What will Disney do when Marvel runs out of gas?

by Paul William Tenny

MarvelSo Disney plunked down $4 billion for Marvel within the past week. Most people have covered most of the bases already. Patrick Goldstein in the L.A. Times painted a rather ugly picture of Disney facing an uncertain future it has to buy content producers when it used to be one itself, which is a great read if you're interested.

I'm sure that people have written about whether or not this will work out well for Disney and Marvel, but not for any reasons that interest me.

You see, I'm still not convinced that the comic-to-movie craze is anything more than a really extended fad.

There have been some really great films made from comics over the last few years, X-Men and the newer Batman films come to mind, along with some not-so-great flicks like The Punisher, and I'm not going to argue that there's more success to be found by strip mining fifty or sixty years worth of source material (or that there's more fail to be had, on the flip side.) The best may still be yet to come, in fact.

But for how long?

That question applies to every studio and rights holder, not just Marvel. There may be hundreds if not thousands more characters to exploit, but at some point you're going to face some diminishing returns here. Not every comic character is going to catch on with the public and you just know that a certain level of obscurity is going to stop a studio from working their way down to the bottom of the barrel.

I've never been a fan of comics so it's not a surprise that I had never heard of Iron Man before. My best guess had it bombing at the box office, given what it cost, and who was producing it (I use that word liberally to cover all of the key players, not just the actual producers), it didn't seem worth it to me. I was wrong then and I'm sure I'll be wrong again, but I won't be wrong forever.

The Watchmen is legendary in its original medium but it did terrible business at the box office. The Hulk is a cultural icon in America and two tries in five years have both failed to catch on (Ang Lee's version in 2003 made a profit, but not much of one, while the 2008 version lost money.) More projects are racing into production with even more obscure names - obscure to me - that seem even more risky.

So I suppose my analytic contribution to the debate over Disney buying Marvel is whether or not $4 billion is too much to pay for the hottest source of comic book characters when that source is finite. The top tier characters will be depleted sooner rather than later and that will make Marvel two things: an average supply of comic material and an average content producer generally.

Disney needs more than that which is why they bought Marvel in the first place, but like anyone, Marvel wont be young forever.

I think a long-term exclusive contract would have made more sense for Disney, since they could simply decide not to re-up it once the good characters from Marvel had been exhausted.

As big as they are, hell, maybe it wont make any difference. Maybe Disney understands that this is a short term boost that they'll need to convert into a long-term gain. Some characters, settings and stories may not be worth a feature film, but is the next big thing a gold rush of television series based on comics?

Ultimately I think this was a mistake.

Update (11:54am)
After a short but interesting conversation on Twitter, I've decided to come back to this issue tonight or tomorrow. I still think this is a good deal short term, bad deal long term, but I'll go into more detail about why I think that, focusing on financials, and potential pitfalls of creative strife. Remember that Mirimax and Disney were best friends for a while, too, but look how that turned out.
in Business, Comics, Film


Related posts:

Leave a comment

View more stories by visiting the archives.

Media Pundit categories