Somewhere, in the vast reaches of the cosmos, there's an alternate universe where people are watching a Marvel Cinematic Universe produced by Sony Pictures.
That's almost impossible to imagine for us here on this version of Earth, as the juggernaut known as Marvel Studios prepares to release Black Panther, its 18th entry in the MCU megafranchise. What started with Iron Man in 2008 is now—nearly 20 films and more than $13 billion later—a seemingly unstoppable force that basically invented the modern shared universe model of blockbusters. Two decades ago, though, it could have all gone to another studio for what sounds in hindsight like a massive bargain.
In an excerpt from his new book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz recounts how, in 1998, Sony Pictures executive Yair Landau approached Marvel at Sony's request with the intention of making an offer for the film rights to Spider-Man. Thanks to a tangled web of various deals (a Spidey movie had been in various stages of development for years at that point, with multiple entities involved), Sony already had DVD rights to the character, but they had to get something more from Marvel if they wanted to put Peter Parker on the big screen.
In those days Marvel was far from the film titan we now know it to be. It was a comic book company coming out of bankruptcy and eager for new sources of revenue. When the Sony offer for Spider-Man came in, Marvel Entertainment head Ike Perlmutter tried to sweeten the deal. For $25 million, Sony could have Spidey, plus Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Panther and other Marvel characters. In other words, all of the characters that now populate the MCU would have seen their film rights go to Sony (The X-Men and the Fantastic Four were already at Fox).
When Landau reported back to his superiors, Sony executives scoffed at the deal. According to him, the response was: “Nobody gives a sh—about any of the other Marvel characters. Go back and do a deal for only Spider-Man.”
Ultimately, Marvel agreed to a Spidey-only offer of $10 million, along with a 50/50 split on consumer products revenue and 5% of any film grosses. Sony took the deal. By the early 2000s, Spider-Man was the movie superhero, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars for Sony and establishing them as a major blockbuster player while Marvel was still struggling to find its own footing in the film industry. Avi Arad, Perlmutter's partner and a key player in the early days of what would become Marvel Studios, called the deal "pitiful."
Eventually, Marvel made a serious effort to take its remaining heroes—characters who seemed liked B-listers compared to Spider-Man—and make movies of its own. Iron Man came first, not because Tony Stark seemed like he'd be the best lead-off star, but because Perlmutter viewed the films as glorified toy commercials and a focus group of children said Iron Man would be the action figure they'd be most likely to play with.
By 2006—bolstered by a financing deal with Merrill-Lynch in which they could borrow up to half a billion dollars to make movies and under the new leadership of Kevin Feige—Marvel Studios was off and running. Three years later, as the company's ambitions grew and more films in what would become the MCU were announced and entered production, Disney acquired Marvel for $4 billion. That's not entirely due to the film production arm of Marvel, but the budding MCU certainly had a lot to do with it. And to think, Sony could've had a shot at the same success a decade earlier, at a tiny fraction of the cost.
It is, of course, always easy to see these things in hindsight, but you have to wonder if someone at Sony is still waking up at night in a cold sweat after dreaming about what might have been.
Fritz's The Big Picture will be released March 6.