Net nabs rights to 'Incredible Hulk,' 'Iron Man'

Marvel Studios has engineered its first major TV deal since going independent in 2005, preselling the cable rights to “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” to FX along with three more superhero movies still to be determined.

“This is a watershed deal for the company,” said David Maisel, chairman of Marvel Studios. “It’s a real vote of confidence” in the ratings potential of Marvel superheroes, he added, particularly since not one of the five movies has landed in theaters yet.

Paramount will open “Iron Man,” with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role and Samuel L. Jackson as Marvel superhero Nick Fury, on May 2. Universal kicks off “Incredible Hulk,” starring Edward Norton, on June 13. Although Par and U are not involved in the basic-cable sale, they still retain the pay TV rights. Showtime has “Iron Man” and HBO gets “Incredible Hulk” through the nets’ output deals with Paramount and Universal, respectively.

As with most of the basic-cable pre-buys, the net agrees to pony up a license fee that hovers at around 11% of the domestic gross, a figure that cuts off at $200 million. If all five movies end up as $200 million-plus blockbusters — a very big if, of course — FX would pay the maximum $22 million apiece for a grand total of $110 million. That’s a gigantic license fee, but lots of people watch big-hit movies on cable TV, so there wouldn’t be any complaints from FX.

Marvel came along at the right time with its movies; industry observers say cable networks have negotiated more theatrical pre-buys than at any other time in the last decade. Just in the last month, TNT and TBS scarfed up such Warner Bros. titles as “Speed Racer,” “Get Smart” and Batman sequel “The Dark Knight,” while USA has locked up a batch of forthcoming titles, including “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” from Par and “Sex and the City: The Movie” from New Line.

FX is turning itself into cable TV’s favorite net for theatrical-movie superheroes. It has forthcoming runs of “Spider-Man 2,” “Spider-Man 3,” “Superman Returns,” “Batman Begins,” “Ghost Rider,” the three “X-Men” movies and the two “Fantastic Four” pics.

As part of the deal with Marvel, FX will schedule a marathon of superhero movies on the premiere dates of “Iron Man” and “Incredible Hulk,” allowing Marvel to use the commercial breaks to promote the two theatrical releases.

FX also will allow Marvel to carve out a window in the network’s four-year license term to sell a run or two of “Iron Man” and “Incredible Hulk” to a broadcast net.

Marvel, which claims a library of more than 5,000 characters, has not revealed which superheroes it will tap for the next three movies, but likely prospects include Captain America, Thor, the Avengers and Ant-Man. And if “Iron Man” and “Incredible Hulk” take off, sequels would be a no-brainer. Marvel has signed Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) to develop Ant-Man.

Because of its contracts with various major studios, Marvel doesn’t have the cable TV sales rights to any sequels to “Spider-Man,” “X-Men,” “The Fantastic Four,” “Ghost Rider,” “Daredevil” and “The Punisher.”

USA Network and Turner’s TBS and TNT joined in the auction for the Marvel titles, but FX had strong motivation to put forward the highest bid. FX has parlayed a mix of recognizable nightly primetime movies (and eye-popping original series like “Nip/Tuck”) to become one of the highest-rated nets in adults 18-49, the demographic that makes Madison Avenue’s pulse quicken.

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