Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Disney and Marvel: Two Creative Failures

Disney's purchase of Marvel has generated a lot of discussion about the specifics of the business deal and the potential synergies, but what I see is one creatively bankrupt company buying another.

This is Robert Iger's second major purchase for Disney. The first was Pixar at a cost of $7 billion. Marvel went for "only" $4 billion. These purchases have defined Iger's tenure as head of Disney, but not in a way that speaks well for him. While business writers are taken with Iger's boldness, what we have here is someone who doesn't believe that his company is able to compete.

When Walt Disney moved into live action, he didn't buy an existing studio. When he went into television, he didn't buy an existing production company. When he went into distribution, he didn't buy a distribution company. When he went into theme parks, he didn't buy an amusement park. In each case, Walt Disney grew his own company and built its expertise in these areas until the company could compete, and in some cases lead, the particular industry. When Walt Disney was interested in accomplishing something, he did it from the ground up.

By contrast, when Robert Iger needs to compete in computer animated features or to capture a larger share of the young boys audience, he pulls out the corporate wallet and buys what he needs.

Consider the numbers involved. Let's say that it costs $250 million to make and market a cgi family feature. For the $7 billion Iger spent on Pixar, he could have made 28 feature films. With 28 kicks at the can, a company could try a wide variety of approaches and techniques in trying to succeed with audiences.

One of the areas that the Marvel deal is supposed to help is the Disney XD cable channel. Let's say it's going to cost $15 million to create 13 episodes of a TV series (a very generous budget for cable). For $4 billion, Disney could create 266 TV series in an attempt to attract the boy's audience.

With those kind of resources, it's appalling that the company never made a serious attempt.

And what exactly has Disney bought in buying Marvel?

While Marvel recently celebrated it's 70th anniversary, the truth is that the company was creative for approximately 10 years of that time (1939-40 and 1961-68). If you were to remove six people from Marvel's history -- Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko -- you would remove the majority of the characters that define Marvel and the ones that are left are based on examples created by these six.

Marvel has had success recently in creating films based on its characters, but the characters are all more than 30 years old. The company's attitude towards creators guarantees that no new characters will be forthcoming. Marvel took ownership of the work of its writers and artists (even when those people were independent contractors and not employees), but the bigger blunder was to withhold profits or royalties from those creators. As the characters gained popularity and began to generate real money, the creators finally figured out that they would see none of the wealth they created, so they stopped coming up with new ideas.

Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko both left the company as a result of broken promises for compensation. Steve Gerber and Marv Wolfman both sued the company to regain ownership of Howard the Duck and Blade, respectively (and lost). In the '90s, a group of artists split from Marvel to form Image Comics precisely because they realized that they would never receive a fair deal there. Marvel's history of dealing with creators has guaranteed that the very characters that Disney covets are finite in number.

When Disney bought Pixar, they were buying a future: Pixar was still generating new films and characters. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, two people responsible for Pixar's success, were still with the company and still attracting audiences. By contrast, buying Marvel is buying the past. The characters are already decades old and the people who created them are no longer with the company. In this sense, the purchase of Marvel is closer to the purchase of the Muppets than the purchase of Pixar.

Time will determine if the purchase of Marvel was a good one or not. However, the pattern that Iger has established doesn't speak well for Disney's future. Creators need places where they can try things free from a corporate bureaucracy and where they can share in the wealth that they create. Disney would prefer to let those things happen elsewhere and then buy them after the fact.


Unknown said...

A first-rate analysis, certainly better than anything I've seen in the business press.

Jamil R. Lahham said...

I second that. The comparative analysis you provided is very simple and straight ahead, yet very rich and informative.


swtcurran said...

in a few short years they spent 11 billion dollars in acquisitions... and they expect to make it back soon how?

Daniel Potvin said...

An excellent overview of the entire situation Mark. Your analysis is spot on and I share your opinion; so perfectly summarized in the last two sentences of your post.


J Caswell said...

Excellent. All the editorials picture Spider-Man with Mickey ears. The true test of the viability of the proposition(to attract boys) will be whether DisneyPixarMarvelCorp will be able to market the Punisher, Death's head bold and guns ablazing. Maybe in a Goofy hat.

