Amy Pascal has ascended to the Throne of Nerdvana: as Co-Chair of Sony Pictures, she green-lighted The Interview, triggering a hacker skirmish between North Korea and the United States that reached the White House and sparked open talk about the future of cyber warfare. For her encore, she cut a deal that teamed her up with Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios to bring her beloved Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
What does Sony get
Years in the making, the deal is genius, and rare model of win-win in Hollywood. On the Sony side, Disney will literally get out of Spidey’s way, and has shuffled its release schedule to accommodate the next Sony Spider-Man feature. (Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Captain Marvel have each been bumped by roughly six months so the next Spidey can hit theaters on July 28, 2017.) That’s less competition for future Spider-Man releases, which can mean significantly bigger box office.
Contrary to predictions of her demise as a result of the hacker attack, Pascal fell “up.” Sony furnished her with a massive production deal, so that she can do what she’s always done best, cultivate talent and make big pictures. Note the subtle but important titling on the next Spider-Man: Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad, who were producers on the last two Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield Spidey movies (the second of which performed below Sony’s expectations at the global box office, though it earned nearly $709 million), have been bumped up to executive producers, while Pascal takes on the producer credit.
In Hollywood-speak, exec producers lean back, while the producer is the one who develops the creative, assembles the talent, pulls the production together and toils on it every day until it gets done. That puts Pascal in the driver’s seat with Feige riding shotgun on future Sony pics, and vice versa for future Marvel Studios appearances by Spidey.
Why did Feige (and the remaining Sony brass) concede to this Because Pascal doesn’t just love Spider-Man, she knows the character and his universe, and has guided the franchise since the original Raimi/Maguire trilogy, generating billions for Sony. A comic book geek dating back to her teen years, she understands how the franchise’s value can increase exponentially if she plays well with others. Pascal has studied the Marvel films closely and will likely welcome a few shakes of Feige’s sparkle dust on Peter Parker’s shoulders.
Finally, Spider-Man no longer has to operate in a vacuum, dependent on evil Oscorp to churn out his rogues gallery. Sony gets access to Marvel superheroes and super-villains for future Spider-Man features. Spider-Man’s New York will become Marvel New York. He can swing past Avengers Tower, Iron Man can do a flyby, or Spidey can even spend a whole movie teamed up with the Hulk, battling Venom and the Abomination. (Yeah, I’m a geek, too.) Supercharged with Marvel all-stars, rather than relying on villains with whom the audience is unfamiliar, each Spider-Man movie will be a major event.
What does Marvel get
Marvel gets what it’s been missing: its beating heart. For its first several movies, Agent Coulson sort of filled the role of the ordinary guy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With no super powers, he was responsible for wrangling the heroes, dealing with them with a dry wit and the low-key hero worship of a closet fanboy.
Coulson’s “death” in Avengers pulled the team together for the first time. But his departure from the films for the SHIELD TV series has given him a different role to play, and left a hole in the chest of the franchise—one that Spider-Man is now destined to fill.
The upcoming Captain America: Civil War would have been fine as a vehicle pitting Iron Man against Captain America in a battle over the place of superheroes in the eyes of the feds. But what made the saga a great story in the comics was that Spider-Man represented the everyman superhero stuck between two of his idols. Marvel can have that now, which will almost certainly make for a better movie.
To this end, there is the question of the future of Andrew Garfield, whom Pascal rightly championed. Sadly, but perhaps logically, Garfield will be recast so that Marvel and Sony can have a younger, scrappier and more wide-eyed Spidey, one that will hang onto this side of 30 for at least several more pictures.
While Sony will continue to make Spider-Man movies, Marvel Studios can have Spidey as anything from a cameo to a featured player in its own movies and live-action TV shows (they already have Spider-Man for animation). More than likely, that also includes Spidey’s supporting cast of over 100 heroes (Black Cat), villains (Carnage), and civilians (J. Jonah Jameson), plus OsCorp, Horizon Labs, and The Daily Bugle.
“Spidey has evergreen kid cred like no other comic book character.”
Finally, Marvel will at last have access to its premiere asset, arguably the most popular and recognized superhero in global popular culture. He will show up on the posters, in the previews, and find his way into the playsets. Spidey has evergreen kid cred like no other comic book character. Kids like Thor and Captain America, but they love Spider-Man! That makes him the jewel missing from Marvel’s crown.
What do both studios get
Money! And you can wager it will be more than just increased box office. Feige has been running the Marvel Cinematic Universe from a transmedia mentality. This means that he has been devising a consistent shared universe, each piece of which is telling a part of a cosmically greater story. Feature films, DVD shorts, network television series, streaming series on Netflix—what’s left to conquer Mobile apps and console video games!
Until now, if a game licensee wanted to put Spider-Man into an app or vidgame, the license had to be based on the comic books. You couldn’t put the movie Spider-Man into an interactive adventure that featured the movie versions of Marvel’s heroes. That has likely changed, and this can fuel a push by Marvel (with Sony tagging along) into much stronger, more story-driven MCU game licenses.
It’s no secret that Marvel games based on the comics have done okay, and the ones based on the movies have…left something to be desired. This has to be a sore point that Feige and Disney would like fixed. After all, blockbuster games can generate hundreds of millions in revenues. Spider-Man games (particularly the ones from Activision) have actually fared better on average, and if cleverly negotiated, Spidey’s arrival can turbo-charge a new wave of games across a variety of platforms that play better, tell better stories, and become big event expansions of the MCU as opposed to fleas on its back.
Of course, the same might hold for other types of licensing, possibly granting Sony access to licensing revenues that it didn’t have before. For example, Sony did not derive revenue from Spider-Man toys based on Marvel’s cartoon series, or the comic books themselves, just from products that fell under their motion picture branding. With Spidey now an active participant in the MCU, Sony will likely be given a taste under Disney’s significantly broader licensing scope. At the very least, Sony will see a significant bump in licensing revenue from its own Spider-Man movies, as more high profile Marvel characters find their way into the hometown action.
“The world has never really understood why Spider-Man is not in the Marvel movies and vice versa. Now, they’re going to get what they want, and they don’t have to be the wiser about who is controlling or communicating what.”
Both studios are likely to leverage a major marketing boost. Again, this requires quite a bit of cooperative play, but if Sony and Disney pull this off, assets, characters, even entire campaigns can move fluidly back and forth between them. The world has never really understood why Spider-Man is not in the Marvel movies and vice versa. Now, they’re going to get what they want, and they don’t have to be the wiser about who is controlling or communicating what. The totality of the experience will be like pouring through your weekly pile of Marvel Comics, which is as it ought to be!
This makes the arduous negotiation of sharing custody of Spider-Man—despite studios rivalries, big egos, insider naysayers, and a morass of legal bureaucracy on both sides—a win-win for both Marvel and Sony, and producers Feige and Pascal. That’s a rarity in Hollywood that bodes well for the future efficacy of rich, multi-platform story worlds.
Hey Wolverine, want to come out and play?
Full disclosure: Jeff Gomez and his company Starlight Runner Entertainment have worked as transmedia producers for Sony Pictures Entertainment in the past. This article is based on publically available information and is not informed by that work.
Jeff Gomez is CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York based production company that consults with Hollywood studios on some of their most popular entertainment franchises. Follow him @Jeff_Gomez.