Neil Calloway says the studio’s decision in 1998 was probably for the best…
Much amusement at the expense of Sony has been had this week. Though the bare facts were well known, details that emerged this week added colour to what looks like one of the worst decisions in recent film history when they turned down the chance to own the rights to almost the whole Marvel character slate.
Comparisons were made to the executive from Decca Records who turned down The Beatles, telling them that guitar groups were on the way out. In hindsight, it looks like an awful decision, but really, you can see their point.
Ronald Wayne is not a household name, but you might have heard of him. In 1976, not long after he helped found the company, he sold his 10% share in Apple for $800. If he’d have kept it, he’d have been a multi billionaire today. Wayne justifies his decision now by pointing out that he made the best decision with the information he had available at the time. Similarly, that’s what Sony did.
Sony Pictures Exec Yair Landau was quoted as saying “Nobody gives a shit about any of the other Marvel characters. Go back and do a deal for only Spider-Man” in 1998, that was probably true. Though they’d existed for years, you didn’t see people walking around in Iron Man t-shirts until the MCU came along. Only the geekiest of comic book geeks had heard of Hawkeye and Black Widow ten years ago. They only became profitable intellectual property because the MCU made them so. Sony wouldn’t have done that.
Unlike Marvel Studios, Sony are Betamax manufacturers who found themselves in the movie business. Their successful films tend not to be projects they have originated themselves but have acquired through takeovers and mergers. For them, the Marvel characters were just names on a list that Sony execs probably didn’t read to the end. If you own the rights to Ghostbusters, why bother with an obscure comic book character, when nobody watches comic book movies? Obscure comic book characters is all Marvel had, so they had to make the most of them.
Sony’s attitude to the characters they owned tells you that any films they had made wouldn’t have been any good; they thought – probably correctly – that nobody cared about them because they themselves didn’t. They might have churned out one or two forgettable movies, but they would not have had the sustained success that Marvel has. Their heart wasn’t in it.
It’s easy to laugh at Sony, but in 1998, and given their record, had they kept the rights we wouldn’t have had the MCU, and having them in charge would have resulted in some pretty substandard movies. The may have made a mistake, but it was a lucky one.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.