Tuesday, September 1, 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.

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