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From Bankruptcy to Global Dominance: How Marvel Gambled and Won

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

Article contributed by Archie Burke

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is without a doubt the most prominent series of comic-book-to-film adaptations ever realized on the silver screen. With the massive and extremely talented team of movie producers and new comic book talents behind Marvel, it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when the company faced bankruptcy.

Marvel’s Golden Age

The BBC recalls how the story started all the way back in the 1960s, when Marvel first made its mark on the comic book medium. Unlike most stories before it, Marvel’s material in the ‘60s was about flawed and relatable heroes driven by human characteristics. The Hulk, Spider-Man, and the X-Men were lovable outcasts, each struggling with their own personal demons. Marvel enjoyed massive success from the ‘60s to the ‘80s.

In 1989, Marvel Entertainment Group was purchased for $82.5 million by Ron Perelman, the wallet and brains behind the holding company MacAndrew & Forbes, which at the time had already acquired stakes in several industries. Building on Marvel’s previous success, it took Perelman two years to list Marvel on the stock market.

This allowed Perelman to buy shares in ToyBiz, a distribution outfit called Heroes World, and card trading companies – a spending spree estimated to have cost Marvel around $700 million. Perelman used his new acquisitions to hitch a ride on the collector bandwagon. As its new gimmick, Marvel sold new titles like X-Force packaged with several trading cards. And if you wanted more cards, you simply had to buy the upcoming comic book and trading card ‘polybags.’

Spider-Man overlooking the city
Image credit: Pexels

From Crisis to Bankruptcy

While initially successful, Perelman’s plan eventually fell apart. Later, it was revealed that he made unattainable promises to financers. “Once he had enough sales numbers in place to prove (his) hypothesis, he then took Marvel public, selling 40% of its stock for vastly more than he paid for the entire company,” explains Mile High Comics CEO Chuck Rozanski. “That this plan was clearly impossible became evident to most comics retailers early in 1993, as more and more fans simply quit collecting due to the high cost, and amid a widespread perception of declining quality in Marvel comics.”

By 1995, Marvel Entertainment Group was heavily in debt; a year later, it had to officially file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This was part of Perelman’s new plan to reconfigure Marvel and its different acquisitions into a powerful, single entity called Marvel Studios. After a long battle between stockholders and executives, Perelman along with several others were ousted from the company in 1998.

They were replaced by new CEO Joseph Calamari and ToyBiz executives Avi Arad and Isaac Perlmutter. After the legal dust settled, the people who remained at the helm pursued Marvel’s dream of silver screen success. Previous failures like Howard the Duck and licensing issues with major characters like Spider-Man made this extremely difficult. Even when they landed on a hit with Blade in 1998, Marvel itself only saw $25,000 out of the $70 million Blade netted at the box office.

Walt Disney & Marvel logos
Image credit: BartonIntermediateIII, Disney Marvel, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Big Gamble

It wasn’t until 2005 when Marvel took the leap that cemented its eventual success. In a deal with investment company Merrill Lynch, Marvel was given access to a $525 million movie production budget over seven years. Had Marvel failed to make money, it would essentially have had to give up the rights to its own characters to the banks and other financing entities behind the Lynch deal.

Marvel first used this money to pull the Iron Man movie out of development hell – into a blockbuster success that made $585 million in 2008. This led Disney to acquire Marvel for $4.3 billion and further improve its production capabilities. Since then, Marvel has pretty much dominated comic book-based cinema. Iron Man 3 and Black Panther made more than a billion each, while Avengers: Endgame netted around $2.7 billion.

Marvel merchandise
Image credit: Unsplash

Marvel Today

Beyond comics and cinema, Marvel has now become a globally recognizable household name that is connected to different industries, both online and offline. Today there are dedicated online slots based around the Marvel Universe and numerous console games. In costume stores around the world, you’d be hard-pressed not to find both licensed and unlicensed Marvel toys and merchandise stacked side-by-side.

At the same time, the company’s constant new comic book releases indicate that Marvel hasn’t strayed from its roots. While the company has certainly seen its fair share of hardships, those days are long gone for the now multi-billion dollar entertainment company.

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