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Marvel takes cue from its superheroes

MARVEL COMICS SUPERHEROES are re-emerging from the wreckage of bankruptcy hell and an ownership battle that involved the likes of Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn, Marvel Enterprises is staging a rally of its own.

Six months out of bankruptcy and now steered by president-CEO Avi Arad, Marvel has set several new screen deals and moved forward on projects that languished when creative decisions were made by bankruptcy judges.

“Look at our library: It is an endless supply of protectable characters with huge followings,” said Arad, a tanned, Israeli-born toy designer. Speaking from Marvel’s Park Avenue offices, Arad is clad in attire unusual for a CEO: black T-shirt embroidered with the razor-clawed Wolverine character. “With 3,500 characters at least, it is the only content library of its kind in terms of sheer volume, depth of characters and range, from superheroes to horror to comedy and romance.”

He’s even got the chutzpah to compare his properties to a better-known competitor. “You look at Disney, and they are having to reach for public domain properties like ‘Tarzan’ for movie material.”

The new Marvel is trying to make better deals than past regimes, which parceled out rights to producers who made a few poor films, while others were not made at all — James Cameron might have directed “Spider-Man” had it not been enmeshed in a web of ownership claims for almost a decade. Now, Marvel tries to become as involved as it can in the films.

Usual deals involve upfront rights fees against gross positions, with Marvel retaining its TV and other licensing and merchandising rights. Marvel, according to Arad, is guaranteed enough creative input to protect the integrity of its franchise figures.

“We have story and outline approval, and the script cannot be different from what was approved,” Arad said. “We have a say over how the characters will look, access to dailies in a timely fashion, and we either exec produce or produce. Legally, we have a lot of checks and balances, but the way we work with studios is very collaborative.”

MARVEL ONLY USES ITS MUSCLE when necessary, like when the “Spider-Man” script in development at Sony included the death of a villain at the hands of the webslinger.

“That we wouldn’t allow,” Arad said. “Spider-Man never kills anybody.”

Studios like Marvel fare because their franchises hold potential for sequels and theme-park rides. “Blade” is evidence of the former, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park the latter, where Marvel Superhero Island features such rides as “The Hulk Coaster” and a CGI “Spider-Man.”

U’s theme park impressed Arad so much that he decided to renew the studio’s option for screen rights to “The Incredible Hulk.” Now, “Hulk” is on a fast track with scripter Mike France and producer Gale Anne Hurd, and Marvel has just closed a second deal with Universal for a live-action version of “Prime.”

Arad describes the comic as “a comedy about a scrawny little kid who has the ability or handicap of going instantly from a kid to an Arnold-like man. It’s ‘Big’ in a superhero’s body.” Doug Chamberlin and Chris Webb (“Toy Story 2”) are scripting with Chuck Gordon producing.

With Fox pushing “X-Men” into production with a star-studded cast and fall 2000 opening date, the studio and Marvel are focused on “Fantastic Four,” wooing director Raja Gosnell, whose credits include Fox’s “Home Alone 3” and “Never Been Kissed.” Chris Columbus is producing with 1492 partner Michael Barnathan.

Fox has hired Andrew Kevin Walker (“Seven”) to script “Silver Surfer,” about a metallic surfer out to protect Earth from the evil Galactus.

Arud, whose L.A.-based Marvel film exec is Matt Edelman, has just closed a deal with Village Roadshow Pictures chairman Bruce Berman and exec Bernie Goldman for “Damage Control.” Neal Moritz and Barry Levine will produce.

Marvel is near a deal with “Saving Private Ryan” producers Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn at Mutual Film for “Captain America.”

Sony Pictures Entertainment is negotiating for rights to “Dr. Strange,” to be scripted by David Goyer (“Blade”). Marvel chose Sony over several other “Strange” suitors because of “Spider-Man,” which SPE is developing after years of legal entanglements.

Wesley Snipes, who starred in “Blade” and is set for its upcoming sequel for New Line, has been given another Marvel franchise figure to develop as a feature, “Black Panther.” Arad said Snipes’ Amen-Ra label will develop it with Marvel and hook a studio later. “The Right Stuff” helmer Philip Kaufman is developing the undersea saga “Namor,” with Sam Hamm in talks to script.

STUDIO DEALS ARE PERCOLATING for two other Marvel characters: “Iron-Man,” in which both Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise have shown interest, and “Daredevil,” about a red-suited blind hero with heightened senses, which both Chris Columbus and Carlo Carlei are mentioned as possible helmers. And Marvel’s developing “Thor,” about the Norse God and son of Odin, as an animated feature.

How does all this square as a business strategy for a company still digging itself out of a hole? Arad said that since emerging from bankruptcy in a merger with Toy Biz, Marvel shed all non-essential elements in a strategy that’s fairly simple.

“Our three big profit centers are publishing, toys and licensing, the latter of which encompasses movies, TV and videogames,” Arad said.

“You jump-start things with an event movie, follow up with a TV show for continuity and fashion a high quality videogame. When the three are combined and introduced successfully, that creates a very powerful brand.”

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