It’s an understatement to say that the entire Hollywood landscape would be different today if Sony had a savvier business sense in the late 1990s. For an investment of just $25 million — which is a little more than what The Avengers made in a single Saturday two weeks after it opened in 2012 — it could have seen returns on the order of billions of dollars. But in an excerpt from The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, journalist Ben Fritz recounts a pivotal decision made by Sony in 1998 to forego purchasing the movie rights to a sizable chunk of the Marvel heroes roster in favor of just brokering a deal to buy Spider-Man. As one executive said at the time, “Nobody gives a shit about any of the other Marvel characters.” The excerpt ran today in The Wall Street Journal, but Fritz posted a smaller preview of it on Twitter.
In the short term, Sony’s Spidey deal seemed to pay off: The Sam Raimi–Tobey Maguire trilogy made a ton of money, and along with Bryan Singer’s X-Men from 2000, truly jump-started the superhero economy that has overtaken Hollywood over the past 20 years. However, the Andrew Garfield reboots failed to sustain interest past his second turn as star (that’s what you get for killing off Emma Stone), and Sony eventually ceded to a joint deal with Disney to let the company fold Spider-Man into its Avengers-based Marvel Cinematic Universe. (The arrangement shakes out to Marvel getting access to the web slinger for free while Sony retains the rights, with neither studio having to share box-office revenue with the other when they make their own films with the character, e.g., Sony gets to keep its Spider-Man: Homecoming profits, while Disney can keep enlisting Peter Parker for Avenger duty at no extra charge.)
The character looks to be back on track in the new Tom Holland era, but Sony will still be forever living with the ghost of deals past, especially considering Black Panther’s massive box-office projections.