Instead of major legal issues, let’s look at something fun this Friday. Many, many years ago, Marvel Comics decided to start licensing its properties out to film companies looking to turn those characters into movie franchises. Marvel was going through a rough period financially, and the licensing deals provided them with a much needed influx of cash. As a result, the film-going public got treated to 20th Century Fox’s version of the X-Men and Sony’s take on Spider-Man. Fans also got to endure inferior versions of other franchises, such as the Fantastic Four and Daredevil.
At some point during the 2000s, Marvel decided to make their own comic book movies (starting with the excellent Iron Man movie). During this time, both the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises received reboots. These reboots received quite a bit of mockery from fans, since in both cases there wasn’t a very significant gap in time between the reboot and one of the previous movies. In Spider-Man’s case, Spider-Man 3 came out in 2007 with The Amazing Spider-Man (the reboot) coming out in 2012. That is only a five year difference. That five years, however, turns out to be relatively important.
The terms of Sony’s agreement with Marvel/Disney are not public knowledge (I would appreciate the information if anyone has access to it, though this message board post tries to deduce the timelines: http://forums.superherohype.com/showthread.php?t=452113), but insiders believe them to be the following: Sony’s licensing deal with Marvel allows Sony to keep the rights to Spider-Man on the condition that Sony continues making at least one new Spider-Man movie every five years and have a Spider-Man movie in production every two years. If Sony ever failed to do so, then the rights to Spider-Man would return to Marvel. Now, if you look really closely at the release dates for Spider-Man 3 (May 4, 2007) and The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3, 2012), you’ll notice that Sony technically did not make the deadline. Well, Sony cut a special deal for that extension (http://comics.cosmicbooknews.com/content/disney-buys-amazing-spider-man-merchandise-rights-sony-keeps-movie-deal). Disney got the merchandising animation rights back from Sony in exchange for an extension of the deadline. Sony needed the extra time when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4 failed to materialize.
The Fantastic Four illustrate the other options these studios potentially face with these deals. In 1994, Roger Corman made a cheap Fantastic Four movie (many believe the budget to only be around $1.5 million). This movie was never shown publicly, and appears to have been made to satisfy the licensing deal with Marvel (http://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/movie-news/the-worst-superhero-movie-you-never-saw-200908507.html). There were even a number of references to this bit of film trivia in the most recent season of Arrested Development. It is possible that Sony wanted to avoid going down this path with Spider-Man.
The effect of these licensing deals is that Marvel characters licensed out before Marvel decided to make movies are likely going to remain with their current studios. X-Men and Spider-Man have been fantastically profitable for Fox and Sony respectively, and show no sign of slowing down. It is in these studios’ interest to release new movies in these franchises frequently, which ensure that these characters will likely not go back to Marvel. In fact, Sony intends to try to apply Disney’s Avengers strategy to Spider-Man (http://www.avclub.com/article/sony-officially-announces-plans-to-turn-spiderman-106478). Between the licensing requirements and potential profits, we will likely continue to see these movies on an almost annual basis.