By MARC GRASER for Variety
Last week, Disney wasn't in the superhero business, having distributed Pixar's "The Incredibles" but produced little else to capitalize on popular comicbook characters. This week, it's poised to become the owner of Marvel and its vast array of crime fighters and villains.
The deal between the two companies, valued at $4 billion, would put Disney in charge of the comicbook factory that launched Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America and other iconic characters.
Most of those established characters will remain ensconced at their current studio homes, at least for the foreseeable future. But the pact, which Walt Disney Co. topper Robert Iger called "a great opportunity at the right time," nonetheless has the potential to yield billions of dollars for Disney by turning Marvel's library of more than 5,000 characters into movies, TV shows, Internet properties, theme park attractions, videogames, toys, licensed merchandise and, of course, comicbooks.
In return, Marvel gains the marketing and distribution muscle to turn its characters into bigger brands, especially overseas, where it's been focusing much of its efforts lately.
Although the deal caught many in Hollywood by surprise, Disney had been pursuing Marvel for some time, mainly because it has been eager to identify properties that will help target an audience of younger boys more aggressively across multiple platforms. Disney's animated films, the Disney Channel and product lines featuring its princesses and fairies have appealed more to girls.
Ironically, Disney had already brokered a first-look production deal with Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk, and his Pow! Entertainment, as part of plans to produce more male-skewing programming. It had also started airing Marvel-produced fare on Disney XD, the cabler formerly known as Toon Disney, that the Mouse retooled to target 6- to 14-year-olds.
The Mouse-Marvel deal, Lee said, "gives Disney a library of literally hundreds of unique and colorful characters that have the potential to make great, high-concept movies and long-lasting franchises -- and nobody knows how to play in that ballpark better than Disney."
What Disney gets via the acquisition is a curious mix.
Until Marvel started taking more control of its properties by self-financing and producing its own pics in 2005, with "Iron Man" and the reboot of "The Incredible Hulk" as the first films to emerge under the new mandate, the company had been setting up its higher-profile characters at various studios around town.
Sony, for example, has Spider-Man, while Paramount locked down Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Avengers. Universal distribbed the Incredible Hulk and New Line released Blade, while the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Daredevil have been housed at Fox. Marvel had also set up lesser-known properties like the Punisher at Lionsgate, which also distribs Marvel's direct-to-DVD animated features.
While a percentage of the coin collected by films such as the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" franchises go into Marvel's coffers, buying Marvel doesn't give the Mouse House immediate control of all those characters, if at all.
"Our intention is to respect the deal in place," Iger said of the current pacts, calling it "the right thing" to do.
- Sony will continue to control Spider-Man through a deal that doesn't lapse. Three more pics are planned for the franchise, with the next set to bow in summer 2011.
- Paramount will continue to distribute Marvel's next five pics, starting with the "Iron Man" sequel next summer and including a planned third installment.
"This distribution deal will be unaffected by today's transaction," a Paramount rep said. That deal will likely be renegotiated once the final film is released.
- Fox retains the right to make movies based on Daredevil; the Fantastic Four, which includes the Silver Surfer; and the X-Men, which spun off a separate Wolverine franchise this summer, as long as the studio has films based on those characters in active development.
Disney will also have to figure out how to work around a deal between Marvel and Universal's theme parks in order to start building attractions at the Mouse House's own venues.
Through a long-term licensing pact, Marvel is a fixture at U's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla., with several rides and a significant portion of the park themed around the comicbook giant's superheroes.
"Marvel Super Hero Island and the Marvel characters are an important part of the Universal Orlando experience," a Universal spokeswoman said. "They will remain so. Our agreement with Marvel stands for as long as we follow the terms of our existing contract and for as long as we want there to be a Marvel Super Hero Island."
That means characters currently featured -- Spider-Man and his villains, Wolverine and other more notable X-Men, as well as the Hulk and Captain America -- will remain in U's parks, and the existing deal prohibits Disney from building a new ride around them. Anything else, however, is up for grabs, including an Iron Man ride.
"If it's not in our parks, it can be in theirs," said one insider.
Despite the other deals, Disney gains a lot of characters to work with. Most of Marvel's library has yet to be exploited beyond the pages of comicbooks. And while many characters are unknown to most consumers, marketing mavens have launched franchises from such lesser-known properties in the past.
Many in Hollywood initially wondered whether "Iron Man" would strike a chord with auds, considering the character is more obscure than Spider-Man or DC Comics icons like Batman or Superman. The film earned $585 million worldwide.
The terms of Disney's acquisition, which is expected to close by the end of the year, involves both cash and stock.
The $4 billion figure is far less than the $7.4 billion Disney paid to pick up Pixar Animation Studios in 2006. But it still makes Perlmutter, Marvel's largest shareholder with 37%, a very rich man.
The exec is expected to collect as much as $881 million and 21 million more shares of Disney stock, worth $587 million, through the deal.