THUNDARR THE MOVIE or How I Almost Created Kickstarter

Well, this is a blast from the past! thundarr-the-movie-presentation

Patrick Sullivan, over on Facebook’s Charlton Arrow page, found in the archives of Charlton Comics a copy of the old and long since forgotten Thundarr The Barbarian movie treatment I wrote for Ruby-Spears, one of the last things I did for them as a salaried employee (though I came back for a couple of freelance gigs).

How it wound up at Charlton I have no clue, but I suspect somebody was trying to make a comic book deal as Charlton was well known at the time for publishing TV tie-ins.

Thundarr The Movie is an interesting bracket to the Thundarr TV series because it was intended to be a prequel, telling the origin of the Sunsword, how Thundarr came to possess it, and how he teamed up with Ookla and Arial to fight wizardry and super science and evil mutants on the ruined Earth of the far, far future (i.e., post 1990).

On the other side of the actual Thundarr TV series, a proposed follow-up series.

Let me back up a bit and set the stage and context…

Joe Ruby and Ken Spears are the guys who created Scooby-doo. This set a lot of dominos in motion until they ended up in charge of their own animation studio.[1]

They had some success with weekend and afternoon specials, but their first -- and arguably biggest -- post-Scooby hit was Thundarr The Barbarian.

I’ve posted elsewhere on my involvement with Steve Gerber and Jack Kirby and Mark Evanier and Marty Pasko and a host of other well known and not so well known creative geniuses[2] who shaped Thundarr.

Thundarr lasted a paltry two seasons, and when the series was taken out behind the barn and shot put to pasture, Joe Ruby had us explore options to keep the basic idea going.

IIRC John Dorman created a canine version called Thundogg The Barkbarian while Jack Kirby conjured up Eric The Rude, an intelligent barbarian kangaroo in Thundarr’s world.

None of these saw light of day beyond some preliminary art.

One possibility Joe wanted to explore was turning Thundarr into a feature film.

If memory serves correctly, Steve Gerber was already strapping on his parachute to bail on Ruby-Spears so Joe handed the development task over to me.

Let be back up a bit further and talk about Ruby-Spears’ feature film ambitions:  They always had a desire to do an animated feature but could never get any traction. Steve Gerber and Jack Kirby (along with numerous other R-S staff artists) developed an idea called Ripoff which was to have been the ultimate mash-up funny animal parody of all 1980s movie genres featuring a Burt Reynolds-like dog and a Sally Field and / or Dolly Parton-esque canine counterpart (another idea called Animal Hospital, art by Jack, started as a TV series pitch but ended up being incorporated into the Ripoff presentation).

Joe asked me to develop a sci-fi detective series derived from inspired by Blade Runner and I came up with an idea called Numan, the last private eye in the world of the future (2020, IIRC). The idea quickly proved itself too edgy for TV at the time and so it was ported over as a feature development.[3]

Another couple of stray ideas may have been briefly considered for theatrical film development but for the most part that was it before Thundarr The Movie.

Thundarr was a frustrating situation for us. It was by all rights a popular show and character and we should have secured any number of marketing deals, but nobody could ever make a go of it.

This was before the big syndication boom of the mid-1980s[4] and so the last chance for Thundarr before disappearing into the mists of TV history was to get a feature film off the ground.

I suggested a prequel to the series, one that would be grittier and grimmer[5] than the TV version, with a little more oomf! to the violence and a whole lot more boomba-boomba-boomba if you know what I mean and I think you do.

The problem was finding financing and distribution for a film.

You’d think that in Hollywood that would be easy: Somebody would cough up a few million bucks to make the movie and others the millions needed to distribute it.

Well…no.

Numer-o uno: Nobody was making independent animated features at the time -- especially straight forward action-adventure science-fantasy -- so there was no marketing model any distributor could follow to success.

Numer-o two-o: The rights situation at Ruby-Spears was already starting to grow messy. One reason there has been virtually no authorized merchandising off the show is that Ruby-Spears eventually was subsumed by Hanna-Barbera, their chief rival, and H-B in turn was absorbed into Turner Broadcasting (or Media or Pictures or Studios or whatever the hell they were calling themselves that minute) and soon after that Turner hizzownsef was bought out by the Brothers Warner and today there’s virtually no one at Warner Bros animation who knows about, much less gives a rip, for Thundarr The Barbarian. The feature film threatened to become even messier rights-wise.

