Will Disney's $4 billion gamble on Marvel pay off?

Mouse House touts comic company's library of 5,000 characters, but it will have a hard time turning many into moneymakers

By TheWrap Feb 19, 2010 3:12PM

Disney (DIS) coughed up $4 billion to buy Marvel last August, but all it may get for its investment is a collection of second- and third-tier superheroes. 

Sure, "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" racked up billions at the box office. But film rights to those characters are parked at Sony (SNE) and Fox, respectively, keeping them off limits to Disney, except for a small percentage of the profits.

What's more, those movies centered on heroes already firmly implanted in the popular culture lexicon long before they ever hit the multiplexes.

That leaves the likes of Nick Fury, Big Bertha and Ant-Man.

But Disney thinks that it can successfully re-brand and introduce many lesser known Marvel characters to moviegoers.

Its plan is to build on the company's success in turning "Iron Man" into a global box office smash, even though the tin-suited protagonist was not a widely recognized property.

"This transaction combines Marvel's strong global brand and world-renowned library of characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain America, Fantastic Four and Thor with Disney's creative skills, unparalleled global portfolio of entertainment properties, and a business structure that maximizes the value of creative properties across multiple platforms and territories," Disney CEO Bob Iger said at the time of the deal.

Many analysts believe that despite paying top dollar, Disney ultimately will reap big profits from the Marvel purchase, citing the current filmgoing mania for all things comic book and the company's ability to create crowd-pleasing hits from its backlog of titles.

As an added bonus, the thousands of superheroes could help Disney attract more business from young males, a demographic that's been hard for the company to crack and a group that buys a lot of merchandise, as well as movie tickets.

"These comic-book properties historically help the company sell toys and attract boys," said Marla Backer, an analyst with Research Associates. "Disney's strength historically has been girls."

When the deal with Marvel was done, the Mouse House crowed that it now boasted a library of some 5,000 characters. What it failed to mention was that not every hero can become a star.

"It runs the gamut from Spider-Man to the X-Men to Johnny Storm’s college roommate Wally Wingnut and the Fantastic Four's mailman Willy Lumbnik," Michael Uslan, a comic-book historian and executive producer of "The Dark Knight," told TheWrap. "There are a nice handful of A-list titles, but there are also a lot of the B-list and then second bananas -- and then you get to triple A, double A and wind up in Little League batting off a T." (Disney and Marvel declined to comment for this article.)

Read more at TheWrap.

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