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Does Kevin Feige’s Marvel Promotion Mean Ike Perlmutter’s Endgame?

Last week’s move giving Kevin Feige charge of Marvel’s television, animation and print editorial operations should come as no surprise. As the architect of the company’s enormous film success, Feige arguably has the most enviable track record of any contemporary entertainment executive. Extending his creative control over more of the Marvel universe seems like a no-brainer. But some insiders were stunned that Feige’s gain came at the expense of Ike Perlmutter — Marvel Entertainment’s CEO and the largest single shareholder of its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co. To see Perlmutter, who had already lost control of Marvel’s film unit in a vicious turf war with Feige and Disney in 2015, be forced to cede nearly all creative authority at the company he’s run for more than 20 years came as a shock to some.

None were more surprised by the move than the Marvel executives who learned of the change through trade-press reports that heralded it. The lack of clear communication to stakeholders underscores the growing industry impression that Perlmutter no longer wields the influence that enabled him to run much of Marvel as a fiefdom after Disney acquired the company in 2009.

“There is enormous internal confusion,” one company insider tells Variety. “Ike seems to be in a very weak position now.”

Perlmutter, as well as top executives at Disney and Marvel, declined through a spokesperson to comment for this story.

The new Marvel dynamic seemingly caps off a power struggle between Feige and Perlmutter that dates back four years, when Feige and his Marvel Studios unit were separated from Perlmutter’s Marvel Entertainment and placed under Walt Disney Studios heads Alan Horn and Alan Bergman. The reorganization came on the heels of wide reports that Feige had reached his boiling point after years of frustration with Perlmutter. At the time, the studio called the changes the “logical next step” in integrating Marvel into its larger business — though six years had already passed since Disney had acquired the studio for $4 billion.

Among the multiple industry players Variety spoke with, there was no dispute over the logic behind the recent decision to give Feige more creative control. After all, Marvel’s films have grossed more than $26 billion combined. One insider says “Kevin’s checkmate” represents a shocking diminution for Perlmutter, who seized control of Marvel after its 1996 bankruptcy, steered it to profitability and engineered the 2009 Disney deal with Disney CEO Bob Iger.

How Disney’s largest shareholder could be so effectively put in a corner is a mystery to those inside Marvel. One person who works at Disney traces Perlmutter’s most recent loss of territory back to a period leading up to the 2015 Marvel Studios split when he began to side with executive Alan Fine, a longtime lieutenant of his, over Feige. Fine was a member of Perlmutter’s “creative committee,” which provided input on Marvel films and was considered responsible for several projects being delayed. Fine opposed Feige’s efforts to greenlight a movie built around a female superhero.

Clashes with Fine are believed to have contributed at the time to Feige’s desire to be rescued from Perlmutter’s sphere of influence.

In his memoir “The Ride of a Lifetime,” published last month, Iger wrote not only of moving Feige under the Disney Studios umbrella to alleviate “the tensions that had built up between him and the New York office” (i.e., Perlmutter) but also of greenlighting Marvel’s first movies with a black lead and a female lead, respectively, over Perlmutter’s objections.

“We had a chance to make a great movie and to showcase an underrepresented segment of America, and those goals were not mutually exclusive,” Iger wrote. “I called Ike and told him to tell his team to stop putting up roadblocks and ordered that we put both ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Captain Marvel’ into production.” The creative committee was eventually disbanded, and Fine is no longer with Marvel. And, of course, both films went on to gross more than $1 billion globally.

Feige was also one of many Marvel executives to chafe under Perlmutter’s famous frugality. Tales of employees digging paper clips out of trash cans to save on office-supply expenditures are as much a part of Marvel lore as Spider-Man’s origin story is. Perlmutter still personally reviews employee expense reports. His ways have fostered resentment as the company, under Feige’s leadership, has blossomed into a monster revenue generator for Disney.

Perlmutter’s politics may also have played a role in his increased isolation from Marvel’s creative endeavors. He is deeply conservative — so much so that one of his first acts upon gaining control of Marvel in the ’90s was to institute drug tests for comic book creators.

Rarely photographed or interviewed, Perlmutter is an ardent supporter of President Trump. In total, the Marvel CEO and his wife, Laura, gave $5,448,200 to support Trump’s 2016 campaign, and another $2 million to support Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid. So far in 2019, the Perlmutters have given a combined $1,360,200 to the president’s Trump Victory PAC and to the Republican National Committee.

That support has at times caused difficulty for Marvel in progressive Hollywood. One executive recalls that a Muslim American television writer cited Perlmutter’s support for Trump when declining an opportunity to work on a Marvel project. The individual added that it is common for Marvel talent to raise questions about Perlmutter’s conservative bent.

