Disney's purchase of Marvel Enterprises puts the house of Mickey Mouse in the superhero biz

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

1 September 2009


Make way for the amazing Spider-Mouse.

In an entertainment-industry stunner, the Walt Disney Co. announced Monday that it was buying comic-book giant Marvel Enterprises for $4 billion.

The purchase will give the house of Mickey Mouse access to about 5,000 characters in the Marvel Universe — Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Hulk and more — which in recent years have leaped off the printed page to prove immensely popular with moviegoers.

Industry insiders say the deal also was a clear effort by Disney to strengthen its appeal to young men who might be lukewarm to the studio’s family-friendly and tweener fare of the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana.

“It’s extraordinary news. I’m still reeling,” said Leonard Maltin, the “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent whose book “The Disney Films” is considered a definitive look at the studio’s output. “Disney has never been in the superhero business. So this is a quantum leap in terms of their potential audience and their traditional branding.”

Many Marvel fans, however, weren’t ready to replace their ages-old battle cry of “Make Mine Marvel!” to “Make Mine Mickey!” Instead, they took to Internet message boards and fan sites to declare the death of Marvel Comics.

Marvel’s editor in chief, Joe Quesada, told fans on Twitter to chill.

“This is incredible news and all is well in the Marvel U(niverse),” Quesada wrote. “... If you’re familiar with the Disney/Pixar relationship, then you’ll understand why this is a new dawn for Marvel and the comics industry.”

While many details of the stock-and-cash deal are still emerging, Disney has said it will honor Marvel Entertainment’s commitments to other film studios.

Rights to the “Spider-Man” film franchise, for example, are owned by Columbia Pictures. The Incredible Hulk belongs to Universal Studios, the X-Men to 20th Century Fox.

Disney presumably won’t get its hands on those prime Marvel franchises until those contracts expire. But even some of the publisher’s minor characters can be quite profitable.

Last year a film based on the previously little-known Iron Man became a huge hit for Paramount, with a sequel coming next May.

“This is a great way for Disney to reinvent themselves in the comic-book world,” said industry analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Media by Numbers. “You don’t necessarily associate them with those comic-book entities. Now they’re making a very clear mission statement that they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

Requests for comments from Quesada or other officials at Marvel were denied, but in statements released Monday, the heads of both companies said the purchase was a chance to meld Marvel’s characters with Disney’s marketing expertise.

“Disney is the perfect home for Marvel’s fantastic library of characters,” said Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter. “This is an unparalleled opportunity for Marvel to build upon its vibrant brand and character properties by accessing Disney’s tremendous global organization and infrastructure.”

Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger said that “adding Marvel to Disney’s unique portfolio of brands provides significant opportunities for long-term growth and value creation.”

He added that Perlmutter’s team will continue to oversee the creation and handling of Marvel characters.

Maltin said it makes sense for Disney to hang on to the people who have brought Marvel so far.

“A large part of what they’re buying is that Marvel name and reputation — I can’t imagine they want to dilute that,” Maltin said.

“I don’t think you’ll see the Marvel name diminished in any way. I can’t imagine Disney would try to micromanage Marvel’s business. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Disney name is inconspicuous on future Marvel projects.”

Jason Aaron, who writes comic books that feature Marvel’s Wolverine and Ghost Rider, said the company has operated outside of a strict corporate structure, giving writers and creators a lot of freedom in the stories they tell.

“Coming out of the blue like this announcement did, you have concerns about whether it will affect what I do,” Aaron said. “It’s always been more fly by the seat of your pants. You wonder if this will change things. But everyone I’ve talked to at Marvel is really excited about the deal. They don’t feel it will change what we do. And the idea of Pixar people doing stuff with Marvel characters is really interesting.”

Other observers were dubious that Disney could keep a hands-off approach.

“This is indicative of the larger consolidation going on in the entertainment industry,” said comic-book author and film producer Jeff Katz (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”). “This is only going to continue, and you’ll see other major moves like this. Our entertainment-content universe is shrinking while distribution is expanding.”

For several years Disney distributed the animated films created by the independent studio Pixar, finally purchasing Pixar in 2006 for more than $7 billion.

That move re-energized Disney, which now lays claim to Pixar talent, its characters and the brand’s soaring popularity. Moreover, Pixar Chief Executive John Lasseter took over the studio’s animation division, not only launching new computer-animation projects but reviving the studio’s traditional hand-drawn animation.



Disney’s top five worldwide box-office earners, 2007-2009:

—“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”: $309 million
—“National Treasure: Book of Secrets”: $220 million
—“Ratatouille”: $206 million
—“Enchanted”: $128 million
—“Meet the Robinsons”: $97.8 million

—“WALL-E”: $224 million
—“Bedtime Stories”: $110 million
—“Bolt”: $114 million
—“Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”: $142 million
—“Beverly Hills Chihuahua”: $94.5 million

—“Up”: $289 million
—“G-Force”: $112 million
—“Hannah Montana: The Movie”: $79.6 million
—“Race to Witch Mountain”: $67.1 million
—“Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience”: $19.2 million
(Still to be released this year: “A Christmas Carol,” “Old Dogs” and “The Princess and the Frog”)

The worldwide box-office totals of films based on Marvel characters in 2007-09:

—“Spider-Man 3”: $337 million
—“Ghost Rider”: $116 million
—“Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”: $132 million

—“Iron Man”: $318 million
—“The Incredible Hulk”: $135 million
—“Punisher: War Zone”: $7.95 million

—“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”: $180 million

(Source: Internet Movie Database)

Topics: comics | disney | marvel
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