Monday, August 31, 2009

Corporate Toes

The news reverberating through the comic book business this morning is the announcement that Disney is buying Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. As a result, Marvel's stock has jumped to almost $50 a share. Quite a change from a decade ago when the company was in bankruptcy and the stock was in the toilet.

On the heels of this news, I got an email from someone asking, since I had been at DC when Time Inc bought Warner Communications, how I thought the Disney purchase would affect the Marvel Comics operations. My response was, "I have no idea."

Prior to the creation of Time-Warner in 1990, DC Comics was part of Warner Publishing, the WCI division that also included Warner Books, Mad magazine (then a separate entity from DC, with Bill Gaines still in charge), and the Independent News distribution company. DC management had to answer to "the people upstairs" and there was always the feeling that those folks never really understood the comic book business.
I have always thought, by the way, that the Time purchase of Warner was Steve Ross's greatest business deal; he got Time to buy Warner Communications for almost $15 billion and then put him in charge.
Anyway, shortly after the deal was closed, the DC offices were visited more than a couple of times by well-dressed business people with notebooks and clipboards. They were from the Time side of the company and we could tell by their questions and the looks on their faces that they understood the comic book business even less than the Warner Publishing folks. (We used to joke that, when told that DC was a publishing company, they would shake their heads and say, "We work for a publishing company and this is certainly not a publishing company.")
So we were not very surprised when the corporate reshuffling moved DC out from under the Publishing umbrella and and over to the Warner Bros. studio, where we would be a "creative" company rather than a publishing operation. And while we might have thought at the time that we mattered in the TWI grand scheme of things, it was the company's ownership of such franchise characters as Superman and Batman that mattered, not the actual publication of comic books. We were, as one of the execs referred to us, "the littlest toe on the giant Time-Warner monster."

Not long after Time and Warner combined, there was a corporation-wide purchasing conference held at the Warner studio in Burbank. Each company was asked to prepare a presentation of what they did and how they thought the new "corporate synergy" would help them. You could pick out the Time divisions from the Warner ones in a second; the former were very business-like and the latter were all free-wheeling. Every one of the Time side presentations followed the same format: This is what we do (with lots of numbers and charts), this is how we do it (with more numbers and charts), and here are three ways we expect to be part of the synergy (with even more, very optimistic projected numbers and charts).
The Warner side presentations, by contrast, were all over the place. My particular favorite was one of the Warner Music division people who got up and said, "We produce a lot of tapes and CDs so we buy a lot of printed stuff for the packaging. I guess if you wanted to give away a CD with one of the magazines, we could work something out." The DC presentation, by the way, was the closest thing on the Warner side to the Time ones. We actually had some graphs and sales data!

The much-ballyhooed synergy never really came into play; every company had their own ways of doing business and no one wanted someone else coming in and telling them some other way was better. Perhaps the most important thing that came from that meeting was that our counterparts in the other divisions found out that there was a DC Comics. (Although that knowledge seemed to have been lost a few years later: When Marvel was going through its bankruptcy, Time-Warner bigwigs had seriously considered buying the company out because comic book publishing might be a good addition to the corporate empire. According to the story, they were quite surprised to learn that they already owned a comic book company!)

So, to come back to the question about the effect of this current deal on Marvel, I think it is highly unlikely that Disney bought them for the comic book business. After all, the publication of Mickey Mouse, et al, in comic book form, has been licensed out for almost all of the seventy-five years that the medium has existed. And with the entire publishing industry in a downward spiral, it would not seem a wise business to jump into.
Like DC's relationship with Time-Warner, Marvel Comics will probably be a toe on the giant Disney monster, albeit one that someone might actually remember is there.


  1. I always find it fascinating - in a self-conflicting sort of way - that DC can never use DC properties for DC projects.

    When the cartoon "Justice League Unlimited" was being produced, they were allowed to use Captain Marvel ONCE. They couldn't use him any more than that because of rights.

    I have read that "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" is having rights problems getting use for Superman and Wonder Woman.

    It just amazes me that these properties, all owned by the same "branch", cannot be used as desired. I'm not an executive, but honestly; who would agree to a movie contract for, say, Green Lantern and NOT RETAIN ANIMATION RIGHTS? Or other merchandising rights as pertain to the comic book itself? So that now, Superman can't appear in a Batman cartoon???

    The machinations these people go through to put serious roadblocks in their own ways will never cease to amaze me.

    Yeah, but can Thor beat Mr. Incredible? Thor's got that hammer...

    I remain,
    Eric L. Sofer
    The Bad Clown

  2. The situations result with the "big guns" because if a company pays for the movie rights to Superman, they don't want to see the character turn up on TV or in a cartoon, thereby diluting what they have. You can be sure, however, that DC ups the price enough to compensate.