Editorial – Disney buys Marvel

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the news that shocked me Monday morning. By Monday night, I realized we should have seen it coming. Keep reading to hear my thoughts on the possible pros and cons to this deal, and to go through the signs that seem obvious in retrospect.

The Warning Signs

The signs were there. I just couldn’t see the forest because there were too many bloody trees in the way.

The earliest sign I should have picked up on was surrounding me in my day job each morning. During the day, I work for the supplemental education everyone has heard of, so I see dozens of children from Kindergarten through grade 12 each week. Now, when I worked at a theatre ten years ago, I saw as many boys in Buzz Lightyear T-shirts as I saw girls in Pocahontas T-shirts. Disney hit young people of both genders equally effectively. That doesn’t happen anymore. Yes, the girls are still often wrapped in Disney Princess gear, but the boys wear Marvel, not Disney. I see Spider-Man and Iron Man on shoes and T-shirts almost daily. I can put an old Marvel Essential in the waiting room under Lion King and Toy Story books, and the boys push away the Disney to get to the Marvel. Marvel still reaches an entire demographic Disney has lost. These kids may not be buying comics yet, but they’re dressing in superheroes, buying the sleeping bags, eating out of the lunch boxes and watching the DVDs.

Let’s talk about the DVD product. Buena Vista, Disney’s distribution arm, has owned the rights to a lot of Marvel DVD product for years. Disney distributed the Fox Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons from the 1990s on DVD in three or four episode sets for years. They also released the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon, and were scheduled to release the other 1960s era Marvel cartoons. Those releases didn’t happen. Why not? The House of Ideas sued the House of Mouse, accusing them of rat-like behaviour when it came to reporting accurate sales numbers. Well, the Buena Vista Marvel DVD releases resumed earlier this year when the 1990s X-Men cartoon starting hitting shelves in larger sets. Volumes 1 and 2 are out, 3 and 4 are due later this month, and volume 5 should finish the series by Christmas. The interviews I read asking about the resolution of the lawsuit mention that an arrangement had been met. I read three interviews, and all used the word “arrangement” instead of “settlement.” I thought that was odd at the time, but didn’t put a lot of thought into it until now.

There’s another oddity that cropped up earlier this year. I’ve mentioned that sales on Marvel’s Runaways title are pretty low. In fact, the sales are lower than those for Exiles, Captain Britain and MI13, and some issues of Astonishing Tales. Of those four titles, three are canceled, and Runaways isn’t one of them. I assumed it was because the movie was in production, and that much may have been correct. With issue 11, they brought on a new creative team to a book with sales in the toilet. Generally, books are canceled at this level when they lose a creative team. Instead, they brought in capable but fairly unknown creators, who presumably get paid lower wages than others, keeping the production costs down. Why go to that much trouble for a failing title? Though Marvel announced that Brian K. Vaughan, the series co-creator, was involved in the production, they didn’t confirm (or even mention) the distribution company that would be used. It’s possible that I’m reading too much into this, and that the digest sales are strong enough to warrant the special treatment, but I now realize it could be more than that. Runaways sells well in digest because it connects well with young teen readers in the demographics Disney is missing who are ready to believe their parents are secretly supervillains. What better Marvel title to be adapted into a movie released with the Disney brand? It hits the demographics without involving properties currently licensed to other studios and distributors. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s a major title Disney was looking for out of this deal. As mentioned, though, I could be reading a lot into this; this month’s Runaways #14 is the last issue solicited so far, meaning it may have finally been canceled. Then again, it could have simply been postponed with a more Disney-friendly attitude in an upcoming relaunch that was withheld from solicitations until after the acquisition announcement.

