Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Mouse and the Spider

Sometimes you see a news story so big, you just have to start a blog and write about it.  That was my immediate response yesterday upon reading that Disney is going to purchase Marvel for about $4 billion.  The news sent shockwaves through both the Disney Geek and Comic Book Geek fan communities, with reactions running the full gamut from optimistic, to skeptical, to downright hostile.  Will we get cool new theme park rides?  Will characters like Wolverine lose their edge to fit the Disney brand?  Isn't Marvel already spread around to different movie studios?  That's a small sample of the kind of questions getting asked.  I'll offer my own two cents without completely regurgitating some of the opinions I've read in other places.

In short, this move is all about boys.  If you're a girl, Disney has got you covered.  There is no shortage of princesses and fairies for young girls, and as they get older they have Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and the Jonas Brothers waiting for them.  Even some of the core Disney characters like Winnie the Pooh tend to appeal more to girls than to boys once you move beyond pre-school age.  Some Disney fans think that Disney has put so much emphasis on girls that if you didn't know any better you'd think the theme parks were just big princess playlands.  So where are the boys? 

Disney chief Bob Iger apparently agreed with the criticism and sought to do something big and bold about it.  But was he right?  Disney had already been making some moves to shore up their appeal to boys.  Pixar's "Cars" has been a huge success with boys, so much so that a sequel is planned for 2011 and a whole new "Cars Land" is being build at Disney's California Adventure park and will open in 2012.  Buzz Lightyear and Woody have a strong appeal to boys and soon they'll be front and center as Disney re-releases "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" this fall in 3D to get audiences ready for "Toy Story 3" next summer.

Ah, "but those are for little boys," you're saying.  Ten-year-olds don't care much about Lightning McQueen.  Maybe not.  But what about pirates?  Not the Peter Pan stuff, but undead skeletons and sea monsters and Johnny Depp?  They like those pirates, right?  Disney has another one of those in development and undoubtedly has plans to keep "Pirates of the Carribean" as an "evergreen" franchise.  There's also a new Tron movie set for release next year, and new franchise possibilities on the horizon as the studio develops films based on both John Carter of Mars and the Lone Ranger.  That looks to me like alot of stuff focused on boys.

So why Marvel?  Because Spider-Man and Iron Man and the X-Men are a sure thing.  All of these other properties that Disney is developing are risky.  Will anyone really care about "Tron Legacy," a sequel to a film that flopped 27 years ago? (For the record, I care a great deal.)  Has anyone beyond the hardcore fans even heard of John Carter of Mars?  Can the Lone Ranger be made relevant and exciting for today's audiences?  Disney hopes the answer to all of those questions is "YES!", but they don't really know.  And Pirates?  I honestly think that franchise relies on Johnny Depp the same way that Indiana Jones relies on Harrison Ford.  And while I personally enjoyed last summer's new Indy adventure, I just don't think a sixty-something Jack Sparrow is going to work.

But that brings up a good point.  What about Star Wars and Indiana Jones?  Those two franchises are the gold standard for boys and Disney has a pretty long-standing relationship with Lucasfilm that has allowed it to aggresively exploit those franchises in the theme parks.  And yet they've never really been able to extend it beyond the theme parks.  When Lucas unveiled the new "Clone Wars" animated series, it would have been a natual fit for Disney.  They were already re-launching their ToonDisney cable channel as the all-boy, all-the-time DisneyXD channel.  They could have built the whole thing around "Clone Wars" and cross-marketed the heck out of it on Disney Channel, ESPN, and ABC.  It would have created new opportunities for the theme parks, too.  But the show instead went to TimeWarner's CartoonNetwork and has been a huge hit.  How did they miss this opportunity?  I have no idea, but I'm guessing Lucas had some pretty steep demands that Disney just wasn't willing to meet.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention a personal sore spot:  Narnia.  In 2005, Disney launched what promised to be the start of a strong new literary/fantasy franchise that could be their Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.  It would, one would think, also appeal strongly to boys (and girls, too).  In fact, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" became one of Disney's all-time highest grossing films.  It was a huge success and another great franchise was up and running.  But then something went wrong.  The sequel, "Prince Caspian," was originally scheduled for the Holiday 2007 window but was pushed to summer 2008 because Walden Media, which actually owns the rights to the franchise and had a co-licensing agreement with Disney, didn't want the film competing with another one of their co-productions.  This created an almost too-long 2.5 year gap between the films.  In contrast, the Harry Potter films have generally run on a pretty tight 18-month cycle to preserve both their young audience and their young actors.  To make matters worse, Disney launched the film with one of the worst marketing campaigns ever, basically pushing actor Ben Barnes as if he were a new Jonas Brother and minimizing the film's connection to the previous blockbuster.  And finally, the film's release date was sandwiched between Marvel's "Iron Man" and the new "Indiana Jones" and it got squeezed.  I've digressed for too long, but a really good movie got lost and it under-performed.  Disney couldn't reach agreement with Walden Media on moving forward and now Fox will be releasing "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" next Christmas.  Franchise dead.

