Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Disney and Marvel's New Vertical Integration

Property of The Daily Gamecock

A couple of months ago, Marvel Enterprises, the studio behind "Spider-man," "Iron Man" and several other big name super hero franchises, announced they would be starting a special screenwriting program.

No, it's not an internship - more like a soul-stealing contract. Marvel has decided to put approximately half a dozen budding screenwriters exclusively on staff. For a salary of up to $100,000 a year, as speculated by entertainment trade paper Variety, these writers will receive specific writing assignments from producers.

These assignments could range from adapting new characters from Marvel's library, assisting on script re-writes for adaptations in production or helping other hired writers develop sequels for pre-existing franchises.

Sound like a great idea? As with any sweet deal, there's a tiny catch - anything a contracted writer produces during their one-year stay becomes the sole property of Marvel Studios.

For a studio whose box office influence has only really emerged within the past decade, this is a daring move. Banking on the immediate success of their first "Iron Man" film in 2008, of which a sequel is already in post-production for its May 2010 release, Marvel is hoping to draw as much as it can from other genre competitors like DC Comics ("The Dark Knight").

Their business model closely resembles Disney's, which doles out a $50,000 yearly salary to contracted writers who want to develop programming for Disney Channel and ABC.

And in this world of bizarre coincidences, Disney announced yesterday they will be buying out Marvel Enterprises for $4 billion and, according to Variety, will effectively own all of Marvel's 5,000 characters.

But so what if Marvel, or new parent Disney, wants to contract writers? They're planning to staff less than 10 people; does it make a difference? To draw an admittedly tenuous parallel, Disney seems to be drawing its ideas from an outdated kind of Hollywood thinking.

Way back in the good old days of black and white Depression-era Hollywood, every studio in town practiced intense levels of vertical integration. Warner Bros. and MGM kept writers, directors, actors and even theaters on their payroll, controlling the filmmaking process from conception to delivery and retaining sole intellectual control of all property produced.

Granted, this was a time before the guilds, before court decisions helped break up the studio oligarchy and comparing this kind of unified production with Marvel's program is admittedly a bit extreme.

After all, isn't it a great chance for inexperienced writers to get their foot in the door, to make a name for themselves in a cutthroat industry? Of course it is, but only to an extent. Marvel's contracts only last a year and are one step above paid intellectual slavery.

Once the contract expires, these writers will still have a hard time shopping themselves around Hollywood, for they don't actually have ownership of their work.

And with Disney tightening its corporate stranglehold over one of the industry's major up-and-coming studios, doesn't this reek just a little bit of good old vertical integration? Well, that's entertainment.

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