Last last week Valiant vp, sales and marketing Matthew Klein reached out to me to make himself and publisher Fred Pierce available for an interview. The world and comics were in one place a few days ago and in a very different one just a few days later. Pierce and Klein were the first industry interview that I’ve done since Diamond announced they would no longer ship new product. With the knowledge that things could change radically in just a few hours, Matthew and Fred graciously spoke candidly about a number of developments for their company, including talling freelancers to stop work on upcoming projects. (Marketing manager Gregg Katzman was also on the call.)
Earlier in the day Pierce had released a statement about Valiant’s commitment to retailers, as well as tonight’s Bloodshot viewing party (the film has just been released on VOD), and free digital comics. You can read that statement here. We covered a lot of that and more in a talk that hints at just how hard a balancing act this crisis is for everyone in the industry. Thanks to Fred and Matthew for their time.
The Beat: Because things are so fluid it feels like everything’s changing hour to hour, but, as of this moment, 1:00 PM on Tuesday, March 24, how is Valiant reacting to this crisis?
Fred Pierce: Basically we, as of yesterday, we found out that Diamond will not be shipping for the month of April. We already have three products that were in the pipeline for April. and we have a fourth that’s being prepared, and then we’ll have to see what goes on. We are trying to ascertain, like everybody else, when does everything come back? I’ve been through these kinds of things before. I was running Wizard during 9/11 and Walter, who’s our head of finance administration and all of that he’s run big book of the month clubs. So we’re trying to guess what’s going to happen, with everybody else. If the industry comes back in May, June, July, August, we’ll have a rolling number of plans. I don’t think we can do much more than that. We’ll have to redo the budgets. Our main concern is our staff and we’ll do the best we can for the health of the retailers. We’ve already been reaching out to the retailers.
Matthew Klein: We made sure that the sales staff and the marketing staff are in touch with the retailers every single day. We’re making phone calls or sending emails or reaching out on messages, just to touch base. We want to keep track of how many shops are keeping their doors open, what are the adjusted hours and operations? How can we support them. Is it sending packages out to them, for something that they can sell? Is it plugging them on social media, which we have an ongoing thread for? I think [we have] close to about a hundred stores, that we’re trying to spread the message for, to let our customers know and people in the industry know, “Hey, the shops are still open and they’re doing everything they can to serve the community and anyone who needs a bit of escapism and maybe, a good read during this time while they’re stuck indoors.”
Today we released a great statement from Fred to the industry in support, letting people know that we’re here for them. The situation changes, it feels like, hourly at this point. And as Fred said, it’s a question of all right, for right now, how can we be there for our retail partners? How can we be there for our fans? How can we make sure that the company comes through this, stronger, on the other side. and, and make sure that the staff is okay and everybody that we’re working with is okay. So those are, those are the biggest priorities right now. And as things change, we adapt and move. And the beauty of Valiant is that we’re a company that can adapt and be flexible.
The Beat: Just so people reading this understand, you say you had three products going out and one that was in the works. What will happen to these products?
Klein: [They are printed] so either the printer will hold them or Diamond will receive them but not send them out.
Pierce: We’re finishing Doctor Tomorrow #3 right now, because that was supposed to go on sale in three weeks. We’re bringing it to completion. Anything else we do will be on a rolling basis depending on what’s happening with the company. Our plant is staying open, and I’m in constant touch with them.
Klein: So I’m not quite sure which it’ll be right now, but as soon as Diamond resumes operations, they’ll be ready to get right into stores.
The Beat: Obviously we’re all going through some moods but I have been reading some retailer reactions to Diamond’s announcement and it was actually surprisingly positive. A lot of retailers seem to be kind of relieved that during this time when they couldn’t open, that they were not going to have to deal with giant shipments and the billing. So it wasn’t quite the doomsday scenario that some people might’ve thought. Is that possible?
Pierce: Matthew can go into the retailer reaction better than I can. But I think the main thing I was hearing from the retailers was they were afraid of in incurring all of this debt, taking product that they can’t sell because the doors aren’t open. And I think everybody was happy because now we know what the situation is for some short amount of time. One of the problems you have is dealing with 20 different what ifs.
