On March 30, 1990, a force disrupted the American film business known as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Despite critics who almost universally dissed the film, Turtle fans showed up in record numbers to prove wrong both critics and all of the studios that had turned down the opportunity to produce a film based on the comic books and graphic novels that Mirage Studios had introduced to the world from North Hampton, Massachusetts six years before. Mirage was Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman who had created the characters and story then self-published a comic series that is iconic in the extreme.
The movie smashed box office records for an independently produced film and gave New Line Cinema another feather in its multi-layered hat where the Freddie Kruger franchise of Friday the 13th movies had propelled the small distributor into notoriety and to future acquisition by Warner Brothers.
This is the story of how the Turtles came together as a movie as told by the writer and producer of the film. It is a recollection of events that happened over the past 30 years in anticipation of the 30th anniversary of the release of the film. Why thirty years has become so important in the life cycle of films and when to celebrate them is a mystery, perhaps a nod to the marketing in all of us, 30 is just another opportunity to make money.
Some say 30 is a mystical, magical year as it seems to mark when people mature into true adulthood. For Turtle fans, 30 may mean the opposite, perhaps a mental age barrier we’ll never cross because the fantasy that is the Turtles is stuck solidly in teenage sensibilities that include lots of close-to-stupid acts, laughter ‘til it hurts moments, and anxiety out the gazoo. And an abundance of pizza!
Regardless of why we celebrate things, there’s an urge in all of us to share the things that we liked or were popular with a new generation of fans.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came from the imagination and hard work of Kevin and Peter who started one of the most popular comic book franchises of all time. And COWABUNGA, DUDE!” became part of the lexicon of youth and perhaps the strangest and most endearing heroes ever created. Together with Mark and Renee Freedman who owned Surge Licensing, Mirage and the many artists and creatives who became employed there, built one of the most expansive Intellectual properties of all time.
What happened to propel that indie comic book to global stardom as an independent movie? As with any phenomena, the path to the silver screen for Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello was just as unusual and unlikely as the Turtles themselves.
Fall of 1987
Gary Propper (“GP”), former champion surfer from Cocoa Beach, Florida turned concert promoter was managing comedian Gallagher and touring the US playing primarily 3,000 to 5,000 seaters. In the late summer of 1987 GP booked the Fox Theater on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan for a Gallagher performance. Wherever GP traveled he would always find the local comic book store, because comics represented the best in graphic literature for him. He wandered down Woodward Avenue and discovered the (now) Vault of Midnight where he searched for new offerings from Kitchen Sink or Dark Horse like Xenozoic Tales or Scout War Shaman which he had optioned for movie rights. He discovered the 3 ½ year old 1st issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the small Massachusetts house, Mirage Studios.
GP was an immediate fan and bought every copy in the store. He went back to his hotel and called his office back in LA to speak with his production partner, Kim Dawson who was producing Gallagher specials for Showtime, among other projects. GP’s wife Ruthann and Kim heard GP going off about these Turtles who were perfect to make into a live-action movie because the characters were so fantastic with potential for great comedy that could target both kids and young adults who would become fans of the comics and whatever else would grow out of Mirage’s creation.
Ruthie looked at Kim and mouthed something to the effect that he wasn’t crazy, just being GP so Kim responded with “Overnight the comic book, Gary, so I could see what you’re talking about.” The next day FedEx delivered the package of three copies on the comic, called GP and discussed strategies to obtain the rights to make the comic into a live-action film. “Just call these guys Kevin and Peter, and get the rights.” We can put comedians’ voices into the Turtles’ personas and make it hysterical. By that afternoon, Kim was on the phone with Mirage and Peter who referred all questions about rights to Mark Freedman of Surge Licensing, who had become the licensing representative for all things Turtles just a few weeks before.
That call became the beginning of an option rights agreement that gave GP and Kim the rights to put a movie package together for just the live-action film rights. Mark revealed that he had already secured a “toy deal” with Playmate Toys and that he was entertaining several offers for the live-action film rights. Kim immediately contacted Tom Rowan who was the entertainment attorney for he, GP and all of their TV enterprises. Tom, the son of famed comedian, Dan Rowan added Jay Shanker to the conversation who had more experience on the feature film side of things and was “of counsel” to Tom’s firm at the time, specializing in film packaging.
So began a negotiation that would last a month between Jay and Surge/Mirage attorney Mickey Hyman who was an expert in intellectual Property rights management and control. Together, GP and Kim put a deposit in place to insure Mark, Peter and Kevin that they were serious about their intentions.
In short order, Kim was armed with comics and the early Playmate press material that Surge would use for securing additional licenses for merchandising the brand which was about to explode.
While GP continued to tour with Gallagher, Kim was planning a new Gallagher special for Showtime. He commuted from Newport Beach to Pacific Palisades where Gary and Ruthann had their offices. Kim had called his old friend Bobby Herbeck who was a noted stand-up comedian and comedy writer. Bobby was writing a film for Golden Harvest Films out of Hong Kong, the company that made the Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan martial arts box office hits. Kim felt that was the perfect company to do the TMNT film. He told Bobby, “They have the best martial arts guys in the world. Put them in the Turtle costumes and dub the voices and your home free. A no brainer!” when they met for lunch on the grassy knoll at the Westminster In ‘n Out Burger.
Kim shared the comic book with Bobby and asked if he’d be willing to start working on a screenplay that would ultimately become the TMNT Movie. Bobby was unabashed in his enthusiasm and followed up the following week by getting together with Kim, Gary and Gallagher to brainstorm ideas for the script.
They all recognized that the comic book was, in fact, a storyboard that would provide visual stimulus, but GP insisted that the story and dialogue had to have a special brand of humor that would separate it from everything else that was in the marketplace ….
The Turtles were totally unique, even unheard of when it came to comic book characters. But failed films like Howard the Duck and Garbage Pail Kids, which were both based on comic book characters, didn’t have the special something that was embedded in Kevin and Peter’s creation.
So began, the journey of these three unlikely business partners whose backgrounds spun mostly around TV and comedy to be sure, but not so much in feature films.
Bobby set off to sell the idea to Tom Gray at Golden Harvest, which did not strike his interest at first. There’s a lot more story to tell before a film deal could be made, but that’s a chapter we will tell next week and over the coming months as fans celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.