Yet Marvel’s future remains a cliff-hanger. “It’s definitely one of the more–if not the most–difficult companies out there to forecast,” says Bear Stearns analyst Glen Reid. In late May, just as Marvel kicked off what may be the greatest test of its powers yet–a slate of 10 independently financed films–the firm stunned investors and Hollywood alike by announcing that Avi Arad, the man behind the Spider-Man and X-Men film franchises, would leave to start his own production company. Not six weeks later, two more key execs departed unexpectedly–Tim Rothwell and Bruno Maglione, heads of Marvel’s licensing and international divisions, respectively, perhaps Marvel’s most important priorities.
That tumult has some analysts thinking Marvel is prepping itself for sale. “These are guys who’d be squeezed out by a merger,” says Jefferies & Co. analyst Robert Routh, who owns Marvel stock. “A major move would make sense by the year’s end.”
This rare non-Calvin Reid-quoting media piece also has a good evaluation of the dangers Marvel faces in making its own movies — and a slightly new spin on Why Avi Left, and Who Might Buy Marvel.
The biggest risk is that a dud at the start could imperil the value of the 10 characters Marvel plans to use in subsequent movies, including the Incredible Hulk. So while Marvel isn’t risking any of its own cash, “there’s no question that there would be a perceptual impact on the stock,” says Cowen & Co. analyst Lowell Singer. Which is why Marvel left many scratching their heads when it let producer Arad strike off on his own. “Avi’s contract was up in November, and Marvel couldn’t afford the compensation he can demand,” Cuneo explains. “So we thought we’d let him leave on our terms.” One being that Arad will be involved in at least the first three Marvel films.
Others see Arad’s exit as a sure sign that Marvel will soon change hands. Perlmutter is a candidate to buy some 20% of the company that he doesn’t own; so is a private equity firm. Another logical buyer is Paramount, which will distribute Marvel’s film slate. The studio is revamping, having recently bought rival DreamWorks SKG. Other names thrown out include Disney, which owns a large chunk of the Marvel library, and even TIME’s parent, Time Warner, which owns Marvel rival DC Comics.