The point here, and I do have one, is that Disney has no true ownership of either the Lucasfilm or Narnia properties.  Buying Marvel then solves their two big challenges: 1) it provides a reliable franchise with proven appeal to boys, and 2) it gives Disney complete control over that franchise.

Problems solved, right?  Well, there are still concerns.  Disney doesn't get to take off running with their shiny new toy.  As has been well-reported, Marvel has extensive licensing agreements that Disney will have to honor.  Paramount has five more films to release.  Fox still has the X-Men/Wolverine franchise and other characters like the Fantastic Four and Daredevil.  Universal still has the Hulk.  And Sony has the biggest character of all with Spider-Man, and you can bet they have no plan to relinquish him until they absolutely have to.  On the theme park front, Universal Studios has the Marvel characters both here and abroad.  Disney will still get the licensing fees for all of this, but that's about it.  So no new big movies, no new theme park rides, what does Disney get?  Well, I imagine the consumer products division is pretty darn happy.  And DisneyXD has already been running Marvel cartoons almost 24-7 so that gets easier.  And I wouldn't be surprised if the film studio looks for an untapped character that they can quickly develop into a tent-pole movie.  I'm also curious about the fine print of the theme park deal.  Who has the theme park rights to the films that have been released?  Could Disney, for example, incorporate elements of "Iron Man" into the Great Movie Ride?

Iger has been quick to compare this acquisition to his acquisition of Pixar in 2006.  That comparison works to a point.  I sure hope Iger gives Marvel the same kind of autonomy to keep doing what they've been doing well just like he did with Pixar.  But Pixar, although it functioned creatively as separate and apart from Disney, was always branded as Disney.  "Finding Nemo" was always a Disney movie.  Mike and Sully were always perceived as Disney characters.  Does Marvel fit the Disney brand?  I think this is going to be the riskiest part of the new venture, and I don't have an easy answer.  The company will have to manage these characters very carefully with regard to how they are used with the Disney brand name.  You obviously wouldn't release a "Punisher" movie under the Disney label, but what about Spider-Man?  He's the kid-friendliest character in the Marvel stable, but even those movies have a certain level of violence you wouldn't necessarily associate with Disney.  The ABC and ESPN labels have co-existed relatively well with Disney, so there's no reason to think they can't make it work with Marvel; but they should maintain, at least initially, a separation between the Marvel and Disney names.

Iger is taking the long view here, and it may take many years before we really see all the benefits and possibilities come to fruition.  But $4 billion is a lot of money.  As a fan of both Disney and Marvel, I hope this new partnership turns out more like the Pixar purchase and not Disney's disastrous purchase of the Fox Family Channel.  Well, that's enough of my ramblings for today. If you've read this far, thanks.  As Stan Lee would say, Excelsior!


  1. Just to clarify, it is being reported that Universal only has theme park rights on the east coast and gave up their west coast rights a couple of years ago. The west coast park now only has a store which Marvel has probably allowed them to kep for the sales revenue. This seems to mean that Disney is free to use any marvel character they wish for theme parks in California.

  2. As the father of a boy myself this take is interesting to me.

    It's interesting to see how the parallel of Warner Brothers / Six Flags / DC comics isn't mentioned as much in the discussions about this.

    It seems to me that Disney has plugged a gap in its lineup here, and that Marvel has found a similarly deep-pocketed parent to allow it to reach parity with DC's reach.

    I hadn't known about the Narnia problems. Does the move to Fox mean the franchise is dead after "Voyage" or that it's just dead from Disney's standpoint?

  3. Re: Narnia -- Walden Media retains the rights to Narnia and it is their intent to continue making the films for as long as they can find a studio to partner with them. I believe Fox will have the option to continue to co-produce them if Dawn Treader is successful. So yes, I was only referring to Disney when I said the franchise was dead.

  4. Come to think of it, I can't think of any other franchise that switched studios in mid-stream. Directors, even producers, yes, often with sad results (I'm looking at you, X-Men, Burton/Schumacher Batman, and Reeve era Superman). But studios? No, "Never Say Never Again" doesn't count.

  5. Irish - the "real" James Bond franchise migrated from United Artists to MGM to Sony Pictures. The Terminator franchise has bounced around so much you almost need a flow chart.

    zapjones - I think you are correct about the West Coast/East Coast distinction. However, I still think that Disney will go slow with using Marvel in any of the parks to avoid customer confusion.