The history behind Marvel Studios is a fairly interesting one, but there’s one key ingredient to getting this movie powerhouse off the ground we haven’t really heard about. And he is David Maisel. Promoting his work as a producer on this month’s Angry Birds, the man finally revealed his role in helping to establish Marvel Studios as one of the biggest players in the industry today. Maisel credits himself for the sequel strategy at play within the MCU, and he’s the one who engineered the sale to Disney.
It’s suspected that even most hardcore Marvel fans have never heard of David Maisel, but without his hard work and ingenuity, Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow might not be household names. One reason Maisel‘s name isn’t often mentioned is that the act of giving proper credit to those who worked for Marvel’s ultimate success is a contentious one. But this producer is said to be essential in the creation and execution of a plan that turned Marvel Studios from a character licensing shop to a true production studio responsible for some of the biggest box office hits over the past two decade.
David Maisel joined Marvel in 2003, when the company was worth only $400 million. By the time Disney acquired Marvel, it went for $4 billion. He is said to have a ‘hyper-focused personality’ and doesn’t fall in line with the usual Hollywood deal breakers. While some, such as Spider-man producer Avi Arad, dispute David‘s claims that he is directly responsible for Marvel’s current success, others are quick to give him all the credit. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, one unnamed executive with first hand knowledge to Maisel‘s role at Marvel had this to say.
“The concept of Marvel making its own movies and the financial model that allowed it, came entirely out of David’s head. It was the most impressive piece of pure intellectual structuring I’d ever seen.”
Most individuals who worked directly with David refuse to go on the record about his contributions. Some say he is emotionally challenged, which could be his greatest downfall. The man describes himself as a mix of Peter Pan and Tony Stark, though without the wealth. That said, Maisel left Marvel when it sold to Disney, and walked away with tens of millions on the deal made. Despite this, he is said to still live in a two bedroom apartment close to Los Angeles’ Grove shopping complex, which he sometimes shares with his mother.
Maisel was an early adaptor of the franchise mindset, which wasn’t what it is today way back in 1995. He joined Marvel in 2003, when the crew only consisted of a handful of individuals. New Line had a popular franchise with Blade, and 20th Century Fox was doing well with X-Men. It was Sony that really broke through with Spider-Man in 2002. While none of these franchises were housed directly at Marvel, the studio was making money from consumer product revenue. And that enabled the company to recover from bankruptcy a few years earlier.
Maisel approached Spider-man producer Avi Arad in 2003 about improving Marvel’s returns, and this lead to a meeting with the penny pinching Ike Perlmutter, who had taken over Marvel Entertainment after bankruptcy. Maisel believed he could negotiate more than 5% from box office grosses. And soon, he was hired as president and CEO of the studio.
At that time, Marvel boss Kevin Feige was a junior executive ‘giving script notes to studios’. While Feige wouldn’t comment, David claims he was Kevin‘s boss and friend. And it wasn’t long before Maisel was plotting a way for Marvel to own and release its own movies. He wanted to mix characters and individual superhero franchises just as Marvel had done in the comic books. He was the one that first imagined each Marvel movie could lead into the next, setting up what is now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The producer says he was inspired by George Lucas and Star Wars.
At the time, Marvel Enterainment wanted to keep licensing characters, because this meant more companies were involved, more movies would get made, and there would be more consumer product money rolling in. At the time Maisel arrived, Marvel was getting ready to sell Captain America to Warner Bros., and Thor was on his way to Sony Pictures, home of Spider-man. David claims that if he had come aboard the Marvel Studios train just a few weeks later, the MCU would not exist as we know it today, with the Avengers split up amongst a variety of studios. At the time, Iron Man was sitting dormant at New Line, and the Hulk was at Universal, who still own the distribution rights to the character (that’s why there is no Hulk solo movie at this time). David says this about fighting to end the Captain America and Thor deals before they became official.
“Ike will challenge your argument and your logic in a tough way sometimes, but he will listen, and eventually I convinced him to support what I needed to do to at least try to make a studio.”
Back in the early 2000s, Maisel made a deal with Lionsgate to create and release low-budget animated movies featuring The Avengers, which he used as a proof of concept. While Lionsgate paid all the money for these animated movies, Marvel would get half the profit and all of the creative control. Following this endeavor, Perlmutter told Maisel to give the feature films a shot, as long as Marvel didn’t have to pay for them. In 2005, Merrill Lynch put up $525 million, allowing Marvel to green light any superhero movie they wanted budgeted at $165 million. The only stipulation was that the movie be rated PG-13.
The collateral for this deal was the rights to 10 Marvel characters including Captain America and The Avengers, as well as some lower end titles such as Power Pack and Shang-Chi. The original plan was to make 4 movies with Marvel collecting a 5% producing fee on each before the banks could recoup their money. Marvel would retain all merchandising and video game rights. Once this was in place, Marvel set out to find a studio to distribute the movies and commit to millions in marketing. The deal eventually wound up at Paramount, home to the first Iron Man.
As things seemed like they were moving forward, Merrill Lynch pulled back, wanting Marvel to front 1/3 of the movie budgets. This was a deal breaker for the Marvel board. Marvel decided to pull back rights to the movies in five different foreign territories, and pre-sold them to raise the money. During this time, Maisel became vice chairman of Marvel, reporting directly to Perlmutter, and Arad left, selling off his shares in the company. With New Line’s rights to Iron Man expiring in 2006, Marvel and Paramount announced in 2007 that it was moving forward on Iron Man with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead and Jon Favreau directing.
Marvel made the claim that it would be happy if the studio broke even since it would have the merchandising to fall back on. But the movie turned out to be a blockbuster success, pulling in $585 million worldwide. Maisel claims it was his idea to do Hulk next at Universal. And thus a unique deal was stuck between Universal and Marvel. Universal had no plans to do any more Hulk movies, so Maisel offered a $100 million-plus budget and would pay Universal to distribute, allowing Universal to retain the rights to the character. But Universal could only distribute future Hulk movies if the character was the main lead. Marvel would not owe Universal any money if they decided to use Hulk as a secondary character in a movie such as the first Avengers or the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok. This arrangement still stands. Though, Avi Arad wants to take credit for contacting Universal about this unique deal.
It is said that Maisel arranged for Disney’s Bob Iger to meet with Ike Perlmutter about acquiring Marvel Studios, and credits himself for helping push along the deal. The sale was done in August of 2009 and the rest if history. David had thought about getting out of the producing game altogether, but saw that his mother was obsessed with the mobile game Angry Birds. And in 2010, he decided to pursue the possibilities of turning that into a big screen movie. He contacted Rovio, makers of the game, and pitched the movie that will be released this summer, using Marvel as a model for a franchise.
David Maisel says that he wants some credit for what he did for Marvel Studios and his creative contributions. But they don’t appear to be interested in speaking about it publicly. The studio did give him a special shout out in the credits of last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. It read ‘Special Thanks to Marvel Studios Founding Chairman David Maisel’. While it wasn’t exactly the acknowledgment he was looking for, he does say it ‘helped a lot’. And that folks, is the secret origins of Marvel Studios.
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