Why the Creator of ‘The Walking Dead’ Turned Down a Lucrative Food Licensing Deal

Part two of my interview with Robert Kirkman and David Alpert, co-founders of Skybound, on the tension between art and commerce… and why ‘The Walking Dead’ food didn’t make sense.

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BY Jeff Haden - 07 Mar 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

You might think the most unlikely feat the creators of The Walking Dead pulled off was beating Sunday Night Football in the ratings.

But that pales in comparison to creating a company that enables themselves and other creators to maintain control of their properties across all platforms. Typically, creators give up much if not all of the creative -- and financial -- control over their intellectual properties when they sign with a studio. So Robert Kirkman and David Alpert co-founded Skybound, a studio that enables creators to maintain control of their properties across all platforms.

Partners have access to the company's film, television, comics, video games, licensing and merchandising divisions (what they call the company's "Wheel of Awesome") to build their franchises.

In part one of my interview with Robert and David, we talked about the origins of the company and how they applied their creator-led approach to The Walking Dead video games.

Now we'll look at how their model works for creative entrepreneurs -- and the business of creativity.

Say I have an idea for a comic book. Say my idea is actually Robert's new book, Oblivion Song. I approach you. What happens?

David: If that's your idea, Robert and I will definitely like it. (Laughs.) Then we'll take you to meet our editorial department and get buy-in between you and them. You make your directly to them. We don't tell them, "We're doing this." We want them to believe in your project, too.

That's where studios historically have failed. They force departments to take on projects. They force a property across brands, and in the process the creative soul gets lost.

Then we take you around all the different spokes around what we call the "Wheel of Awesome" and get buy-in as early as possible from all the different departments.

We do that because we want them to be excited, but we also want them to give you their feedback early on.

And if every other department sees your idea and says, "There's no t-shirt here," or, "There's no movie"... we still do comic books just as comic books. We're a company that operates trans-media -- but we don't have to exclusively do trans-media.

We'll be excited if we "just" do the comic book. But if our games group gets excited, now we have two spokes on the Wheel of Awesomeness. If our games group and our comics group is excited, then the merchandise group is likely to get excited... then TV... then the VR group, the live events group... and suddenly you're the CEO of all these different properties.

Is it rare to find a creator that is interested in the business side as well?

Robert: Speaking for myself, I enjoy the business side. I enjoy the corporate side. I feel like that's been my strength from the beginning, looking at all angles of a story and figuring out how to sell and position it while I'm writing it. So I've always been mindful of those things, and I get a real charge out of seeing Skybound bring new creators into the fold.

love being a part of that aspect of the business.

There are also boring aspects of running a company like this, but I let David handle those. (Laughs.)

Our partnership leaves me time to do my own things, which is very important. I still write The Walking Dead comic, I still write Invincible and Outcast, I'm launching Oblivion Song... that, plus the TV stuff, keeps me very busy.

Let's talk about that. How do you juggle all of those different creative projects?

Robert: It's obviously fairly complex to have all these different stories going, but having a full day creatively is great. I do have to move from project to project, but being really excited about what I'll do next helps me focus on wrapping up what I'm doing now. That feeling of finishing so I can start something new helps drive you.

It also makes you really tired.

Is it distracting to have plenty of your own projects going yet also be looking for other creators to bring into the Skybound fold?

David: To be honest, one of the best parts of doing this is when we find something great. And it's even better when our team brings in someone like Donnie Cates and Redneck.

That's when it feels like the machine is really working. It's not just Robert and I pitching our story to people, it's also our people who believe in the culture and go out and find great creators.

That's the most fulfilling aspect. When we sign off on a book... that's when we feel like the system is doing what it should be doing.

Working with incredibly creative people isn't always easy, though. You take on a fair bit of risk when you take on a creator and his or her project.

Robert: We taking giant leaps of faith. We gamble on the people we work with.

One positive side of the studio model is that when they strong-arm a creator out the door, they have complete control. That's not always a dumb move -- it's a risk-averse model. They think, "Why tolerate this potentially crazy person in our stable organization?"

So yes, we face that, too. It's a real risk. If you give the keys to the Wheel of Awesome to someone that is not fit to drive, it's a problem. And we've been in positions where it hasn't worked.

David: But that comes with our basic premise of doing things differently. No one has built a studio that makes media across so many platforms, especially with such a creator-friendly vision... and we want to fulfill that promise. That means taking risks, both commercially as well as on people.

The right people should be eager to partner with you, though. A creator with an entrepreneurial spirit should love your model.

