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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.
Deciding To Self-Finance
If reacquiring the rights to characters is the first logical step in exerting an increased level of control, the second logical step is most definitely self-financing in order to keep the lion’s share of the profits. Starting in 2007, Marvel was able to do that after chairman David Maisel secured a revolving credit deal with Merrill Lynch that allowed the studio to finance its own pictures without needing direct cash on hand. The value of the characters themselves was used as collateral; so, there was little meddling from any of the lending agencies, giving Marvel itself almost complete control over basically every step of the process aside from distribution.
Having too many people involved is rarely a good thing. More often than not, it’s best if there’s a singular vision and that vision comes from the top. With its own funding stream, Marvel was allowed to create that environment. That’s not to say there weren’t or aren’t checks and balances within Marvel from conception to completion, but two people employed by the same company are probably more likely to share a vision than two executives from different companies with different interests.
Selling To Disney At The Right Time
When Disney first acquired Marvel for $4 billion back in 2009, there was quite a bit of worry as to whether Mickey Mouse would somehow ruin the badass, burgeoning empire the studio was creating. Four years later, I think we should all be pretty comfortable admitting that didn’t happen.
Like every other company, Disney likes making money, and while it’s not above cross-promoting, the company has long shown a willingness to let properties be that turn a profit. ESPN operates almost like a separate company without too much oversight from the larger Disney brand. Had Marvel been sold years earlier to Disney when it was signing the type of licensing agreements that only generated a fraction of the Spider-Man profits, you can bet your ass executives would have been breathing down the company’s throats about ways to whore out its characters to push into the black. Since the renaissance had already happened, however, the larger studio has seemed happy to let Marvel forge its own path, much to the benefit of the fans.
Having A Long-Term Plan
You know what happens when you don’t have a long-term plan? You end up with a disorganized, years in the making mess like The Justice League. You know what happens when you sit down and plan out a direct path? You build and build to something as wonderful and full of life as The Avengers. Over the past few years or so, rather than scrambling, Marvel has executed a multi-part plan that has used its movies to generate excitement for future movies.
The powerbrokers have planned out individual films years in advance, and they’ve remained in constant contact with their collaborators to include as many unifying strings as possible. Consequently, when viewers step into the Marvel Universe at the movies, they’re viewing a world that feels fully fleshed out and full of possibilities. Individual directors aren’t rewriting rules or stepping on each other’s toes because they’ve all taken enough meetings and collaborated enough to feel on the same page. Synergy is a wonderful thing.
Balancing Comic Book Fans And The General Public
Marvel cares about comic book fans. It cares enough to hire directors that really love the source material, and it cares enough to make sure little details are inserted that only true fans can appreciate. Then again, Marvel also cares about reaching out to the general public and attracting people who have never stepped foot in a comic book store. It wants nothing more than for thirteen-year-old cheerleaders to leave with smiles on their faces alongside twenty-nine-year-old hyper-nerds. Sometimes that involves pissing off comic book fans a little bit and sometimes that involves exploring ideas that might not necessarily be as geared toward everyone.
You can’t please everyone all the time, but Marvel has done an incredible job of pleasing most people most of the time. By sometimes following the spirit of a comic book character pretty slavishly and sometimes taking a sharp left-hand turn to offer genuine surprises, the studio has found the balance between fresh and familiar, and there’s no reason to think that’ll change at any point moving forward.