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IDW takes aim at disrupting the market for comic book TV

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Source: BBC America

A few years ago, comic book publisher IDW Publishing had licensed one of its properties to 21st Century Fox to be developed for television, but the studio decided to drop the project.

The top brass at IDW was frustrated. Believing the project had potential and should have moved forward, IDW decided to shake things up. The company would no longer simply license comics to studios and take a passive role — it would partner with production houses to develop its own properties, and kick in part of the early financing.

That meant two things. IDW would have control of the creative process, from scripting pilots to setting series formats. It would also retain worldwide rights to its series, where much of the profit is to be made.

Today, the bet appears to be paying off. The company's first show — the gun-slinging horror series "Wynonna Earp" — wrapped its first season this summer and has been approved for a second on SyFy. Next week, BBC America will debut "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" a series created by science fiction legend Douglas Adams and published in comics format by IDW.

The response to "Wynonna" has been kind of overwhelming. The fan base for that show is unlike anything I've ever seen before. It's just passionate in a way that you kind of dream that people will respond to what you're doing.
Ted Adams

IDW isn't stopping there. It's preparing to shop around a pilot script for its supernatural thriller "Locke & Key" — the project Fox passed on — and developing its dystopian "Winterworld" for television. Its modern-day werewolf tale "Brooklyn Animal Control" is undergoing a pilot rewrite and reshoot for USA Network.

"It would be a lot, but if we could get five shows on the air, that would probably be sort of our long-term goal," IDW CEO Ted Adams told CNBC on the sidelines of New York Comic Con last week.

That would be no small feat. Disney-owned Marvel Studios has six shows now streaming or in development at Netflix and airs "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" on ABC. Time Warner subsidiary DC Entertainment has seven live-action shows on network and cable channels.

IDW is by no means a small company, but it's much smaller than Marvel Comics and DC. There was no guarantee it would find the success the industry titans had translating their iconic properties into television and film.

But at New York Comic Con, it was clear IDW's "Wynonna Earp" — a show about a demon-hunting descendant of Wyatt Earp — is resonating.

Melanie Scrofano and Tim Rozon from "Wynonna Earp" interact with fans at New York Comic Con.
Thomas DiChristopher | CNBC

During a panel with the show's creators and cast, fans rushed to the front of the room to snap selfies with actors Melanie Scrofano and Tim Rozon, who eagerly crammed into the shots. Later, the crowd roared with applause when showrunner and genre television darling Emily Andras announced the second season would run 12 episodes, rather than the previously announced 10.

"The response to 'Wynonna' has been kind of overwhelming," Adams said. "The fanbase for that show is unlike anything I've ever seen before. It's just passionate in a way that you kind of dream that people will respond to what you're doing."

The show has struck a chord among LGBTQ viewers in particular. More than one fan at the panel expressed thanks to Andras for including a gay character in Officer Nicole Haught, who struck up a relationship with Wynonna's sister Waverly in season one.

"It's not a pandering relationship. It's treated like any other relationship in the show, and people are really looking for that kind of representation in TV," Adams said, adding LGBTQ people "just don't get to see themselves on TV much."

Although "Dirk Gently" stars two white men, IDW and its production partner AMC sought to once again cast an ensemble that reflected a diverse viewership, and will strive to do so with future shows, Adams said.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Source: BBC America

Just as "Wynonna Earp" has drawn in producer Emily Andras's cult following — her fans call themselves "Fandras" — "Dirk Gently" stands to benefit by locking in Elijah Woods to play the titular detective's assistant Todd. The actor is a noted booster for comics and fantasy and has starred in fanboy-friendly productions, including the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Robot Chicken" and "Sin City."

Casting Woods "was a dream for us," said Adams. "He's just such an amazing actor. He just gives the show so much credibility because of who he is."

It's still early innings for IDW, but its investment in early stage television development shows signs of paying off.

"Wynonna Earp" airs on Spike TV in England and about a half dozen other territories. It will become available to U.S. Netflix customers, and IDW has a deal with the streaming giant to carry "Dirk Gently" around the world.

Disclosure: CNBC and are owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of SyFy.