Disney and Sony are at an impasse in negotiations to continue sharing the world’s most popular superhero, Spider-Man, on the big screen. Each company, though mostly Sony, has been painted as the villain in a story that doesn’t actually have one. Potential solutions have also been tossed around, but none of this is as simple as it may seem.
The studios are applying completely different value equations to the Spider-Man movie rights. That is why it has been and may continue to be difficult for them to find a place to meet in the middle. It’s not about greed or pride, at least not entirely. It’s about executives wanting, as they should, to get a deal that works for their business.
Disney reportedly sought a 50/50 co-financing arrangement for Spider-Man solo movies, meaning the costs and profits would be shared evenly. The Hollywood Reporter has also heard that Disney was willing to accept as low as a 30% stake in the franchise. Sony is believed to have offered some counter-proposals, which were likely much closer to the previous arrangement in which Disney received 5% of the first-dollar gross on Spidey movies.
Disney has been called greedy for wanting so much more than it previously received for the Spider-Man movies, but that’s an unreasonable assessment. It is not greedy for Disney to want more than 5% of the gross revenue from Spider-Man solo films when its division, Marvel Studios, is doing much more than 5% of the work on the franchise. Plus, Disney is now willing to share in the cost of making the movies instead of Sony paying for everything like before.
Since the first iteration of the sharing deal was announced in February 2015, Disney has been taking a low cut of the Spider-Man solo films in exchange for having access to the character in Marvel Studios’ big team-up movies. Now, Disney has released all of the biggest team-up movies Marvel Studios will presumably have for the next several years. Sure, there will be another Avengers movie in the next three to five years, but it’s not going to be on the scale of Avengers: Infinity War or Avengers: Endgame.
Disney would undoubtedly love to have Spider-Man back for another team-up, but the value the studio places on that cannot and should not be as high as the value the studio placed on having the character in Phase Three. Disney has to be responsible enough to consider the opportunity cost of making Spider-Man movies for Sony and request a new deal to mitigate it.
Marvel Studios has enjoyed its biggest year ever in 2019, with its three productions totaling over $5 billion worldwide. Not all of that goes to Disney, though, because Sony will keep most of the $1.1 billion earned by Spider-Man: Far From Home. Marvel’s biggest year for Disney was 2018. The studio’s three releases made $4 billion last year and Disney kept all of that money because it distributed all three.
In 2017, Marvel Studios movies accounted for nearly $2.6 billion in global box office receipts. Sony, of course, got $880 million of that (less Disney’s small share) for distributing Spider-Man: Homecoming.
This is where there is some truth to Sony’s official statement about producer and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige not having enough time to work on IP that Disney does not own. It’s only a half-truth, though, as the reality is that Disney cannot reasonably loan Feige out every other year to produce a movie for which Disney will not keep all or at least a significant chunk of the profits.
Marvel Studios is now making three movies per year. There will be an exception to this rule in 2020 because of the James Gunn firing and rehiring on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Going forward, however, Marvel Studios will be back on schedule with three movies and multiple Disney+ series each year.
What Marvel Studios probably cannot accommodate is a fourth movie on the slate whenever Sony wants to have a Spider-Man solo film. That means Disney would again have to give up one of its three annual Marvel Studios films to Sony, as it did in 2017 and 2019.
Disney is not weighing the money it could make from a 30% to 50% share of future Spider-Man movie profits against its previous 5% of first-dollar gross. That’s not the math here. To decide the proper level of compensation it wants and needs to receive, Disney must factor in the opportunity cost of not distributing a third Marvel Studios movie in a year that has a Spider-Man solo film.
On average, Marvel movies are highly-profitable, even if we exclude the likes of Infinity War and Endgame. While 5% of the first-dollar gross from a billion-dollar Spider-Man movie is a significant sum, it still is not nearly as much as Disney would earn in total profit for any other Marvel Studios movie of which Disney is the sole distributor. By keeping the previous terms, Disney would effectively lose money by giving up its 100% share of the profits from a Marvel Studios movie every two or three years in order to let Feige and company make a Spider-Man movie for Sony.
Disney was previously willing to endure that opportunity cost for the sake of having Spider-Man in Marvel’s Phase Three team-ups. It was worth it then, but it isn’t anymore. Disney may not be able to completely offset that opportunity cost even with a 30% to 50% stake in Spider-Man movies, but such a deal would decrease that cost significantly. Disney is only being reasonable by pushing for these new terms.
Sony would have a hard time contesting that Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige add more value to the Spider-Man franchise than Sony has had to pay for, but that does not matter. Sony cannot agree to give Disney a major stake in the Spider-Man solo franchise unless Sony feels like it has no choice.
