Well, the results are in, and Marvel’s latest movie, Iron Man 3, is an unqualified success. For any other studio, the numbers would be enough to set off a shawarma-filled celebration worthy of Tony Stark, but for Marvel, it’s pretty much par for the course at this point. The studio’s last five movies have all opened to more than $65,000,000 in their first weekends, and they’ve each ultimately gone on to gross a solid multiple of that sum. That’s almost a Pixar-esque level of consistency, and it begs one very sensible question. How the hell has Marvel been so successful?

The easiest and most simplistic answer is that they’ve hired the right writers and directors, geniuses like Joss Whedon, and given them the money to create special movies that have been hits with both critics and fans. Unfortunately, the truth is far more complicated than that. Not only is the link between great reviews and box office returns in superhero movies less pronounced than you might imagine, history is filled with scientific, mathematical, philosophical and creative geniuses who couldn’t earn profits for either themselves or the men who employed them. Socrates, Nikola Tesla and Johannes Gutenenberg all died with less money than most of us were gifted in saving bonds as children.

Individual films are like giant group projects, and their ultimate success and failure relies on some perverted version of trickle down economics. In order for a writer or director or actor or special effects whiz to be in a position to create something people want to see, they need the right amount of studio feedback, the right amount of money, the right expectations, the right locations, the right co-workers and the right personality. Over the past several years, Marvel has worked hard to create that ideal environment by making one good decision after the next. Now the brand of Marvel is so powerful the general public expects a certain level of quality. The studio’s name itself is the ideal marketing tool.

Here are the five decisions that turned Marvel Studios into the juggernaut we’ve all grown to love…

Regaining Rights To Characters
Back in 1996, Marvel Comics emerged from bankruptcy with Avi Arad at the helm. Under his leadership, Marvel began commissioning screenwriters and hiring directors to put together projects involving its characters that could be licensed directly to studios. By staying so proactive, it allowed Marvel to maintain a measure of control and to make sure the projects didn’t get stranded in development. During the late 90s and early 00s, the company was able to work out lucrative licensing deals with Columbia, Lionsgate, Sony, Artisan and more. All of these agreements gave Marvel a nice cash flow and allowed it to distance itself from the bankruptcy problems. Unfortunately, they also required the company to cede some control too.

In an attempt to rectify that situation, Marvel executives have spent the past several years actively working to reacquire the rights to many of the previously licensed characters in order to make the projects on their own terms. Iron Man was reacquired from New Line Cinema. Thor was picked up from Sony. More recently, Ghost Rider and Blade and Daredevil all found their way home. Pretty much all of the major characters Marvel has used over the past several years were once farmed out, and while some of them have licensing agreements for distributions or co-productions now, Marvel is still basically in control of the ship, which wasn’t really the case before.

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