The Bankruptcy of Marvel and the 5 Franchises They Gambled Away

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Comic book movies have been a hit in the new millennia since Spider-Man was released in 2002. Thanks to well-rendered CGI, once horrendously cheesy flicks are now awe-inspiring superhero films.

There was a time before The Avengers and Iron Man, when comic books weren’t doing so well. Marvel ended up putting up the film rights to their characters in the late 80s, and in 1996 they declared bankruptcy.

No doctor could stymie the early doom for the comic book industry that became apparent in the early '90's. Neil Gaiman, the legendary author and comic book writer, foreshadowed and explained the imminent comic book crash. He was scheduled to speak to a few thousand anxious businesspeople packed at the 1993 Retailers Seminar. When Neil took the stage, he presented his new piece, Gods & Tulips. His graphic novel described the bubble that was about to burst in everyone’s face. In his speech, Gaiman likened the state of comic-books to that of Tulip Mania from the 17th century.

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Back in the 1600s, there was a huge demand for tulip bulbs. Everyone wanted one. Sellers got smart, and decided to start restricting sales and promised that the supply was limited. Buyers believed that tulips would skyrocket in value. Everyone began stockpiling the bulbs… after all, the price had been rising steadily, and it was only going up!

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Eventually, the cost of a bulb sold for the same amount as a modern day mansion… but then it crashed. People realized that there was no reason for it to be so valuable. They could just buy a different flower, or grow it for themselves.

The problem in the comic book world is retailers had been selling first edition comics like tulip bulbs. They kept printing new editions, capitalizing on consumers buying multiple copies as an investment. In the news, people heard stories about Golden Age comics selling for tens of thousands of dollars, and they wanted a piece of the pie. Marvel fed into the craze, but it was not to last.

Gaiman said, "You can sell lots of comics to the same person, especially if you tell them that you are investing money for high guaranteed returns… but you're selling bubbles and tulips, and one day the bubble will burst, and the tulips will rot in the warehouse."

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Eight years prior to Gaiman’s speech, Marvel decided to raise money and sell the film rights to their major characters. In their deals, they stipulated that buyers must make a movie for the characters they licensed within an estimated 7 to 10 years. If not, the rights would revert back to Marvel. Continue to list to see the 5 franchises Marvel gambled away.

  1. Spider-Man

    Back in the 80s, comic book movies weren’t considered a great investment. Superman had launched to great success, but then it petered out and became an embarrassment. Marvel didn’t want to take any risks, and decided to gain some capital by selling the films rights to their major characters. A small studio, Cannon Films, decided to buy the rights to Spider-Man and produce their own movie… and just like that, Marvel lost the rights to show Spider-Man on the big screen.

    Cannon Films eventually went bankrupt, and Marvel got back the rights in 1999. They then sold it off again, this time to Sony for a reported $7 million. Three years later, Sony produced the epic blockbuster, Spider-Man, which raked in over $800 million dollars. Sony has owned the rights to the big screen version of the character since; however, they recently penned a deal with Marvel. In the new agreement, Marvel can put Spider-Man in any of their other superhero films for free, in exchange, Sony doesn’t have to pay Marvel a cut of the proceeds from any of their Spider-Man films.

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  2. Fantastic Four & The Silver Surfer

    In 1983, a studio representative approached Stan Lee at his LA home to try and purchase the film rights to the Fantastic Four. Nothing came of it. Two years later, Marvel began selling the film rights to their major characters. Shortly thereafter, Bernd Eichinger, the man who met with Stan Lee, purchased the rights to the Fantastic Four through Constantin Film for an estimated $250,000.

    As part of the deal, Constantin would have to produce a movie within a certain time-frame to keep the licensing. With time running out, they decided to produce a low-budget movie in 1992. In 1994, the studio began promoting the film and released a trailer, but they never intended on releasing the film itself.

    The movie was accused of being an ashcan copy, produced only to keep the film rights. Marvel ended up purchasing the negative to the film, which was never officially released. In order to keep the rights, Constantin entered into a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, who continues to produce Fantastic Four films.

  3. X-Men, Mutants, and Deadpool

    In 1984, Orion Pictures got the rights to X-Men. Marvel wrote a screenplay for them. As things progressed, Orion collapsed under financial burdens. Stan Lee then went into discussions with Carolco Pictures, while trying to get James Cameron as the director. In a string of bad luck, Carolco Pictures went bankrupt. The film rights went back to Marvel.

    Marvel continued to search for suitors to an X-Men movie, until finally in 1994, they sold the brand to 20th Century Fox. The exact details of the deal are unknown, but Fox claims to own any Marvel characters that are “mutants”, or any character that is referenced to as a “mutant”. It is assumed, this is why Fox also owns the rights to Deadpool, which it included in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and the standalone 2016 film, Deadpool.

    Marvel has been itching to get the rights back to X-Men and mutants for a role in their cinematic universe, but has had great difficulty. As long as 20th Century Fox continues to pump out new X-Men films, they are unable to regain control.

  4. Namor

    You may not have heard of Namor, but he is one of the original characters in the Marvel Universe. Some compare him to DC’s Aquaman in likeness. Namor was published way back in the 1930s, just before Marvel went bankrupt. As a result of their bankruptcy, Marvel sold the film rights to Universal Pictures.

    Universal never made a Namor movie, and everyone assumed that the film rights reverted back. This didn’t happen. According to Universal Pictures, they still own the rights to the character, and Marvel is unable to include him in their own movies.

  5. Daredevil

    It took Ben Affleck 12 years to recover in the superhero film genre (now cast as Batman) after the disaster that was 2003’s Daredevil.  While the movie bombed for many, 20th Century Fox, who owned the rights to Daredevil, proceeded with the film Elektra in 2005.

    After these two releases were shunned by fans and critics alike, Fox put the idea of a reboot on the backburner. In order to retain the rights to the character, they would have to launch a new film in less than a decade. This never came to pass, and lucky for us, the rights reverted back to Marvel.

    With full rights to their street-level Avenger, Marvel was able to produce the critically acclaimed Netflix hit Daredevil in 2015.

    Since Marvel is doing an incredible job at bringing their characters to life on the big and small screens, we can only hope that they regain the rights to their old characters. While it doesn’t look possible for X-Men and mutants, they already have the rights to do their own Spider-Man, and it is certainly possible Fox will ditch the Fantastic Four after their embarrassing 2015 reboot. Even without some of their main franchises, Marvel still has tons of characters to air on the big screen. For their full movie lineup until 2019, click here.