher.
Although Mr. Murdoch hasn’t settled on a final figure, the people say he could spend as much as $1 billion through a holding company he has set up. The company, called Lupa Systems, will be the primary vehicle for investments that will include both ownership and minority stakes in tech and media businesses, according to people familiar with his thinking.
Among Lupa’s initial bets is a stake in Artists, Writers & Artisans, a venture-backed publisher of comic books led by Bill Jemas, the former publisher and chief operating officer of Marvel Enterprises. AWA, which was founded last year, wants to create a universe of characters that it can license for motion pictures, video games and other merchandise in the same way Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has spawned a franchise worth billions of dollars.
“The value of storytelling is only going up, and AWA is uniquely positioned to create a tremendous platform for writers and artists,” Mr. Murdoch said.
Mr. Murdoch, who is 46 years old, plans to make investments in South Asia and has already opened an office in Mumbai, led by veteran TV executive Nitin Kukreja. Lupa also has offices in Manhattan and currently employs between five and 10 people, according to a person familiar with the company.
Mr. Murdoch is starting Lupa without financial contributions from his father, Rupert Murdoch, or his brother, Lachlan Murdoch, one of the people familiar with the matter said. The Murdochs were major shareholders in 21st Century Fox and still own significant stakes in News Corp, which owns The Wall Street Journal.
The AWA investment by James Murdoch is part of a $12.5 million fundraising round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, which is investing at least $5 million, according to people familiar with the matter. Jonathan Miller, former chief digital officer at News Corp, is chairman of AWA’s board and facilitated Mr. Murdoch’s investment.
AWA’s backers say the rise of movie franchises driven by an interrelated universe of characters—such as “The Avengers” from Walt Disney Studios and “Justice League” from AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros. studio—has spurred demand for intellectual property to populate new streaming services.
“There’s an arms race for great content right now, between Netflix, Amazon Hulu and Disney itself, with Disney+,” said Alex Taussig, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners. “There’s an unprecedented amount of capital right now chasing the next ‘Game of Thrones.’”
AWA plans to distinguish itself from comic-book rivals like AT&T’s DC Comics and Disney’s Marvel Comics by guaranteeing creators a percentage of the licensing deals it strikes, said Mr. Jemas, the company’s chief executive. When a movie studio options a character or story from AWA’s shared universe of characters, 20% of the revenue from that deal will be paid out to all the artists and writers who helped create those characters, Mr. Jemas said.
For most mainstream superhero comics, writers and artists create stories on a work-for-hire basis, meaning that they don’t hold any rights to any of their stories, Mr. Jemas said. As a result, any payments they receive if stories they work on are optioned by Hollywood studios or their characters are licensed to appear on merchandise typically depend on the individual creator’s deal or are at the discretion of the publisher.
“Looking at the entertainment market right now, I’m not seeing deals that are fair,” Mr. Jemas said.
AWA’s stable of writers includes Garth Ennis, who cocreated the “Preacher” franchise, and J. Michael Straczynski, the “Babylon 5” creator who has written stories for Marvel’s “Amazing Spider Man,” “Thor” and “Fantastic Four” comics. The company’s staffing includes a mix of freelance contractors and full-time employees.
The comics in development include “Archangel 8,” which follows a renegade avenging angel, “American Ronin,” a story about technology-enhanced operatives working for mammoth corporations, and “Bad Mother,” which examines crusading matriarch April Walters.
AWA has about 50 freelance employees working in two-person teams to create comics, all of which will be distributed to comic book shops next year. The company has no revenue but plans to be profitable on an operational basis once the comic books are distributed.
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