Klein: Absolutely. And I think that an uncertainty right now is the biggest driver of fear, more than anything else. There was a lot of fear about when or if Diamond might need to cease operations, including with Federal and state closures for those distribution centers. Once the move actually happened, there’s some definitive, okay, so now we know how we have to approach the situation. So I agree. I don’t think that from an industry perspective, it’s all doom and gloom. We know the challenges we have to face and now we can focus on them.
The Beat: Yeah. I was also happy to see that a lot of retailers are selling via their mail order and their curbside pickups services. Customers that had with pull lists were still picking up their comics. They haven’t seen massive attrition yet. Valiant has a very strong community of fans and – I know I’m being Polly Positive here – but I don’t think we should underestimate the strength of the community that we have.
Pierce: I’ve been in a lot of industries and what people don’t always know is how much of a [community] the whole comic book industry is . It’s really our strength.
Klein: It’s true. It’s more than just a business. It is a community and I think that shop owners see a responsibility to their customers and to their community, especially during times like these, that galvanizes them. The sense of being a part of something, I think that runs rampant in the retailer community. And I think that that sort of love and support for others during difficult times is something that you see reciprocated from the fans and customers. This is not like any other retail industry I’ve ever worked in, where the types of interactions become very rote and automatic. No, this is your shop, the people that are working there are in customers’ lives. And there is a sense of connection that people want to hold on to during times when it’s the hardest. These are hard times and I think it’s a true testament to the support that comic shops have for their communities and their resilience that they are doing everything they can to keep those operations going.
The Beat: Now that we’ve had some very positive, good feelings, let me ask you a couple of questions. [general laiughter] There’s already a lot of uncertainty about digital. What can you say about whether you will be releasing comics digitally, or if new products will go out in that way?
Pierce: Our feeling at the company and my feeling for the last 30 years in the industry is the core strength of the comic book industry is the comic book shops and the people who walk into the comic book shops on Wednesdays. Anything that we don’t release into a comic book store, we will not be releasing digitally. We first service the comic book stores, and then we service as digital.
The Beat: So to address another big one, the Bloodshot movie came out and it was kinda caught up in this pandemic. It’s out today on home video and we might all just be watching it because we’re here at home. But how much has that affected your publishing plans?
Pierce: We’re having watch parties this week actually, but Heidi, to speak to the Bloodshot movie, look, last Tuesday to the consternation of my family, I flew out to California and I was at the premiere and I was at the after party. It was phenomenal. and the movie was number one worldwide. We did almost $25 million worldwide. We were clearly expecting to do a lot more than that but we were the number one release for that week. So in a challenging market, we did as well as we could have. Sony is doing a great job getting it out to video so quickly. and I think people will be surprised. I think the movie over delivers to what people are expecting and it’s. Vin Diesel movie and Vin Diesel is great and so is the director Dave Wilson. It’s a great movie and I think the Valiant fans will be happy with it. This is going to be the basis of a launch of other Valiant movies. So, I don’t think we could have asked for a better opening.
The Beat: I know it’s hard to say since, as you mentioned, uncertainty is the greatest driver of fear. But how do you approach your publishing plans going forward? What is that like day to day?
Pierce: Well it’s just happened. So we’re trying to figure out is what is best. When the industry re-emerges what do the retailers and our fans want to see from us? Those are conversations that we’re having now. There were books in the works, that will either go out or be resubmitted. How should we put our best foot forward? Retailers are going to be inundated with choices, how do we make sure that they do what’s best for them and that we don’t get lost in the flood? I think the Valiant fans are very vocal and they’ll let everyone know what’s going on. We have a lot of books for September, October and November that are already completed, big launches that we had planned for the end of the year. We still have never shipped late. We’re gonna have a Savage launch, when should that go? We know we’re going to have a Final Witness launch. It got such a tremendous reception when we promoted it. So when should that go? So we have queued up about six or seven very big things, and we have to decide how to launch them. The comic book industry today is working on July Previews.