Martin Juneau said...

I share your opinion Mark and i agree too. The real Walt was reddy to compete not to acquiring existing licences but creating something hand-by-hand with his crew and they make a outstanding job. And i scare that this Marvel transaction could be the decline of the studio yet it's already did.

Since the begin of this year, Teletoon Canada is the official licenser of the Marvel franchise in Canada. I just hope they don't turn heavy because it's now in coporation with Disney. Disney + Teletoon = Reeeaaaallly bad!

Lisa said...

Disney just keeps getting bigger!!!

Unknown said...

Great review. Haven´t seen the situation it that way. Yeah, mainstream comics are stuck in the 60´s, they haven´t moved forward ever since and probably never will.

Yeldarb86 said...

I knew there was something wrong with this purchase, as I suspected with the Pixar purchase.

Disney didn't so much need Pixar to start making better animated films, be they hand-drawn, CGI, stop-motion, or whatever. They needed better management, and they were already in the process of doing so by tearing down their "creative planning" department as Michael Eisner was on his way out.

The studio is already one of the leading media corporations that has gotten so big, it's impossible for smaller companies, or any other third parties to compete. It's hard to come up with a lucrative product without first conforming to the standards and regulations set by the behemoths, which discourages coming up with anything original. And based from the recurring problem with YouTube, it's hard to use any of their properties without their permission, even if it happens to be film archives that they haven't used in years, or don't plan on using anytime soon.

And God forbid there comes a day when Disney's management becomes corrupt (again), and begins to become a negative influence on their subsidiaries.

If anything, Disney needs to drop the extra weight, or be prepared for the inevitable run-in with the anti-trust department.

Pete Emslie said...

Wait - I feel a song coming on!.....

Igerman, Igerman,
Does whatever an Iger can;
Makes a bid, any size,
Scoops 'em up, just like flies;
Look out - here comes the Igerman!

Floyd Norman said...

We've been seeing this coming since the early eighties. My pals at Disney predicted one day the name of Walt's company will be changed once again.

Look out, WalMart. Here comes, DizCo.

Thad said...

Here comes, DizCo.

I actually spit up a little when I read that. Too real to be funny.


Well said, Mark. I agree, it seems that Iger simply doesn't have faith in his own studio, and doesn't know any other way of fixing it. Walt would have been horrified.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Mark. I will have to play devil's advocate though and maybe counter a couple of the point's you have made. I am (in today's market especially) not sure of any company that hasn't pulled or prodded or bought out ideas or talent to strengthen there positions. I do not disagree with you on the Marvel issue, as I scratch my head over buying a company that has come out of chapter 11(which would of been smart to make a move then) and with the comic book industry all but dead (talk to the silver snail owner and he will tell you about a record low numbers in orders in the comic field just last month) and other facets mentioned in your blog, you are dead on. Marvel has not had any creative character with staying power since venom in, oh '89? And that was one character!!

But with Pixar, I disagree. As you have said, Disney Has built his expertise in these areas (theme parks, movies) until the company could compete, but it wasn't soley on his ideas and talent. A good example; pretty much all the timeless classics, from Alice in wonderland to sleeping beauty, treasure island to old Yeller, are stories from other writers, bought and expanded on by Disney and given the "Flair" by his artists and hired film makers. I am not taking away from him; he is a master ringleader. But his methods, him buying his talent and scooping up others ideas is almost a fine line from what Iger did. He just orchestrated it to seem like everything was "in house". Maybe the art style, but a lot of the stories were not.

An example of such business practices at work; when Disney was building the haunted mansion, he was all gun hoe about using a certain set up (walking through a haunted house) until he went on a ride at the 1964 new York's world fair. He said he had to have it the way it was (the omni mover system)in the fair. He just used his in house people to Disney it up ( Marc Davis and Claude Coats were the two who finished it up i believe) and really all the guts behind the ride were from the fair's inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Pixar is a continuation on Disney's beloved reputation; Animation. They are the one's still applying and pushing that Disney spin and branding on everything. And to get even more technical, are turning out more original content story wise than the original Walt Disney Animation studios! I love the animation and quality and tradition that the original studio presented and I will argue this, that the only one's continuing that tradition are Pixar. During the early 2000's you could be hard pressed to find a Disney movie with that Disney feel, and that transition into 3D only made things harder. But a few pioneers behind Pixar (some former Disney animation employess, mind you) were the same ones whom are making the films at Pixar today under the traditions built by the original animators and artists of Walt's era. I think it was essential to keep that legacy not only alive, but thriving (even if technology had brought the focus on 3d animation as opposed to classical). I am not sure of any animators at Pixar who will not recite the fundamentals outlined in the illusion of life still as the way animation should be studied and mastered.

