Superheroes home in on Hollywood

Superman may be dead, but dozens of other superheroes from Spiderman to the Hulk are alive and well and inking deals in Hollywood.

The majority are creations of comic book publisher Marvel Entertainment Group. The 53-year-old company went public 18 months ago under new management, determined to exploit its characters in Hollywood. In short order, Marvel has established itself as a wellspring of movie and TV source material for a skittish production community searching for tried-and-true concepts.

Inspired by the success of “Batman” and “Superman”–both properties of Time Warner’s DC Comics–studios are now mining Marvel’s library to single out heroes who will translate into big bucks at the box office or high ratings on the small screen. And the projects are attracting some big names, from James Cameron to Oliver Stone.

Likewise, the potential return to Marvel ($ 115 million in net revenues in ‘ 91) is growing ever more substantial. S.G. Warburg entertainment analyst Lisbeth Barron, who recently put a “buy” recommendation on the stock, estimates Marvel’s take from a single, successful “Spiderman” movie could ultimately exceed $ 20 million–not counting the possibility of sequels–even though the company itself downplays that number.

More importantly, a successful slate of films and TV shows could prove the perfect marketing tool to drive their expansion efforts into the next decade.

Wall Street is investing in that potential. Marvel’s stock, 60% owned by financier Ronald Perelman, has soared more than 400% since going public in July ’91.

Of course, a comic-book hero is no guarantee of success at the box office. No one in Hollywood will forget the $ 60 million flop “Howard the Duck,” based on a highly successful Marvel character. Or remember “Captain America,” a low-budget film by Menahem Golan’s 21st Century featuring one of Marvel’s strongest franchises. The film was never released theatrically; it only just recently found its way to homevideo. Those failures suggest the new Marvel will have to be extremely savvy in its Hollywood dealings.

Despite such misses, Hollywood remains drawn to the characters, which appeal to kids and adults alike and often come with a built-in core audience; one issue of Marvel’s phenomenally popular X-Men comic recently sold a record 8 million copies.

And advanced film techniques are making it easier to transfer super-human characters to the screen. “With the new movie technologies, morphing and the like, our characters can be done so much betterthan before and a lot less hokey, ” says Marvel president and chief operating officer Terry Stewart.

The company’s increasingly active development slate (see related story) is the result of Marvel’s increasingly proactive stance in Hollywood. The company–which licensed characters to TV and film over the years and was once owned by New World Entertainment — has put a heavy emphasis on strengthening its ties to major players in the entertainment community.

Marvel Comics chairman Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, and Marvel executive VP Joseph Calamari devote almost all of their time to the company’s film and TV projects. HBO chairman Michael Fuchs and entertainment lawyer Ken Ziffren have recently been named to Marvel’s board of directors and former TBS power player Bill Bevins serves as CEO.

Marvel has already collected $ 3.5 million in nonrefundable upfront fees for Spiderman. While the company will not be liable for any of the production or marketing costs of the film, it will reap option and consulting fees, royalties from the film (about 4% of modified gross), video (about 8%) and associated merchandise and toys — the latter at 4% to 10% licensing rates.

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