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Disney and Marvel: A Primer

Well, that certainly came out of nowhere.

In a blockbuster deal announced on Monday, The Walt Disney Company
announced plans to purchase Marvel Entertainment in a deal worth $4
billion in cash and stock. That means Howard the Duck and Donald Duck
are now brothers, and Disney now gets to finally create that Champions
movie we’ve all been waiting to see. They also get the rights to minor
characters like Spider-Man, Wolverine, and The Incredible Hulk, but
that’s beside the point.

Frankly I’m amazed they kept this secret. When Disney bought Pixar,
there were rumors flying around for weeks before the deal was
announced. There was no inkling whatsoever that Marvel was for sale.
And if there would have been, Disney would have been the *least* likely
candidate. Marvel actually was suing the Mouse to get back the animated
series in the former Saban/Fox Kids library. The deal has apparently
been in the works for some time, long enough for Marvel executives to
meet with John Lasseter. Perhaps the deal was incubating long enough
for the two companies to hammer out deals for the Disney-owned Marvel
cartoons, which began showing up on marvel.com with “Marvel Animation”
logos affixed to the end.

There are more questions than answers at this point, and true to form
fans of both companies are fretting about the small stuff. I’ll attempt
to list the issues, concerns, and the all-over interesting things
associated with this deal, starting with the one point everyone needs
to consider.



Disney is buying Marvel to attract an audience – boys and teenagers – that they don’t currently reach.


Disney is having success with general families, younger kids, and of
course, teenage girls. They’re having problems with boys and teenagers.
Disney just doesn’t do superheroes or effects-laden blockbusters, and
the few boy-centric properties they own – Gargoyles and Power Rangers -
have struggled simply for this reason. With no heroes or blockbusters,
its more traditional family films have been getting killed at the box
office. This is the reason Disney XD has been getting the push that
it’s been getting.

Marvel rectifies that problem, though they’re not going to be feeling
the effects right away. What they are getting is a company that knows
superheroes and blockbusters – and doing it a lot better than Disney
right now. Their expertise can certainly help the rest of the company,
and will help the feature unit when Marvel Studios can start
distributing films through Disney starting in 2012. This same thinking
led to the purchase of Pixar.

The Disney Company is different than the Disney brand.

If Sony was buying Marvel, and not Disney, would there be the same kind
of furious and worried reaction? My guess is no. Time Warner, Sony,
Viacom are all faceless corporations with equally faceless names.
People don’t have a particular attachment to those names. It’s
different with Disney. Disney built its entire mega-corporation on the
strength of that one brand. It’s why when you walk into a video store,
there is a “family” section and then there is a “Disney” section. That
name stands for a certain kind of family entertainment. It has an
identity.

But so do ABC, ESPN, Miramax, Touchstone, and Pixar, and they are all
Disney-owned. Everyone keeps confusing The Walt Disney Company with the
Disney that comes to mind when we hear the name. When that name is
involved in conversation, irrational fears come up about Disney’s image
automatically being applied to the product when it’s almost always the
exact opposite. Disney does not put “A Walt Disney Company” on the
logos of any of these brands. There is synergy between the units
(Disney movies get flogged on ABC, Pixar at the theme parks, etc.), but
for the most part they’re run completely separate.

Disney takes great steps to disassociate each unit from the Disney
brands. Movies have been moved from Disney to Touchstone because of
content. The first PG-13 “Disney” movie was in 2003 with Pirates of the
Carribean. Power Rangers has NEVER worn a Disney logo and it’s been
owned by them for 8 years. Disney’s strategy is to build these units up
as their own brands; they can’t rely on Disney as a crutch because of
that vaunted image.

Therefore, Marvel guys will run Marvel; Ike Perlmutter is staying
despite a hefty payout and so are Joe Quesada and other key Marvel
creatives. Disney is not promising to put a “stamp” on Marvel
creatively. You will not see “Disney/Marvel” in the way you see
“Disney/Pixar”. While movies will (eventually) emerge from Disney’s
distribution channels, they will not be introduced with the Disney name
or logo. They will either bear the name Touchstone, Buena Vista, or
(most likely), simply “Marvel”. Nor will Marvel comics, movies, or
cartoons suddenly be sanitized for content.



Disney isn’t doing Marvel movies or theme park attractions. Yet.


Many of Marvel’s properties are mixed up with other studios. Sony has a
deal in place to do three more Spider-Man movies. Fox is believed to
have a deal to use the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil in
perpetuity, as long as they keep making movies. Universal holds some
film rights to Hulk, although what form that takes is uncertain. While
Marvel is now producing films itself, including the now-lucrative Iron
Man franchise, the next five films are to be distributed by Paramount.
(Marvel, of course, gets to keep the profits.)

And for all those waiting to see Spider-Man cavorting with Mickey at
Disney World, you’ll have to keep waiting. Those characters will still
be at rival Universal in Orlando for the foreseeable future – they also
have a perpetual license.

Now, will the future eventually see Marvel films coming out through
Disney distribution channels, and Marvel characters and attractions at
the Disney parks? Of course! Disney is simply honoring all existing
agreements and then bringing everything in-house when those deals
expire, which could take up to a decade or more.



Animation is a question mark right now.


Marvel has been mightily trying to re-establish an animation wing in
the past few years. They’ve had some successes in the DTV market as
well as with some internally-produced series such as Wolverine and the
X-Men. They also had a strong hand in helping make Sony’s Spectacular
Spider-Man just that. They are heavily promoting their new Super Hero
Squad show on Cartoon Network. Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley are now
involved with the animation side as well as the comic book side, so
animation has become a clear priority at Marvel.

