Marvel Studios may seem as Hollywood as it gets, now that it’s producing tentpoles like the “Iron Man” franchise, “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Avengers.” But the company was considered a risky startup just six years ago.
“There was huge pushback,” said David Maisel, the former Marvel Studios chairman-turned-special advisor to “Angry Birds”-creator Rovio, at Variety’s Venture Capital & New Media Summit from the Beverly Hilton on Friday.
“Taking a risk (in Hollywood) is more of an anomaly than (it is) up north (in Silicon Valley),” Maisel said. “You really have to believe in and be passionate about what you’re doing.”
Marvel had just come out of bankruptcy in 1999, and making movies “wasn’t an idea anyone had actually had yet,” Maisel said. “There were questions of ‘Why are you betting on this?’ ‘You can’t make a $100 million movie on your own.’ ‘Your last name isn’t Spielberg.’?”
In that atmosphere, Marvel Studios was created and treated like a small startup inside Marvel, housed above a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Beverly Hills, with its own funding after Maisel raised a $525 million round of financing. Marvel’s market cap went from $700 million after Maisel started licensing the comicbook company’s titles as films to studios to more than $4 billion after Disney bought the company six years later.
Maisel recently made the move to Rovio, in part, after seeing how even his 80-year-old mother was playing “Angry Birds.”
“There’s more potential for success here than what I’ve seen with any other intellectual property in the last 10 years,” he said. The appeal is broad and “we have the luxury of interacting with our customers every day.”
Richard Wong, a partner at Accel Partners, which has invested in Legendary Entertainment, Facebook and Groupon as well as Rovio, compares “Angry Birds” to Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” franchise, which has lived on through sequels, spinoffs and putting its characters in the videogame company’s other games.
“There’s always the risk of overexposure,” Wong said, but Rovio’s management is making sure “they don’t screw up the brand.”
“Angry Birds” recently spun off into a successful line of plush toys, apparel and other merchandise, and game levels tied to Fox’s toon “Rio.”
“We don’t know how big this can grow, but in the last 30 days it’s grown faster than ever,” Wong said. The reward structure of wanting to play the next level has helped monetize the game and make it a success, he said, noting that that design element has helped make other casual games successful in the mobile space.
But when Wong first looked at the property he asked, “I get it as a mobile game, but as an entertainment franchise?”
Maisel was also skeptical — at first.
“You’re not guaranteed a first film in the movie business,” he said. “One thing (‘Angry Birds’) doesn’t have is the mythology, where a comicbook like ‘Iron Man’ has 40 or 50 years of stories to work with.”
What helps is that “there’s an addictive quality” to the game and “an emotional quality” in the way people feel about the characters, Maisel said. “The more people play it the more they like it.”
Maisel said Marvel had similar growth issues with the “Iron Man” franchise. But because the company never hired more than 200 staffers, everyone could be part of a discussion on how not to dilute the brand and too “keep it vibrant” and “grow the property across all areas,” from films to TV shows and licensed merchandise.
Producing an “Angry Birds” pic won’t be too different than producing a traditional film, Maisel said.
“With a movie there are very specific things that happen,” he said, which include the development, production, marketing, then dealing with distribution windows like theatrical, homevideo and digital.
“Now it’s a harder job. You have to do everything you used to do plus more,” primarily because keeping a game fresh requires constantly launching new levels and keeping a dialogue going with gamers — a discussion that will also prove key in getting “Angry Birds” fans into theaters.
But, Maisel added, “The economic model and financial upside is greater because of that.”