A Marvel-ous plan

Maisel tapped to lead super-sizing efforts

NEW YORK — David Maisel has been named prexy and chief operating officer of Marvel Studios, charged with the task of fulfilling the comicbook emporium’s increasingly ambitious goals to share a greater chunk of the wealth mined from its catalog of superheroes.

Maisel, most recently head of corporate strategy and business development at the Endeavor agency, will report directly to the division’s chairman-CEO, Avi Arad, in Los Angeles.

Emboldened by its lofty stock price and two years of relative box office success, Gotham-based Marvel has been hankering to take more control over the exploitation of its 4,700-character library of rights, and it’s apparently ready to wager that it can segue its comic-hero clout into new production partnership deals with independent financiers and distributors.

“Today’s entertainment industry palette is wider than just movies these days,” Arad told Daily Variety. He believes Maisel’s exposure to a wide range of TV and digital distribution opportunities will help the publisher widen its revenue streams beyond simply licensing its character rights to other studios.

Arad would not disclose how much money Marvel is willing to commit in its bid to produce, but he said he is currently talking to would-be potential partners and investors and promised “greater clarity” on key partnership deals in the next few months.

Chafing at some of the limitations inherent in ceding all rights to its studio partners, an increasingly confident Marvel is anxious to roll its own dice on certain distribution deals.

“Not all of our studio partners even do their own international distribution; they use sub-agents,” Arad noted. He believes, for instance, that he has as much clout with mass retailer Wal-Mart as any other Hollywood company to do a good video/DVD deal alongside some of its existing wholesale toy contracts.

Indie interest

“Studios up until now have had the luxury of getting both domestic and international rights (to Marvel titles),” said Arad, who claimed he’s had significant interest from indie distribs in key markets like Japan, Spain, the U.K. and France.

In addition to mining its character library for smaller properties that can be produced independently for theatrical or direct-to-video for under $10 million, Arad is also eager to regain rights to many of its old TV properties.

Prior to its bankruptcy, old Marvel management sold off many rights to New World Animation (now Fox) and Disney, which have broadcast and video rights to catalog TV series such as “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” “Fantastic 4,” “Iron Man” and “Hulk.” Many of these long-term licensing deals will be ending in the next several years, and Marvel is anxious to reclaim rights and contemplate new series as well.

‘A sure thing’

“Marvel has been successful in film and TV, and now we want a better grip on how and where we use our product,” Arad told Daily Variety. “We have an incredible visual library that we’re very interested in exploiting in many ways.”

Insisting that the company will be careful and conservative about which projects it undertakes and with whom, Arad is nevertheless confident that Marvel is “the closest thing to a sure thing” that any distributor could look for, given the franchise and sequel potential of its characters.

But Arad is careful not to spook investors, insisting “we’re not film financiers” and emphasizing that the firm’s goal is to develop the optimum third-party, nonrecourse financing and distribution strategy for a wide variety of new entertainment projects that will enable it to share a greater percentage of the upside.

These include theatrical films, direct-to-video and DVD projects, television programming, videogames and live theatrical productions.

“For the immediate future we will not be building a theatrical distribution business,” Arad said. “I absolutely respect the idea that our partners are distributors. In fact, studios today are more marketers and financiers than producers.”

$2 bil since 1998

Marvel’s seven character-based feature film releases since 1998 have grossed more than $2 billion in worldwide box office. Those same films have raked in more than $1 billion in worldwide DVD/video wholesale sales, and Marvel would clearly like to take a larger chunk of that pie in the future.

“Many of our characters that have not yet been exposed to a broad demographic audience will benefit from the visibility gained via Marvel Studios-developed entertainment projects,” Arad said.

Such aspirations typically come with considerable risk, but Marvel is sensitive to its investors’ potential discomfort with any major readjustment of its safe, licensing-based strategy. That means Maisel, while tapped to spearhead major strategic growth initiatives for Marvel Studios and increase the exposure and value of its brand, must do so under what the company promises will be “strict investment and cost disciplines.”

Summer slate

Marvel’s upcoming releases include its first major independently produced title, Artisan/Lions Gate’s “The Punisher” (April 16), along with “Spider-Man 2” (July 2), “Man-Thing” (August) and “Blade 3: Trinity” (August).

Maisel boasts an impressive resume, though his background includes some checkered companies. Maisel served as prexy of theatrical production company Livent under CAA founder Michael Ovitz and orchestrated the sale of the foundering firm to SFX Entertainment, now part of Clear Channel. Maisel started his agency career under Ovitz in 1994, later joining Disney as director of corporate development and strategic planning.

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