Marvel offered to sell Sony Pictures the movie rights to all of their characters in 1998, but the studio only wanted Spider-Man. Marvel had emerged from bankruptcy in the mid to late-1990s, and leveraging their characters’ movie rights was their way of easing themselves out of their financial predicament. While the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and a handful of other characters and teams were already sold to studios such as 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures, Marvel still had a vast library that was untouched.
In the 1990s, Iron Man was being transferred from studio to studio, Black Panther was proving troublesome to whichever studio owned the rights, and Doctor Strange was no closer to getting off the ground. Marvel wanted to get their properties on track, which is why they kept pushing studios to acquire the rights to their characters, but not many studio executives were willing to bite. So, when Sony came calling for Spider-Man’s theatrical rights, Marvel saw it as their perfect opportunity to unload the rights to all of their characters at once – to the studio that had just released major hits such as Men in Black and The Fifth Element, no less – but Sony only had one superhero on their mind.
WSJ reports that when Sony Pictures chief Yair Landau offered to purchase Spider-Man’s rights, Marvel’s Ike Perlmutter countered with an offer to sell the movie rights to all of their characters (at least their biggest ones) for only $25 million ($38 million in 2018 dollars). While that seems like a great offer in hindsight, Sony rejected the proposal and, instead, acquired Spidey’s rights for a measly $10 million. Landau recalled that his response to the offer was something along the lines of: “Nobody gives a sh*t about any of the other Marvel characters. Go back and do a deal for only Spider-Man.”
While it’s easy to look back at the deal and wonder why Sony didn’t take the offer, it’s worth noting that comic book movies (especially Marvel movies) weren’t what they are now. While Warner Bros. and DC Comics enjoyed successful releases such as Batman and Superman: The Movie, Marvel was struggling on the big screen. By that point, the only Marvel-based movies that had released were: 1944’s Captain America serial, 1986’s Howard the Duck, 1989’s direct-to-video The Punisher, 1990’s Captain America (which is the lowest-rated Marvel movie to date), and 1994’s unreleased Fantastic Four. Suffice to say, Marvel wasn’t rolling in critical acclaim (or financial success).
Sony was right, no one cared for Marvel’s characters except for Spider-Man (at least not at the time), which is why they made the deal to acquire the character for $10 million. As it turns out, it was for the best, seeing as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was considered ground-breaking for the superhero genre on film, and Spider-Man has become their highest-grossing franchise to date. Plus, Marvel Studios seems to be doing just fine on their own.
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