Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Spidey on Screen: Untangling the Legal Web

Andrew Garfield dons the red-and-blue in 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man
Ten years ago last month, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man debuted to an astounding $100 million+ in its first three days of release -- the White Whale of opening weekends until then. It's not an exaggeration to say that Spider-Man led directly to the superhero movie boom we're currently in the midst of, and which, if The Avengers' record-breaking sprint through the box office is any indication, shows no sign of subsiding anytime soon. The franchise -- one of the most successful in history -- is due for a reboot with next week's The Amazing Spider-Man, but before we talk about the trail Spidey blazed for his studio and genre, it might be helpful to first take a look back at his winding, webby road to the silver screen.

Even though Marvel Comics Webhead's has now become a valued, signature property for Sony Pictures, he spent more than a decade lingering first in development hell, then in legal limbo, as multiple interests all jostled for a piece of the cinematic goldmine he would prove to be. Development on a movie version of Spider-Man first began in earnest in the mid-1980s under the auspices of famed shlock producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, whose Cannon Films had built its rep by then on cheapie exploitation fare like the various Death Wish, Delta Force and American Ninja flicks (in a sign of just how highly undervalued comic properties were back then, Cannon had licensed the Spidey rights for the ridiculously low sum of 225K for five years).

Actor Scott Leva suits up
While this version progressed far enough for director Joseph Zito, a regular Cannon shooter, to eventually sign on, with stuntman/actor Scott Leva cast in the role (and even posing for publicity stills and a Marvel Comics cover), those years in the development pipeline didn't amount to much after Cannon's Superman IV and Masters of the Universe (both in 1987) proved costly misfires. The trickle-down impact was to severely shrink the Spider-Man budget. By 1989, a few too many flops led Cannon to collapse entirely, though Golan ended up extending his option with Marvel for three more years by way of his new 21st Century Films shingle (and while he never did make Spider-Man happen, but he did have his way with Captain America in 1990).

As Golan fruitlessly continued his efforts to try and get the project off the ground, the next big move in Spidey's Hollywood journey came in 1991 when writer/director James Cameron, a longtime comic book fan who'd spent the better part of the '80s cultivating a rep as one of the preeminent action directors in the biz, presided over one of the biggest hits of the year, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. At that point, the future "King of the World" had his pick of any property in town, and he set his sights squarely on the ol' Webslinger. Thus, Carolco, the independent behind the Rambo movies, Total Recall, and T2, acquired the rights from Golan on Cameron's behalf, and the director then set about busily drafting his definitive Spider-Man opus.

By the mid-'90s, it finally looked like the Spider-Man movie was set to sail under Cameron's guidance, with the trade press at the time trumpeting it as his next project after 1994's True Lies. For those of you keeping score at home, by now the companies reaching for a piece of the Spider-Man pie numbered at a half-dozen, including the defunct Cannon, the still-extant 21st Century, current licensees Carolco, and also Viacom and Columbia Pictures, who'd separately purchased the broadcast and home video rights from Golan in his quixotic bid to drum up fiancing. Also in the mix was 20th Century Fox, who had an exclusive contract with Cameron, thus entitling them to some manner of payout should the director make Spider-Man for Carolco.

Then, in 1996, the whole house of cards collapsed. With the rapid-fire bankruptcies of Carolco, 21st Century, and -- most shocking of all -- Marvel Comics itselfthe already-tangled legal mess got even more tangled. When MGM acquired all of 21st Century's assets following the latter's liquidation, they claimed the Spider-Man rights for themselves, in turn suing anyone else trying to lay a claim -- including Marvel. The comic giant, on the other hand, felt that all previous deals had been mooted by the passage of time, and that all rights reverted to them following the bankruptcy. With the courts on their side, the reorganized Marvel made a deal with Sony Pictures, signing over the Spider-Man film rights in perpetuity even as MGM threatened to launch a rival series.

In the end, what broke the deadlock between Sony, which had finally pulled together the many, many tangled strands of the Spider-Man rights, and MGM, still clinging desperately to its packet of rights from 21st Century, was an entirely different cinema icon: James Bond. For several decades, the immortal secret agent had been the most dependable source of income for MGM, with a new installment every few years refilling the perpetually-ailing studio's coffers with clockwork regularity. Then-MGM president John Calley had worked tirelessly to bring Bond back to the screen after a long layover in the first half of the '90s, and his efforts were rewarded with GoldenEye's release in 1995 giving a jolt of enthusiasm thanks to Pierce Brosnan taking over the iconic role. 

When he was forced out by the Lion shortly thereafter, Calley moved across the street to Columbia, where he took on a similar role. And having become intimately familiar with the 007 legal situation, which rivaled Spider-Man for sheer messiness, he made separate a deal with producer Kevin McClory, who held some Bond rights thanks to his co-authorship of the novel Thunderball, to create Sony's own 007 to face off against MGM's (with talk of Liam Neeson as Sony's Bond). Suddenly there was an impasse, the only workable resolution of which was for MGM to exchange their Spider-Man rights for Sony's James Bond rights. And just like that, mutual disarmament. Bond was back under one roof, and so was Spidey. 

It was 1999 now. Almost fifteen years since Cannon first got the ball rolling on a hypothetical Spider-Man movie. And while James Cameron may have priced himself right out of the director's chair after helming the most successful film of all time two years earlier, Sony had a movie to make, and a lot of lost time to make up for.

To Be Continued...


Brian said...

This is a great read, Zaki! Great reporting and storytelling all at once. Looking forward to the next part.

Zaki said...

Thanks, Brian!