Sony Pictures is fighting for its life in an era of studio consolidation. The studio has only just started to turn things around after years of reporting losses. Sony’s entire entertainment division must thrive or run the risk of being bought. It’s time to go all-in and Sony executives, understandably, don’t feel like splitting profits on the studio’s biggest franchise is the best way to do that.
Imagine Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group Chairman Tom Rothman going to his bosses at Sony and saying that he wants to give half or even 30% of the company’s biggest franchise to a competitor because Tom and Sony Pictures still need the help. One likely response might be, “Then what do we need you for, Tom?”
That’s not to say, of course, that Rothman is in favor of Disney’s proposal(s). He probably isn’t and is instead focusing on the financial success of Venom last year and the “even when bad, things are pretty good” performance of Spider-Man solo movies since 2002 to arrive at the conclusion that Sony might be able to go it alone again, or should at least try before giving up a big percentage of the franchise.
Fans, myself included, can point to Sony’s previous challenges in sustaining the popularity and quality of the franchise, but Rothman can accurately say that did not happen under his watch. He thinks he’s learned enough from Feige over the past few years to take it from here.
Learning from the master isn’t the same as being the master, though, so Rothman and Sony really should consider the long-term viability of the franchise without Marvel Studios’ assistance. If giving up 30% does not make sense, then try to make a deal at 25% or just 20% if Disney will take it. Such a counter-offer is worth making if Sony hasn’t already.
The fan and pundit-proposed solution of Disney buying the Spider-Man movie rights back from Sony is not so simple. Again, each studio values the property differently.
The comparisons to Disney buying all of Marvel or Lucasfilm (Star Wars) do not hold up in this situation. When Disney paid a few billion dollars for each, it was getting every revenue stream from those companies (less previously-licensed Marvel movie rights), not just the film rights to one set of characters.
Disney cannot value Sony’s Spider-Man license at $4 billion, or even $2 billion, because Disney already owns just about every potential revenue stream for Spider-Man outside of box office receipts and perhaps some promotional marketing partnerships. Factoring in the actual profit (not revenue) of one Spider-Man film every few years (because Marvel Studios would not make one every two years, as Sony does), it would take Disney far too long recoup a multi-billion-dollar investment.
Disney did not have to rely solely on box office to make its money back on Star Wars. Merchandise was a huge part of justifying that investment, but Disney already bought the Spider-Man merchandising rights from Sony and now only pays an annual royalty of $30 million. That’s also why Disney can’t use merchandising revenue to accept a low share of Spider-Man box office profits, as the company stands to make a lot of money on Spider-Man merchandise regardless of which studio distributes the movies.
Sony sees the Spider-Man franchise as its greatest asset, which is correct. That makes the Spider-Man movie rights more valuable to Sony than they could possibly be for Disney. Sony would want way more in return than Disney could reasonably agree to give.
If it hopes to acquire the Spider-Man movie rights from Sony, Disney has to overpay. The studio has the cash, though, so perhaps it will ultimately decide to pay a premium and be done with it. Such a deal may include an annual royalty or percentage of future box office grosses on top of a large sum.
The only other choice Disney may have of getting back Spidey’s movie rights is waiting a little while. Sony is believed to be vulnerable and a prime target for acquisition. Disney would likely be blocked from buying Sony after just acquiring Fox, but other players like Apple (a company that really should buy Sony), Amazon, and Netflix all may take a look at Sony just for the sake of the company’s massive movie and television library. Any one of those giants could make Sony proper an offer it can’t refuse in exchange for its entire entertainment division, including Sony Pictures.
It is believed that if Sony (the entire company or just the studio) is bought by another company, the Spider-Man movie license will automatically revert back to Disney. If that’s the case, Sony should sell the rights now, while they are at an all-time high, before rumors of an actual acquisition make it clear to Disney that it will soon get the rights back for nothing. Plus, any future acquisition could take years to complete and Disney would see at least some value in getting the rights immediately while Tom Holland is still young.
Of course, all of that assumes Sony is resigned its widely-speculated fate of being acquired. It does not appear, however, that Sony is in the process of giving up. Instead, the studio looks like it still plans on surviving and keeping all or nearly all of the profits from Spider-Man and related films is an essential part of Sony’s immediate and future plans.
There has to be a solution somewhere. Even with differing value equations, there is a number or set of numbers that makes sense for both Disney and Sony. It is in each studio’s best interest to find it, but it is all far more complicated than many want to acknowledge. Short of a minor miracle, it does not appear that the two companies will resolve this matter anytime soon, if ever.