Last week a chap named Todd Juenger at Bernstein Research said that Disney's $4.3 billion dollar purchase of comics publisher Marvel in 2009 was a "good deal" but not really a "great deal." Now others are pointing at the $1.3+ billion raked in so far by the box office juggernaut Avengers as proof that it is, in fact, a wonderful deal for Disney.
Well, maybe, and maybe not.
Yes, Marvel was having some success as a movie company, thanks to the massive loans they took out, making it a very tempting property for Disney, and delivering them the young boy demographic they had been ignoring during their "Disney Princess" era, but there were fundamental problems with Marvel's core business.
They provide the source material for the movies, the TV shows, and all the related merchandise. That segment of the industry is dying slowly. The folks in the industry are touting recent upticks in sales thanks to heavily hyped events as a sign that the good times are here to stay, but that doesn't really hold up compared to the facts on the ground.
First, the sales figures being touted as tremendous victories are mere fractions of the regular sales that comic book publishers used to have every single month. Comics used to be a mass media read by tens of millions, now it's a niche media read by hundreds of thousands and shrinking. That's not healthy.
I read someone comment that it's easier for a ten year old to buy marijuana than comic books in most communities because they are increasingly only available in a decreasing number of specialty retailers, mostly in the bigger population centers.
Comic publishers are saying that availability is no longer a problem, because now they can beam the comics directly into their iPads or similar tablet computers.
Well, that's all well and good, but it's not the cure all they claim it is.
First, is that the two major players, Marvel and DC don't quite understand that they and their characters are the 'gateway drug' for the medium as a whole, but they're doing it wrong.
Even if you download the latest issue of your favorite movie superhero, unless you're already a long-standing fan of that character the odds are that you're not going to stick with it. That's because it's more likely than not that the latest issue is Part 3 of a 6 part "event" story arc that requires that you not only go and buy the back issues for parts 1 & 2 then 4,5 and 6 when they come out over the next few months, but also go buy issues of other titles, and have a working knowledge of 5-7 decades of back-story to make any sense of it all.
Casual readers are not welcome.
Now DC is claiming to be doing something about it with their "New 52" reboot of their mainstream universe, but it's not hard to find elements of the previous universe's convolutions finding their way into the "new" story-lines.
Of course, comics nowadays seem only to exist to keep the rights to characters away from their creators.
Now you might say that Marvel doesn't really need comics as their core business and was doing just fine thanks to the success they had producing their own movies.
Yes, they were pretty damn good producing their own movies. However, they were also in a precarious position.
Unless you're a major media conglomerate with absolute control of the distribution and sales of your movies, you are just one or two box office turkeys from total collapse. Superhero movies are expensive to make and release, and while the rewards are great if you succeed, the damage done by failure is exaggerated exponentially if you're an independent.
So Marvel is definitely better off with Disney. It has the cushion it needs, and Disney has the characters it needs to keep pumping out movies and merchandise.
So, for now, it's definitely good for Marvel, and good for Disney.
But there's still a way Disney can screw it up.
The one constant of movie studios is that things change. The people running the place can change, either being replaced, or by losing the mojo that once made them successful. Suddenly, studios that were having major box office smashes, can find themselves stuck in the middle of creative logjams where good projects are mangled into horrible abominations, or wither and die in development, tens of millions of dollars are wasted, long dead fads are pointlessly pursued, and only one or two characters can even make it onto the big screen.
Just ask DC and Warner Brothers about that.
So let's split the difference and say that the jury's still out on this one.