Co. to produce films, direct-to-video productions

NEW YORK — Gotham-based comic company Marvel Enterprises is exploring a move into film production in an effort to drill deeper into its library of 4,700 comicbook heros and villains and retain equity in the films its characters spawn.

It will roll out an ambitious strategic agenda that includes producing its own slate of mid-budget films and direct-to-video productions revolving around some of its less well-known characters, primarily financed by third parties.

Avi Arad, prexy-CEO of Marvel Studios, said Marvel has a unique ability to raise financing thanks to the “trump card” of its well-known stable. “It’s a sure thing to open and it’s strong on DVD,” he said of potential Marvel character-based pics.

Arad is eyeing films with budgets between $8 million and $50 million, but will leave distribution and blockbuster pics to the studios.

He would not reveal which titles Marvel wants to develop but noted that even lesser-known comic brands like “Blade” had developed huge box office followings.

The next eight films in Marvel’s pipeline are all structured as equity participation deals, including Artisan’s April release “The Punisher.”

The leap into indie filmmaking is part of a broader effort at a resurgent Marvel to secure a greater share of backend profits, particularly for its less-mainstream characters that may be ignored by its studios partners.

Marvel has transformed itself from a bankrupt comicbook publisher into a box office and stock market darling thanks to sleeper hits including “Men in Black,” “Daredevil” and “Blade,” not to mention “Spider-Man,” “X-Men” and “The Hulk.”

In addition to next summer’s second helping of “Spider-Man,” Fox is due to open “Fantastic Four.” However, without a director or final script, the film may miss its original December 2004 release date.

Marvel’s core biz is licensing fees from its character library, however, strong theatrical releases also drive its merchandise and publishing businesses.

Under threat

But Marvel faces increasing competition from fellow licensor DC Comics and other comic companies like Archie Comics Entertainment, which recently inked a deal with Miramax.

Last month Marvel hired Universal licensing chief Timothy Rothwell as prexy of its Consumer Products Group to shore up alternative revenue streams and extend the earnings life of its character rights. Rothwell is expected to push Marvel merchandise further into Europe and ink licensing deals in China and Japan, where comics are a $1 billion annual business.

O’seas ops

Rothwell intends to set up a Marvel-owned overseas operation to handle all licensing of games, publishing, toys and apparel for the explosive Asian markets. Currently, these functions are outsourced to third-party agents.

Marvel prexy-CEO Allen has been bullish about TV prospects as well. Marvel is developing TV spinoffs of its core characters, such as the “Spider-Man” project on MTV. Company is also looking into its “Blade” franchise and several other live-action projects.

Other films in development include “Iron Man” with New Line and “Submariner” with Universal.

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