There is going to be some overlap with the animation divisions, but not
as much as you would think; the output is different between the
studios. Disney TV is focusing on things like Phineas and Ferb, and
does not have a very strong slate of shows as the focus at Disney is on
live-action. The only major action property Disney TV has done is
Gargoyles, and that was a decade ago. Again, Marvel is doing things for
an audience Disney isn’t currently reaching.

One unfortunate question mark is “Spectacular Spider-Man”. According to
Ask Greg, the rights to Spider-Man in animation have reverted to Marvel
proper. This means that the future of Spectacular Spider-Man is up in
the air at this point. It is conceivable that production could move to
Disney; other recent shows such as Johnny Test have done just that.
Hopefully this great series will live to see another day.

Marvel Comics will likely operate as it is now.

Again, Marvel is primarily a licensing and production company that
happens to publish comics. Publishing is a fairly low priority at
Marvel; it’s the other media that brings in the revenue. That won’t
change with Disney. I’m not convinced that the arrangement will be
“just like DC and Warner”. Marvel will still be a fairly large
independent entity within Disney. DC is tucked within the deep bowels
of the Warner Bros. Entertainment subsidiary.

It remains to be seen how the merger will affect the company’s output,
or if it will be integrated in some way with Disney’s own publishing
division. Joe Quesada will likely remain in charge and he is assuring
everyone that Marvel Comics will remain just that.

There is concern, though, that some of Marvel’s more experimental ideas
will fall by the wayside. I don’t think this is unreasonable, for
exactly the reason I stated above; people confuse Disney (the company)
for Disney (the product). For protests, there is no bigger target than
Disney; and in some cases it doesn’t matter if the product says
“Disney” on it. There shouldn’t be a problem since they’re keeping
Marvel as a separate unit, but there’s always the chance they decide
that, say, a gay Rawhide Kid isn’t worth the headache.



Now, Disney Comics on the other hand…


Disney has had a long-standing interest in comics publishing for
awhile. Slave Labor Graphics has produced comics based on Disney
properties like Gargoyles. Boom! Studios has picked up the license for
the more family-oriented properties such as Pixar and the Muppets and
recently picked up the classic titles such as the Disney Ducks. Disney
is even trying to restart its own line of self-published graphic
novels, known as Kingdom Comics.

Now, of course, Disney owns the world’s largest comic book company, so
all of these deals are now being thrown into question. Why farm out
those duties to other companies when you can do it in-house? Marvel
might not assume these publishing duties right away – as with the movie
deals, they’re honoring existing contracts. If the movies are going to
eventually go to Disney, then it stands to reason the comics will
eventually go to Marvel.



But then comics don’t matter. Licensing does.


Marvel has not been a “comic book company” in the purest sense for some
time now. It is primarily a licensing and production company that has a
publishing component. The bulk of the money comes through licensing -
and Marvel has the fourth biggest licensing department in the world,
valued at over $5 billion dollars. Disney, of course, has the single
biggest licensing department – SIX times larger than Marvel ($30
billion) and with an arguably broader reach.

With most of the movie rights tied up and the comic book unit a small
part of the company, licensing will be the main source of income at
least in the short term. It’s very likely that Disney’s licensing
division will take over responsibility for Marvel’s characters after
the sale is closed. And it’s a sure bet that Marvel characters will
show up in Disney stores; if the Power Rangers have a place there, then
surely Spider-Man does.



It might be Luke Cage’s time to shine.


Iron Man was a second-tier character, respected by Marvel Zombies but
largely unknown to the public at large. That is, until the movie came
along. Now, everyone knows who Tony Stark is, and the Iron Man sequel
is one of the most anticipated movies of 2010. Marvel’s ability to turn
a B-list character into an A-list star impressed Disney. On the
conference call, Iron Man was mentioned first. I don’t think that’s an
accident.

This purchase isn’t about Peter Parker or Bruce Banner or Scott
Summers. It’s about the rest of Marvel’s 5000 characters, the
lesser-known heroes that could conceivably become household names. Not
too obscure – don’t go hoping for that Jack of Hearts animated series -
but some of the concepts that could translate well to other media. I
can see a Runaways series on teen-focused ABC Family, or a long-rumored
Doctor Strange project. Heck, I can even see Howard the Duck, now freed
from long-standing litigation with its new parent company, being
revived.

Perhaps the big winner? Disney XD.

If there was any doubt about Disney’s commitment to its new Disney XD
channel, it can be safely eliminated. With the acquisition, Disney now
has a sizable library of characters that can become marquee attractions
on its heavily promoted new channel. Marvel already has a significant
presence on the channel , airing 20 hours a week of new and classic
shows.

If they’re such a major part of the mix at XD now, imagine what will
happen when Disney owns those properties. New animated series are a
given, but the possibility of live-action series using the Marvel
characters is very tempting indeed. XD was the one thing that was
mentioned as a definite during the conference call, and Disney is
hoping to make it the exclusive home of Marvel heroes.

Finally… well, don’t get too excited about Pixar’s first Marvel movie.

John Lasseter and the Marvel executives… obviously that’s very cool.
But everyone seems to have suddenly forgotten that John has a lot more
than Pixar on his plate these days. He’s involved with Pixar, yes… but
he’s also chief creative officer at Disney Animation (remember them?)
and Imagineering as well. Yet everyone is essentially taking “John
Lasseter met with Marvel’s top brass” as “Pixar may make a Marvel
movie”. Which, by the way, I think is a terrible idea. Pixar needs to
stick to what they do best, which is original, unique ideas. I’d rather
see them do movies about Fantastic Four inspired characters (The
Incredibles) than the Fantastic Four.

The possibilities seem ripe and endless. It’s a very interesting story
mainly because of all of the X factors involved. The details should
clear out before the deal closes at the end of the year. Disney’s
future just got a lot more interesting.

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