Still, we were determined to give it the old college try.

My premise altered the backstory a bit: Instead of a comet nearly destroying the Earth, it would be the Sunsword itself that wreaked the havoc.

An indestructible alien weapon of immense power, it was lost millennia ago in an epic space battle between two alien species. The inert hilt fell towards Earth, shattering our moon when it hit but slowing down enough as it passed through so as not to utterly destroy the Earth when it landed here.

As best I recall (we went through several drafts and kicked a lot of ideas around) the story proper would pick up with Thundarr and Ookla enslaved by Arial’s wizard father. Arial is not a wholly virtuous character though she is demonstrably better than her father. When they learn of the existence of the Sunsword from advanced alien scouts, she sets off to find it first. Thundarr and Ookla either escape and kidnap her in order to find the Sunsword first so as to keep it from falling into evil hands, or (depending on which draft it was) she drags them along to do the grunt work.

In any case, the story reaches a climax in which our three protagonists plus her evil father plus both still-warring alien species plus the local mutants actually in possession of the Sunsword all go for the weapon at the same time.

All hell breaks loose but Thundarr eventually prevails and Arial comes to realize there may be something to this goodness thing after all, and we end at a point sometime before the very first regular episode.

As hard as it may be for some of you die hard Thundarr fans to fathom, nobody wanted to give us a few tens of millions of dollars to do this.

Two things I do recall vividly: First, Joe was really opposed to my idea about the mutants who possessed the Sunsword until our protagonists show up. My idea was that the hilt would have crashed into the middle of a championship football game so that thousands of years later a religious cult was grown up around the Sunsword, one in which the priests wear religious garments patterned after football uniforms, the high priests would be dressed as referees, the temple choir would sing football cheers in the manner of Gregorian chants (“Rah, rah, sis, boom, bah…”), etc., etc., and of course, etc.

‘Cuz my approach to the material has always been “embrace the absurdity”.

There are plot holes and logic gaps in Thundarr big enough to fly a fleet of Airbuses through wingtip-to-wingtip so if you’re going to have a future where indestructible handheld weapons shatter moons and wipe out civilizations as the result of an unintended impact, you might as well go all the way and pile the wild ideas on top of each other.

I seem to recall Joe allowed me to keep the basic idea but insisted we water it down considerably.

The second thing I recall was that I came up with the idea of funding the film by pre-selling tickets.

Now, that’s not a big thing in these Kickstarter / Patreon days, but at the time it was a pretty radical idea.

I know Ken Spears chuckled at the idea when I suggested it, asking how we were going to sell tickets before the movie had even been filmed.

I had an answer for him, an idea stolen from Kenner’s Star Wars Christmas gift coupons:  We’d sell certificates that could be redeemed at theaters for admission when the film was released; theaters would be encouraged to participate because since those members of the audience had already long paid for their ticket, they’d have money to buy popcorn and candy and soft drinks[6].

Ken eventually came around to my way of thinking insofar as he agreed it was possible, but wasn’t convinced enough to want to make the effort to find out if we could actually pull it off.

So that idea -- and Thundarr The Movie -- died aborning.

It’s a pity, since if we had done the movie and the follow up TV series we proposed -- Thundarr The King -- then we could have had a really nice animated epic that would have spanned our hero’s life from young adulthood to a (physically) mature man and father of twins.

What? You never heard of Thundarr The King before?

Well, let me tell you that story…

…some other time.

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[1] How they met, teamed up, came to create Scooby-doo, and the aftermath leading up to the creation of Ruby-Spears Productions is a fascinating story in and unto itself but one for another time.

[2] Plus some insane maniacs; R.I.P. John Dorman.

[3] Joe disliked the name (a nod to New Wave musician Gary Numan) so we changed it to Skanner (a nod to David Cronenberg’s Scanners). I know I spent a lot of time world building for the show, but aside from a few stray details I have nothing substantial to share. I did create a futuristic patois and cadence for the characters to speak, but can’t recall much more of it than his introductory tagline: “Dub me Numan; I peep.”

[4] Not that the syndication boom would have done us much good as it was almost entirely focused on other people’s toys and almost never on new and / or original characters.

[5] Hey, those words weren’t hackneyed back then!

[6] And theaters don’t have to share any concession sales with the distributors or producers.

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964)

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