Robert: Breaking into comics wasn't easy for me. I banged my head against a lot of walls, had lots of failures and plenty of stops and starts... so we've tried to create an environment where creators can skip some of those steps I lived through.

That's very important to me. The Skybound deal is something that would have really been exciting for me early on.

Entrepreneurs like to solve problems, and we feel Skybound solves a number of problems for creative people.

At what point do you step in and basically reel in a creator's vision if you don't feel it will work?

Robert: That's an interesting question. Riding that line is the sweet spot. When you're scared of an idea... when you're really not sure if it will work... that's one of the reasons we empower our creative department heads to make those decisions. They're at the cutting edge of their fields.

But scary ideas is the new of the game when you're trying new things. "Is this too weird?" is a question we often ask ourselves. The Walking Dead was something I was very passionate about, but it was very difficult to get off the ground because there weren't any successful zombie stories in existence, and hat make publishers averse to the idea.

When you do things that aren't safe, you're going to be scared. Whether you should be too scared to try them... that's the question.

Along the same lines, how do you balance art and commerce? You're in a creative business, without business you don't get the opportunity to create.

David: Robert and I balance each other fairly well. We realize we're going to make mistakes along the way, but as long as we stay true to our principles and what is best for the creative aspect of the business, we'll be okay.

But that doesn't mean each individual decision is easy. We received a license proposal from Food Lion that was incredibly lucrative. It was really great deal, I loved the quality of the product, there was a significant financial component involved... and Robert said, "No."

I was like, "Dude, what do you mean? It's a great product. There's a lot of money involved."

He said, "I just don't see Food Lions on The Walking Dead. We have TWD coffee, TWD wine, those are all fine for me... but food, no."

In my mind I wanted to whip out a spreadsheet to show him the numbers, but then I thought, "No, he's right. I don't need to understand why that doesn't work, but what's important is that he's willing to tell me no."

Robert: I know that can come across like "crazy creative people are wrecking our business," but we empower people to do that. I made a seemingly arbitrary decision that The Walking Dead food doesn't feel good to me -- but trusting the intuition of crazy creative types is something that strengthens us as a company.

Even though there are also specific examples of where it has held us back. (Laughs.)

So why does something like TWD wine work?

David: When we started talking about wine, the conversation naturally turned to how you would sell the wine. Normally you talk about the romantic story of how the wine was made, how you had to climb three days on a yak to get to the top of the hillside where the grapes were grown... you have to tell a story when you sell a mass market wine.

Telling stories is something we know how to do.

The way people market wine in stores is through shelf talkers, and we thought, "What if we make the bottle the shelf talker? There's an AR component: You hold your phone up in front of the bottle and the zombie pops out of the bottle, shatters the glass, and eats your phone.

Or, if you put the bottle with Rick on it next to another bottle, Rick and the zombie fight.

The Walking Dead Trio connects our narrative with a good product at a good price, and there's a collectable component involved, too. That fits within our world. Robert was comfortable with that.

But not food. (Laughs.)

Robert: In a broader sense, we're always 1000 percent aware that no matter how passionate we are about something, we can never match the level of passion of the creator. That passion is something that helps drive decisions -- and also helps drive our company.

Another common conflict with art and commerce is deciding when something is "done." Many creative people feel they have to compromise excellence to meet deadlines.

David: Let me challenge the premise to that question. We don't ever have to make that compromise. Granted, a great work of art is never "finished." You could rewrite a script a million times.

But one of the reasons Robert and The Walking Dead is so successful is that he's published every month for fifteen years. Sure, we will argue up until the last minute and make it as perfect as possible... but then we have to ship.

The tension between those two things is what makes great work happen. Making deadlines is part of the creative process. You can always make something better, but if you take three years to write one issue, who will read it? You have to tell a story with regularity and rhythm or it's not a story.

Robert: I like to think I'm productive, but I'm always behind schedule on something. I'm as much of a self-loathing, insecure re-writer as anyone... so for me, a project is done when don't want to look at it anymore. That tells me it's time to move forward.

When do you decide to put something aside?

Robert: I do that all the time with new ideas, but I don't really discard anything. I keep a working document of all of my ideas.

Like with Oblivion Song: I had the nugget of the idea ten years ago, and it very much evolved and changed and got better every time I revisited it.

Five years from now, where would you like Skybound to be?

David: Bigger than Disney. (Laughs.)

I'm going to walk that one back. We have the same type of vision, but we don't need to be that size to have a huge impact on the culture writ large.

What we are really trying to do is create the studio of the future: Great creators, creative-friendly policies, and the application of digital processes that allow us to move exceptionally fast.

We want to be the creator-friendly studio for the digital age. That's true now... and will still be true five years from now.