The Marvel Perspective

Why would Marvel want to become part of the Disney empire? Look at the initiatives that the company has come out with in the past decade. First and foremost, they’ve got the live action movies. Some of their greatest financial successes (Spider-Man, X-Men and Iron Man) have been reached with materials which respect (but are not necessarily slaves to) the history of the comics. Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United and Iron Man all stayed true to the spirit (if not the letter) of the source material and raked in accolades and cash from fans and critics alike. Some of the missteps (Daredevil‘s theatrical cut, Elektra, Fantastic Four, X-Men 3) underperformed relative to expectations, not strictly because they deviated from the source material, but because the people who adapted them in this fashion didn’t properly understand and reproduce the appeal of the source material, and came out with substandard products. They’ve also had hits when they start world-building, with the current initiative towards producing an Avengers movie. Disney knows how to make a movie, and they have the resources to weather a bomb or two and walk away.

Marvel’s animated home features are also well positioned. Lions Gate can get a movie on store shelves, but if you’re not in the store anyway, you probably won’t hear about it. Anyone still watching broadcast television complete with commercials (as opposed to those of us with DVR technology or who follow series on DVD instead) will know when Disney’s next classic gets the Platinum treatment. Disney gets the ads and awareness out there, which ultimately sells more copies. Marvel’s animated product may not be up to the average quality of DC’s animated product, but I’ll wager Dr. Strange is more entertaining than Tinkerbell. In spite of this, I’m sure Stephen was choking on Tink’s pixie dust when it came to the sales race.

From the publishing perspective, Marvel’s also got a chance to expand. Joe Quesada has stated that one of his goals as Editor-in-Chief is to get more people reading comics. To that end, he’s had Stephen King’s Dark Tower series expanded in comics, and The Stand adapted. Orson Scott Card’s Ender series is showing up in comics. Illustrated adaptations of classics like Pride and Prejudice, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick and others have also been published by the company. The thought of publishing Disney characters in comics with house ads for the Marvel Adventures line has got to be appealing. The Disney characters will reach kids and get them interested in the medium, and the cross promotion possibilities can lead them into the Marvel line. They can also reduce total overhead by joining the conglomerate, allowing them to operate with the lower cancellation marks that DC has been able to use since it was purchased by Warner Brothers.

The Disney Perspective

Disney gets a lot of potential from the deal as well. They get established, recognizable brands and characters to add to their list of merchandising possibilities, and they get to reach an entire demographic that they currently don’t get to reach. They also get an outlet to get their characters on comic shelves. Disney has done comics before, and they are currently using Boom! to release comics based on The Muppet Show and Cars. While the accounts I’ve heard indicate Boom! is doing well with them, there are few comics that hit the kinds of market share numbers Disney is used to that aren’t published by Marvel or DC. Getting their products out through one of the big two is sure to give a big boost to sales, even with a comparable quality product. In short, they’ve now got their hands on all sorts of brands and characters they can market. Disney owns several television networks too, which positions them nicely for putting together the next Justice League Unlimited or Smallville as a result of this deal.

What I Expect To See

As long as the current head honchos of Marvel and Disney stay in place, I think we’re going to see Disney keep a “hands off” approach when it comes to Marvel editorial, exerting their influence significantly only when it comes to tie-ins to current movie and TV properties or Marvel publishing Disney comics. They took the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude with Pixar, and Marvel will likely get the same leeway. I expect to see a lot more variety and higher quality of Marvel product on shelves, and a lot more marketing when it comes to Marvel’s next animated home video release. Disney has promised to allow current distribution deals to stay as they are, meaning Fox keeps making Fantastic Four movies, Sony keeps Spider-Man 4-6 and Paramount gets to distribute the Avengers movies in production. Once those contracts are fulfilled, I expect everything to hit via Disney or a subsidiary, likely the Touchstone Pictures arm that Disney uses for movies like Dark Water and The Prestige. I expect to see students coming in wearing superheroes far more often. I expect to see a Disney line of comics on shelves within a year, possibly within 6 months. I expect to see little change in Marvel’s main line of titles or the MAX lines; Disney’s name probably won’t be prominently displayed, so most people won’t yell at Disney if their kid comes home with an issue of The Punisher he found on the schoolyard. I expect to see a live action Marvel series ready to compete with Smallville in time for the fall 2010 TV season. Aside from that, I don’t expect a lot of changes. Both companies have the opportunity to extend their respective reaches, and its in their best interests to stay out of each other’s creative paths.

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