I commend Iger for having the vision Eisner didn't have when he almost tossed them to the side like a dying dog and refusing to negotiate with Pixar. Not bringing them into the fold would of created a slew of "the wild" movies under a Eisner like moniker and would of kept out sourcing companies bidding and bidding on the next Disney feature. We would of had many Core studio's doing admirable jobs but nothing to what Pixar can and has done. Not to mention, yes they could of made 20 films to hit and miss, but if all 20 missed,what then? Look at what was green lite and what was chopped when Lassetter took over (original content in development at Disney). Some of the incoming stories were beyond terrible; not to mention the better ones that Pixar let go to theaters (Meet the Robinson and Bolt is not Monsters Inc. or finding nemo). They made money, but not Pixar film money. Bolt domestic total; 114 and change. When the Incredibles opened, it made 70 in its opening weekend alone. It went on to make a total of 261. It opened a full 4 years before bolt as well,so with inflation, who knows the math.

The point being, from a buisness and artistic standpoint, Pixar makes sense in the umbrella of Disney. Marvel does not.

Steve Schnier said...

Walt Disney built everything from the ground up - because there was nothing out there to buy. While he didn't originate the feature length cartoon, there were no similar ventures in production at the time he began making his.

Anonymous said...

Hello Mark, long time visitor first time commenter,

With regards to your comments on Marvel and creativity, I couldn't disagree more. Just because Marvel continues to use characters created more than 40 years ago does not mean they are leeching off them as you seen you suggest. They are just expanding on their history.

Creativity is more than just creating new characters but taking the characters you have and expanding on their history and develop those characters. The amazing thing about Marvel, and DC to an extant (since the latter is infamous for constant reboots), is that its characters exist in a continuity and have a history and it's the job of the writers and co. to expand that history.

Take Spider-man for example. After his original creators left, future writers would give him more new and original experiences, such as losing his girlfriend, or finding a new costume or getting married (well until recently). The histories of these characters are not supposed to end but to keep on going like in real life.

When it comes to comics, independent and creator owned comics may be fine and dandy but I prefer Marvel and DC for their never-ending history.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

A very astute analysis. Back in the old days, you built what want, you didn't buy it. Also if you did buy another company you simply saw potential for growth and not because you wanted a monopoly in the business you're in.

"Marvel has had success recently in creating films based on its characters, but the characters are all more than 30 years old."

Same goes for DC. Super hero comic books in general are simply creatively bankrupt today and have been for decades. They re-written characters histories nearly on a constant basis since the early 90's, created half baked characters then killed them for a sense of drama, turned them all grim and brooding to try and add some inane sense of "realism", and then making series after series of long, boring, and convoluted events that forces you to buy another series featuring another super hero you have no interest in.

Ricardo Cantoral said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ricardo Cantoral said...

Oh I almost forgot to point out that all this comic book continuity is just circular. They do not grow or develop, things happen (all gimmicks), and then the slate is wiped clean and it starts all over again.

I LMAO when papers and television published the death of Captain America recently like it would be something perminent. Of course seven to eight months later, he was very much alive.

A DC example, Jason Todd's return. He had been dead for years after a much publized event of readers deciding to kill him off in the late 80's. Fifteen years later, he was brought back because of some idiotic explanation in the "inifinite crisis" series.

I could make an entire blog about this so called comic book continuity and how it's all nothing but a half assed way to snag new readers instead of coming up with new characters or new plots.

allen mez said...

This is the definitive article on the subject. Thank you. I cringe at every article applauding Iger's business acumen when he can't harness the incredible talent and resources under his own roof. It seems that Disney has more in common with Wall-Mart than it does with a creative studio.