Rumors are circulating that Sony is looking to get out of the film-making business, spurred on by CEO Michael Lynton stepping down to serve as Snapchat chairman. It's worth noting from the outset that these are only rumors; Sony is officially denying that any sale is in the works. Still, the internet is rife with speculation that not only are Sony selling, but CBS is interested in buying. Let's assume that these rumors are true for a moment; what would this mean for Sony's biggest franchise: Spider-Man?
The Current Situation
In the years before #Marvel launched their own film-making division, they tended to sell the rights to their characters off to studios. Sony got Spider-Man, and made no less than five movies starring different incarnations of the character. Unfortunately, by 2014, the franchise seemed to be losing steam; The Amazing Spider-Man 2 failed to live up to Sony's expectations. Marvel took the opportunity to propose a deal, which Sony initially rejected.
The deal went public in late 2014, though, after Sony got hacked; shareholders exerted pressure for the studio to reconsider, and in March 2015 Sony and Marvel agreed to the current status quo. It's worth noting that details on this deal are pretty much top-secret; the finalised documents have never been made public knowledge. So we can only go from a handful of official announcements and throwaway comments.
When Marvel officially announced their deal, they stated:
"Under the deal, the new Spider-Man will first appear in a Marvel film from Marvel's Cinematic Universe (MCU). Sony Pictures will thereafter release the next installment of its $4 billion Spider-Man franchise, on July 28, 2017, in a film that will be co-produced by Kevin Feige and his expert team at Marvel and Amy Pascal, who oversaw the franchise launch for the studio 13 years ago. Together, they will collaborate on a new creative direction for the web slinger. Sony Pictures will continue to finance, distribute, own and have final creative control of the Spider-Man films."
In a fascinating twist, Variety learned that no money changed hands as part of this deal. Marvel don't have to pay Sony for use of Spider-Man in their movies, and so recouped the full profits from Captain America: Civil War; Sony don't have to pay out to Marvel for use of their team, and so recoup the full profits from Spider-Man: Homecoming. #TomHolland is signed up for six movies; three Marvel Studios films, and three Spider-Man films.
That said, each movie is being negotiated independently. Before Christmas, Tom Holland shocked fans by revealing he wasn't yet confirmed for Avengers: Infinity War; that was still being negotiated. He's since been confirmed for the film, but the very fact that there needed to be more negotiations is an interesting wrinkle.
So, that's the current status quo; Sony owns the film rights to Spider-Man, but has agreed to share them in a mysterious partnership. What would happen if Sony was sold on to CBS?
Scenario One: The 'Warner Bros.' Clause
A lot of fans believe that more recent Marvel contracts have included what's being referred to as a 'Warner Bros. Clause': a clause to prevent the film rights being sold on. Warner Bros. own DC Comics, Marvel's main comic book competitor, and the idea is that this clause prevents Warner Bros. getting hold of the film rights to Marvel characters.
We know that this clause certainly didn't exist in any of Marvel's older contracts, but it's possible that, as Marvel redrew contracts, they gradually began to slip this in.
If this clause does indeed exist in the contract between Marvel and Sony, then it's distinctly possible that — should Sony be sold on to CBS — the film rights to Spider-Man would revert to Marvel. Another possibility, depending on the terms of the clause, is that Marvel would have the right to make a financial bid to buy those rights back.
Here's the catch: the contracts aren't public domain, so we have no way of actually knowing whether or not that clause exists. Even if Marvel has been inserting that clause into more recent contracts, Sony's is an older one; we have no evidence that it was ever redrawn to include that clause.
For now, this scenario seems unlikely — but not impossible.
Scenario Two: CBS Purchases Sony Entertainment
Let's say, then, that CBS purchases Sony Entertainment, and with that purchase, CBS gets the rights to Spider-Man. Sony's Spider-Man deal is unlikely to be immediately affected by this purchase. First of all, it's worth noting that the Sony / Marvel deal is expected to be hugely profitable for both companies; it was a very satisfying quid pro quo, and expectations are that #SpiderManHomecoming will perform at least as well as one of the classic Sam Raimi films. I sincerely doubt that CBS would want to meddle with a winning formula.
Secondly, though, remember that the deal has legal force behind it; it's an official, legal agreement between the two parties, and you can bet that any attempt to backtrack — by either CBS or Marvel — would end up in court, and prove to be extremely expensive. I simply can't see this issue arising; the Spider-Man deal is likely to stand, even if Sony Entertainment was to be purchased by CBS.
There are, however, two caveats to this. First of all, Sony seems to have shown remarkable restraint when it comes to the exercise of their creative control. With new players entering into the game, we don't know that CBS would do the same. Secondly, the fact that Tom Holland's presence in Infinity War wasn't guaranteed from the outset suggests that the final deal requires agreement from both parties on a case-by-case basis. Again, with new players around the negotiating table, we don't know whether or not Marvel would have to adapt their plan around CBS's longer-term intentions for the franchise. So we'd be unlikely to see the Tom Holland Spider-Man era end, and contractually we'd expect the trilogy and cameos to continue, but the finer details may well change.
It's worth noting, though, that — in the event Sony Entertainment is sold to CBS — I can see Marvel making another pitch to buy the rights to Spider-Man back. We know that's Marvel's best-case scenario; the Sony leaks in 2014 revealed that the deal was a second option, after Sony refused to let Marvel purchase those precious film rights. We have literally no way of knowing what CBS's decision would be, and it's likely that, if these negotiations failed, we'd never even hear that they'd happened in the first place.
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Let's face it; if Sony Entertainment is sold to CBS, it will add just another layer of complexity to the Spider-Man rights. Naturally, the contracts aren't public domain, so we have no way of knowing exactly what will happen. For now, we're purely in the realm of speculation, but one thing's for sure; Marvel fans have no reason to panic right now.
What do you think will happen to the Spider-Man franchise in this eventuality? Let me know in the comments!