In August 1996, Marvel created Marvel Studios, an incorporation of Marvel Films, due to the sale of New World Communications Group, Inc., Marvel's fellow Andrews Group subsidiary in film and television stations, to News Corporation/Fox. Filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to raise money to finance the new corporation, Marvel, Isaac Perlmutter's Zib, Inc. and Avi Arad sold Toy Biz stocks, which Marvel had started and took public in February 1995. Toy Biz filed an offering of 7.5 million shares with a closing price of $20.125 at the time, making the offering worth approximately $150 million. Toy Biz sought to sell 1 million shares, and Marvel sought to sell 2.5 million shares.
Jerry Calabrese, the president of Marvel Entertainment Group, and Avi Arad, head of Marvel Films and a director of Toy Biz, were assigned tandem control of Marvel Studios. Under Calabrese and Arad, Marvel sought to control pre-production by commissioning scripts, hiring directors, and casting characters, providing the package to a major studio partner for filming and distribution. Arad said of the goal for control, "When you get into business with a big studio, they are developing a hundred or 500 projects; you get totally lost. That isn't working for us. We're just not going to do it anymore. Period." Marvel Studios arranged a seven-year development deal with 20th Century Fox to cover markets in the United States and internationally. In the following December, Marvel Entertainment Group went through a reorganization plan, including Marvel Studios as part of its strategic investment. By 1997, Marvel Studios was actively pursuing various film productions based on Marvel characters, including the eventual films X-Men (2000), Daredevil (2003) and Fantastic Four (2005). Unproduced projects included Prince Namor, based on the character Namor and to be directed by Philip Kaufman, and Mort the Dead Teenager, based on the comic book of the same name and written by John Payson and Mort creator Larry Hama. Marvel was developing a Captain America animated series with Saban Entertainment for Fox Kids Network to premiere in fall 1998. However, due to the bankruptcy the series was canceled after only character designs and a one-minute promotional reel were made.
The first film licensed by Marvel Studios was Blade, based on the vampire hunter Blade. The film was directed by Stephen Norrington and starred Wesley Snipes as Blade. It was released on August 21, 1998, grossing $70,087,718 in the United States and Canada and $131,183,530 worldwide. In 1999, Marvel licensed Spider-Man to Sony.
Blade was followed by X-Men, which was directed by Bryan Singer and was released on July 14, 2000. X-Men grossed $157,299,717 in the United States and Canada and $296,250,053 worldwide. The Marvel films Blade and X-Men demonstrated that blockbuster films could be made out of comic book characters not familiar to the general public.
Leading up to X-Men 's release, Marvel Studios negotiated a deal with then-functional Artisan Entertainment, successful with the low-budget The Blair Witch Project, to give the studio rights to 15 Marvel characters including Captain America, Thor, Black Panther, Iron Fist, and Deadpool. With the deal at the time, 24 Marvel properties were then in various stages of development. Brian Cunningham, editor of Wizard comic book magazine, believed that Avi Arad was successful in organizing strategic alliances and exercising fiscal responsibility in multimedia expansion. Cunningham said of Arad’s leadership of the studio following its parent company’s near-bankruptcy, "The fact the X-Men is primed to be the biggest movie of the summer speaks volumes about the turnaround for Marvel. From my observation, he's focused on a lot more in diversifying Marvel, doing things that proliferate Marvel characters in the mainstream." Arad sought to protect Marvel’s image by serving as executive producer in all Marvel film productions and being responsible for crossover marketing between Marvel properties. Arad had properties set up at different studios to create momentum so one studio would not cannibalize efforts with one property for the sake of another. By 2001, the success of Marvel Entertainment’s Ultimate Marvel comics created leverage in Hollywood for Marvel Studios, pushing more properties into development.
The next blockbuster film licensed from Marvel Studios was Spider-Man by Columbia Pictures, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. The film was released on May 3, 2002, grossing $403,706,375 in the United States and Canada and $821,708,551 worldwide. The early success of Spider-Man led the film's studio to issue a seven-figure advance for a sequel. Arad spoke of the deal, "Movies make sequels. Therefore, it's a big economic luxury to know that a movie's going to get a second and third. This is a business of precedence." According to a Lehman Brothers analysis, the Studios made only $62 million for the first 2 Spider-man movies.
In producing Marvel films in the 2000s, Avi Arad sought to capture the superheroes’ internal conflicts. According to The New York Times, "Mr. Arad's great accomplishment – and it is one, given the difficulties in transferring any kind of printed material to the big screen – is conveying what makes those heroes tick as characters... He works with the filmmakers to ensure that the heroes are conflicted, the villains motivated, the outcome shaded." In contrast to the original storylines of DC Comics’ Superman and Batman films, Marvel films were more directly inspired by their comics, copying from them set pieces, scenes, plots, and dialogue.
Partnering with Lions Gate Entertainment in 2004, Marvel Studios plan to enter the direct-to-DVD market with eight animated films with Lionsgate handling distribution. Eric Rollman was hired by Marvel as Executive Vice President, Home Entertainment & TV Production for Marvel Studios to oversee the deal with Lionsgate.
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