Feige’s promotion to Marvel Entertainment chief creative officer gives the executive total creative power, including over the narratives of the comics and the arcs of the streaming series at Disney Plus, as well as the worlds of the tentpole films. But it also will have a ripple effect on a number of Marvel veterans — many of whom will answer to Feige, not Perlmutter. Not least of these is Jeph Loeb, who according to sources is expected to leave his post as head of Marvel Television in the coming weeks and is in the market for an overall deal with a new company.

A veteran producer, Loeb worked as a writer on series such as “Smallville,” “Lost” and “Heroes” before taking over as head of Marvel’s then-nascent television efforts in 2010.

Under Loeb, Marvel Television carved out a niche for itself with mid-budget superhero action series such as ABC’s long-running “Agents of SHIELD” and Netflix’s six “Defenders” shows. But as Variety reported in September, the status of the unit had begun to be questioned in the creative community as Feige’s Marvel Studios moved into the series space, prepping “Avengers” miniseries spinoffs such as “Loki,” “Hawkeye” and “WandaVision” for forthcoming streaming service Disney Plus. While the first seasons of Marvel TV’s Netflix dramas cost roughly $4 million per episode, Marvel Studios’ miniseries are expected to clock in at 6-8 episodes each, with budgets of $100 million-$150 million.

In recent months, Marvel Television appears to have become increasingly focused on animation. Last month, Disney-owned Hulu abandoned plans for a Marvel Television-produced “Ghost Rider” drama. That left the studio with only one announced new live-action series in the works — “Helstrom,” also at Hulu. The sudden pulling of the plug on “Ghost Rider” is said to have shocked and embarrassed Marvel Television honchos.

Loeb has long been considered an able executive and producer. But his unit often faced challenges that Marvel Studios has not. Creating series for networks such as ABC and Disney-owned Freeform, Marvel Television worked within budgets in line with the economics of broadcast and basic cable rather than that of feature films. And Marvel Television suffered a severe setback with 2017’s “Inhumans,” a big creative bet for ABC that was widely mocked and little watched.

Prior to last week’s reorganization, Loeb reported to Dan Buckley, who has served as president of Marvel Entertainment since 2017. A well-liked veteran of Marvel’s comics-publishing arm, the New York-based Buckley answered to Perlmutter. In the past two years, he logged many miles flying to Los Angeles in an effort to bridge the gap separating his boss and Feige, and strengthening ties between Marvel and Disney’s other business units. Now Buckley finds himself in what could prove to be a difficult position — reporting to Feige on creative matters and Perlmutter on operational ones.

Buckley is not the only Marvel executive with strong Disney ties. Family entertainment chief Cort Lane will report to Feige rather than Buckley. Responsible for animation, Lane is said to have long-standing relationships with counterparts in Disney’s corporate-franchises, parks and consumer-products divisions. The same is said of marketing and distribution head Tracy McAndrew, but days after the reorganization was unveiled, it was unclear even to Marvel’s topmost executives whether McAndrew would continue to report to Buckley or join Feige’s team. Marvel Games head Jay Ong, whose division was responsible for more than $200 million in profit last year, will continue to answer to Perlmutter through chief financial officer Rob Steffens.

For Perlmutter, the unkindest cut might be the one that, from a balance-sheet perspective, is the least consequential — the loss of editorial control over the publishing business, which one comic-book industry insider calls “Ike’s baby.”

Comic books create relatively little revenue for Marvel. But they represent an important point of contact with core fans and serve as creative R&D for TV and film. It’s standard in the contracts of writers working with Marvel that they be compensated should any character they create be used on screen.

Marvel remains the dominant comic book publisher, accounting in any given month for 35%-50% of books sold in shops — with Warner Bros.-owned DC usually second at 20%-35%. But Marvel has faced grousing in recent years from readers and some retailers over a strategy that has relied heavily on gimmicks such as relaunching titles and publishing issues with multiple covers to wring money from completist collectors. Marvel also publishes roughly twice as many books per month as DC does.

Peter Dolan, owner of Main Street Comics in Middletown, N.Y., and president of retailer trade organization ComicsPro, notes that “from my store’s perspective, Marvel sales have been growing the past few years — so they must be doing something right.” A recent relaunch of the “X-Men” titles, he adds, has been warmly embraced by readers and drawn new customers into his shop.

But despite Marvel’s recent success, Dolan is not concerned about whether or how Marvel’s legacy business will change now that it’s being run by a film executive.

“I think it’s an interesting experiment, and I’m willing to see where it goes,” he says. “Marvel in particular, and the bigger companies in general, are very profit-oriented. If it’s not working out for us, then it’s not working out for them. They’ll change and adjust to fine-tune their model.”

Joe Otterson and Gene Maddaus contributed to this report.

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