Klein: It’s one of those things where you have to create a Plan A, B, C and D, because right now you’re working on, as you put it, a fluid kind of time table. And the key too is that you’ve got great products, but you have to do, to Fred’s point, what is best for the retailers and the fans and what is best for the company and try to figure out where all three of those intersect. And so it’s something that we reassess daily. We’ll have 10 ideas on how to do this and be ready to go once we get the word.
Pierce: We also have to try to ascertain what the rest of the publishers are going to be doing as they re-emerge.
The Beat: Obviously we’re all concerned about retailers, the sales apparatus of the industry, but the pipeline begins with creators. I have heard some companies are telling their freelancers to put their pencils down. How is this affecting the freelance community that you are working with?
Pierce: Unfortunately, we did have to tell a number of the freelancers to put their pencils down. That is something that made me personally ill, because I’ve been working in this industry 30 years and I always imagine some freelancer working out of their apartment and having bills today. But at this instant in time, it wouldn’t be fiscally prudent. We’re finishing a number of the books that are in the works, but with a number of the books we had to tell them what their pencils down. It’s painful, but unfortunately, it was necessary.
Klein: And it’s a matter of postponement. Right now , we’re staying in touch with them. Editorial is doing a phenomenal job of keeping the relationships going. We’re trying to make sure that we can help these freelancers get supported and be boosted on social media. We’re still supporting them promoting their online shops, promoting virtual con appearances, which has been fantastic to see. Even some of the staff members were buying commissions from some of the artists right now. So we are doing everything we can to make sure that they feel supported as possible.
Pierce: To a person, they were very understanding.
The Beat: I appreciate you guys being, being candid with that, I don’t think it’s any time to fudge about things because again, fear is the enemy. Has the economic situation and starts of a recovery in China affected you at all?
Pierce: Heidi, we are not owned by a Chinese company. Dan [Mintz] who owns us is from Staten Island. He did live in China for a while, but this is an American company. We have nothing to do with China. We’re not owned by a Chinese [conglomerate.]. That’s one of the many misstatements that continues.
The Beat: It’s widely believed you have Chinese investors though? [To clarify, DMG Entertainment, which owns Valiant has significant business ties in China.]
Pierce: Nope. We have one investor, Dan, who has been involved with the company for five or six years now. Dan was the primary investor with the previous administration and he loved the company so much he decided to decided to acquire it. [The supply chain in China] has as much to do with us as it does with you. We don’t sell in China. It’s not an issue for us. If everybody just learns that [we’re not owned by a Chinese company] it’ll be great!
The Beat: Fair enough. To wrap things up, what can the individual comics fan out there do to help?
Pierce: I think continue buying the product that you want to buy from your either favorite retailer or your favorite online service. Continue reaching out to the talent and see if they can do commissions for you. That’s monetarily, but I think socially people need to understand that they’re not alone. This will not go on forever and we all really need to support each other. So if you’re a fan and you have something you’ve really wanted to read for awhile, a lot of stores have inventory. You can go online and figure out the inventory. Be in touch with people. I have to tell you, so many people have reached out to me and I’ve reached out to people I haven’t spoken to in years this weekend.
The Beat: Same here.
Klein: This is a time of coming together. This is the time to reach out. And when you are getting those reads, share them. Let people know what you’re reading, trying to keep the conversation going in a similar way that you would when you’re in the shop. And that’ll help people feel a little less isolated out there. One of the greatest things about the community is the dialogue that we all have with each other. And this is a time more than ever to keep that dialogue going. This is the time more than ever that we need to feel connected.
Buy those comics from your local shop, through their curbside pickup, their delivery systems, their shipping systems, talk to that artist if you can. Go to their virtual store, buy a pin, buy a print. Show it off. Let the community see what you got and keep sharing that knowledge, keep sharing those discoveries, keep sharing that escapism. And as long as we keep sharing, we’re going to feel like we’re still there with each other.
Pierce: Every day we’re releasing a number one book for people to read for free online. And we’ll be having virtual viewing parties for Bloodshot today. There’s your plug!
The Beat: Thank you both. It’s good to talk to you and connect. We’ll get through this somehow.
Pierce: We will and we’ll be, if not stronger, we’ll be just as strong as the other on the other side.