Sony could have bought nearly all of Marvel’s movie rights for a bargain in 1998

Oh, what might have been.
Oh, what might have been.
Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.
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“Nobody gives a sh— about any of the other Marvel characters. Go back and do a deal for only Spider-Man.”

That was the sentiment among the leadership at Sony Pictures in 1998, recalled then-Sony executive Yair Landau, in Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz’s upcoming book, The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of MoviesAn excerpt was published (paywall) in the Journal this week.

The studio was then offered the film rights for almost every Marvel character, from the Avengers to the Black Panther and more, for $25 million from a rather desperate Marvel Entertainment, which had just emerged from bankruptcy. Landau’s bosses reportedly turned it down and instead bought the rights to Spider-Man for $10 million, plus 5% of any movies’ gross revenue, and half the revenue from consumer products.

As Marvel Studios’s Black Panther stands poised for a more than $180 million openingand a February record— in North America this weekend, the decision seems shamefully short-sighted.

In the late 1990s, before Marvel captured Hollywood by bringing its comic-book world of interwoven story lines, superheroes, and villains to the big screen, Spider-Man was all the masses cared about. Sony wasn’t wrong to snap him up. The web slinger went on to star in half of the top 10 grossing movies featuring Marvel characters (including his supporting role in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War). And his six self-titled feature films have brought in $4.8 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo estimates.

But the studio missed that similar affinities could be established for characters like the X-Men, Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The 32 live-action Marvel movies released after 1998—sans Spidey in the lead—have grossed roughly $20.3 billion worldwide.

Disney and 20th Century Fox ultimately saw a future that Sony didn’t. Fox made a pretty penny from its X-Men movies, and is exercising more of its Marvel movie rights with films around characters like Deadpool and Gambit. Disney picked up the movie rights that were left on the table when it acquired Marvel in 2009. It paid quite a bit more than Sony would have, however—$4 billion. It could soon reunite Marvel with its mutants if its bid to buy Fox’s assets goes through.