By Ben Carlson
In 1996, comic book maker Marvel filed for bankruptcy after racking up $700 million of debt and owing payments on $1 billion of bonds to investors. During the bankruptcy proceeding, a number of studios performed their due diligence and came close to buying the company but none came closer than Sony. Instead of buying the company outright, Sony wanted to secure the rights for the Spider-Man franchise to begin making movies about Peter Parker. Fresh out of bankruptcy and in dire need of cash, Marvel responded with a counteroffer. They offered Sony the movie rights for all of their biggest characters — Iron Man, The Black Panther, Thor, Ant-Man, etc. — for $25 million.
A young Sony exec named Yair Mandau was tasked with securing the Spider-Man rights. As told in Ben Fritz’s excellent book The Big Picture: The Fight For the Future of Movies, this is how Mandau’s bosses responded to the offer:
“It didn’t take long for them to quickly and decisively respond: no way. “Nobody gives a shit about any of the other Marvel characters, we don’t want to do that deal,” they told Landau as if he were Jack coming home with a handful of magic beans. Their instructions to Landau, they thought, were quite simple: “Go back and do a deal for only Spider-Man.”
Shockingly, Sony ended up paying $20 million for Spider-Man alone. They could have had the rest of the Avengers for just $5 million. That deal could have made Sony billions of dollars and made the studio the next Disney, the company that eventually purchased Marvel. Instead, Marvel created a cinematic universe that would make billions.
It’s obvious with the benefit of hindsight that Sony screwed up but you can’t really blame them. Every other studio passed on those Marvel assets as well. The Avengers were sitting there for the taking but no one thought it would become the biggest movie property in history. At the time, movie studios were printing money at the box office and DVD sales on all kinds of different movies. No one saw how this dynamic would change with the onset of streaming videos and higher quality shows on TV which cannibalized the movie industry. It wasn’t obvious superhero movies and sequels would become the only profitable ventures. There had been a number of failures in the space so it wasn’t a foregone conclusion Iron Man and friends would do as well as they did.
William Goldman has one of the more impressive IMDB pages of any screenwriter in Hollywood. His credits include The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Misery, and All the President’s Men. In his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman discussed how difficult it is to know what’s going to work in Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”