Disney buys Marvel – more corporate conservatism? 

31 August 2009 tbs.pm/1096

Financial Times: Disney to buy Marvel for $4bn.

Imagine this: you are webslinging across the New York city skyline, just like Spiderman. You swing round to see the famous Baxter Building, home of the Fantastic Four, twith its big “4” rooftop landing pad. But as you swing by, you notice something unusual. The circle 4 logo, has suddenly got Mickey Mouse ears!

Okay, this is not likely to happen! But, it does highlight the strangeness of this whole deal. Disney is buying Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. Sounds like a lot of money for a comic book company. But when you look at this in detail, like I have, you notice there are things about this whole deal that seem to be totally wrong here.

First off, is a simple one. The reputations of each company. Disney is well known for it’s family friendly image. It’s not well known for edgy, controversial and rosky storylines, like Marvel does in its comics. Will we end up seeing a Disney-fied Marvel as a result, with comics more aimed at younger children than at the current teen market? Only time will tell. But that must be a worry for the artists that work for Marvel.

Secondly, when you look at the indivdual properties that Marvel owns (most of these being characters and their related franchises), it would seem that Disney has got somewhat of a bargain, maybe even significantly underpaid the real value of Marvel. Marvel has over 5000 characters across its multitudes of comic books, and many years of history too.

Spiderman for instance, has been around since 1962. He made his first transition to television in the late 1960s cartoon, with perhaps the most memorable sung theme tune lyrics in history. “Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can…”. He made his first live action appearance in 1978 TV specials, which were actually very well produced, and filmed, managing to achieve the effect of having him crawl up walls and make it look good. He had since also appeared in another 6 animated shows, including two running simulataneously in 1981, and the hit “Spiderman:The Animated Series” which ran from 1994 to 1998.

But it’s been the recent Spiderman films that have made Spiderman a huge franchise. Since 2002, Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman has catapulted the character into the stratusphere. Without doubt the Sam Raimi directed films have done more for the character than all the previous versions put together, taking almost $2.5 billion in box office revenues worldwide. Two films featuring another Marvel character, The Incredible Hulk, in the same time period, have taken over $500 million. Two films featuring The Fantastic Four in 2005 and 2007, grossed over $600 million. Put together the earnings from these three franchises alone, and it comes to $3.6 billion. Put that next to the $4 billion that Disney is paying, and it doesn’t half look like Disney seriously underpaid for Marvel.

But the biggest concern I have in all this, is will we see the taming of the risk taking Marvel, by the more conservative Disney? It’s been a growing trend across news media, broadcast media and entertainment media over the past 20 years. Corporations do not like taking risks. But Marvel had taken many risks over the years, including the purchase in 1981 of DFE Films, the company that produced the Pink Panther cartoons, which then became Marvel Productions.

The 1994 animated Spiderman series was a big risk, as they used a lot of new techniques in order to achieve the look that they wanted. But it cost a lot of money. So they started resorting to all the usual tricks to save money, such as repeating animations, a favourite trick of Filmation. Also, multi-part stories became the order of business, in order to cut down on the number of characters that they would have to animate.

Despite the success of Spiderman, Marvel went bankrupt in 1996. The fear of bankruptcy is what makes corporations very conservative. They will not take a risk. We’ve seen corporate conservatism at work already. In 1993, there were 15 ITV companies, each with their own ideas. Now, there is 1 dominant ITV company – ITV plc, and 3 smaller ones. ITV companies used to take risks with shows they had no idea if it would even work. Now, everything has to be in profit before it even aires. 15 diverse broadcasters have been replaced by 1 large broadcaster that seems scared of its own shadow.

Then there is the GWR/GCap/Global situation in commercial radio. In the late 1980’s, commercial radio was forced to split FM and AM programming, creating two stations where there had previously only been one. The ILR heritage stations remained on FM< whilst new oldies stations were created on AM. GWR created Brunel Classic Gold on AM and as GWR bought up stations, they imported the Classic Gold name and format. In 1998, GWR sought the approval of the Radio Authority to network Classic Gold for 20 hours a day. They were granted this, and so began the process of creating a semi-national network, cutting expenses and local programmes, because of their growing corporate conservatism. Classic Gold is now Gold. But of course it didn't stop there. They increased their networking arrangements on FM. Evenings and Overnights became the first easy targets for FM network programmes. It was understandable. In the early days of commercial radio, some neighbouring stations would get together to provide a mini network for evenings and overnights. The Yorkshire Radio Network, combinig Pennine Radio, Radio Hallam and Viking Radio, provided programmes most evenings and for a bit longer at weekends. Other little networks also emerged, so it was an easy target for GWR, or as they would later become, GCap. But it took until Global had taken over GCap, for FM network to reach into daytime, with OFCOM allowing a rule change that allowed stations to broadcast just 10 hours of locally originated programming a day on weekdays. The Heart FM network would simulcast Toby Anstis between 10am and 1pm, in order, as they would say, to allow a big name personality to generate revenue across the network. Unfortuantely, Toby is such a bad radio presenter, that the only thing keeping him on air is his supposed star power. That's the root of the thinking of corporate conservatism. Big names + big audience = profit. But it doesn't always work that way. Now corporate conservative Disney is going to buy Marvel, and will we see the same corporate conservatism infect Marvel, like it has infected many other media corporations over the years? I hope not, but I'm not confident.