'Spider-Man' Standoff: Why Sony Thinks It Doesn't Need "Kevin's Playbook" Anymore

Feige Rothman Divorce
But now Sony film chief Tom Rothman will need to deliver Marvel-less fare that lives up to hype of the character's MCU appearances.

Sony Pictures' Tom Rothman and Marvel’s Kevin Feige had plenty of smiles at the Hollywood premiere of Spider-Man: Far From Home in late June, but the pearly whites belied an inner turmoil. While the executives hit the red carpet, talks to extend the unique partnership between Sony and Disney, which owns Marvel Studios, were breaking down over the future use of the character of Spider-Man. 

Disney had been seeking a co-financing arrangement on upcoming movies, looking for at least a 30 percent stake. Sony, which counts Spider-Man as one of its only reliable moneymaking franchises, said no. Before both sides walked away, talks had gone to the top level, with Rothman and CEO Tony Vinciquerra on Sony’s side and Disney Studios' co-chairmen Alan Horn and Alan Bergman involved. In the next month and a half, Far From Home would go on to catch $1.109 billion in the box office web, becoming Sony’s biggest movie of all time. The figure reinforced both sides’ thinking. Sony executives believed they didn’t need Disney anymore, and Disney was in no way leaving money, and Peter Parker, behind, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter

The divorce spilled out in public on Tuesday, with Sony laying the blame at Disney’s feet, saying the Burbank-based studio now had Feige too busy to work on future movies. "We hope this might change in the future, but understand that the many new responsibilities that Disney has given him — including all their newly added Marvel properties — do not allow time for him to work on IP they do not own," Sony Pictures said. The feud marked a rare display of inter-studio conflict. Even Avengers: Endgame star Jeremy Renner joined the fray, making an Instagram plea, "Hey @sonypictures we want Spider-Man back to @therealstanlee and @marvel please, thank you."

Disney and Sony were in different places when the idea of a co-operation was broached in 2014. Sony was coming off of two successful but widely derided Amazing Spider-Man pics and was seen as squandering the most popular Marvel hero. Marvel, while successful, was still finding its footing in its “phase two” of movies, jumping from a nadir with Thor: Dark World to a zenith with Guardians of the Galaxy.

It was in this environment that then Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairperson Amy Pascal reached out to Feige and over lunch made a proposal. What ensued was a very simple arrangement. So simple, say insiders, that the deal was only a four- to five-page document. Sony would loan Spider-Man out for one film, Captain America: Civil War, and in return, Sony would get Feige’s producing service for two movies. The deal was later revised to include both Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. “You have to remember, Marvel wasn’t in the same place as it was now. There was a still a question of how far could this ‘superhero thing’ go,” says one insider familiar with the deal.

Disney did not get a producing fee nor did Feige for the initial deal, say multiple insiders. “Just getting Spider-Man in even one of their movies at the time, that was a stem cell infusion for Marvel,” notes a source regarding the company’s willingness to make a deal at the time.

There was also the unique merchandising arrangement. Sony had earlier relinquished the merchandising rights to Disney for a one-time payment of $175 million. Also in the deal, insiders note, was a provision that saw Disney making a yearly royalty payment to Sony that was amounting to around $30 million a year. Sources say that Disney tied the royalty to the performance of the Feige-produced movies; the better the pics performed, the lower the royalty. (It is unclear whether this will change going forward.)

Regardless, the arrangement was groundbreaking. Here was a major studio loaning out one of its top lieutenants to a rival that owned the movie rights of a character it owned in all other respects. And Feige was given carte blanche to run Spider-Man the way he wanted, even as Sony held the purse.

And both reaped in the rewards of the arrangement. Civil War, with key support from the web-slinger, grossed $1.15 billion. Homecoming, the first Feige-made movie, made $880.1 million, even as it featured Marvel’s Iron Man and deepened the intertwining story threads of the two companies’ movies. And Spider-Man was also an emotional foil and fan favorite in the two-part Avengers films, both of which grossed over $2 billion. In the case of Avengers: Endgame, the pic became the top money earner of all time. Marvel took a victory lap at San Diego Comic-Con, driving fans into a frenzy by teasing new movies. The MCU, with its next phase set, appears nearly unstoppable.

Sony, meanwhile, also forged ahead with renewed commitment to its Spider-Man spinoff. At a retreat, Rothman, who took over from Pascal when the latter was fired amid the Sony email hack, was convinced by two executives to see superhero films as not a fad but as genres within a larger genre, sources say. The result was Venom, a critically scorned movie that nevertheless grossed $856 million. A sequel is now in the works. Also in postproduction is Morbius with Jared Leto. 

And then there was Phil Lord and Chris Miller's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the animated film that became one of 2018’s critical darlings and won the best animated movie Oscar. The feeling from Sony was that it bounced back to a place where it could strike on its own. “Tom is thinking ‘Okay, we’ve learned everything we need to from Kevin’s playbook. We did Venom on our own and we did Spider-Verse,'” comments a Sony insider.

Now, insiders at both studios are pointing fingers at one another about counteroffers that never happened or offers that were supposedly mighty generous. "The economic terms for that [Spider-Man] franchise seem to have gotten more complicated — partly reflecting Disney’s shifting priorities since the Fox acquisition," says Wall Street analyst Tuna Amobi, of CFRA Research, who isn't surprised by the impasse. "From an economic and creative standpoint, I would think the development probably has more implications either way for Sony."

Rothman will need to deliver Marvel-less fare that lives up to hype of the Spider-Man character's MCU appearances. "If the two sides don’t come to a compromise, it’s a lose-lose for everybody," argues Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for industry website Boxoffice. "Marvel won’t be able to resolve the cliffhanger in future movies, which is saying something when it’s their most popular hero. And for Sony, who has had success, Far From Home doesn’t get to a billion dollars without Feige and Marvel’s involvement."

Adds Robbins, "The other big question is, 'How are fans are going to react to a Tom Holland Spider-Man movie that is not set in the MCU?' That is a roll of the dice that no studio should take."

Because there's so much money to be made, the parties could also eventually come back to the table. “It is in the best interests of both sides to have come to an agreement,” notes analyst Steven Birenberg of Northlake Capital Management, which owns shares of Disney. “Spidey is an important part of what Marvel has been doing in the MCU and seemed to be for what they plan to do. Perhaps for the first time since Iron Man and the first few films after, there is some uncertainty as to the success of future Marvel films, defining success as the ridiculously high bar that the Avengers has set.”

Feige, meanwhile, does have plenty on his plate, including the sizzle of sequels to Thor and Black Panther and Captain Marvel as well as new chef’s concoctions such as The Eternals and Blade, not to mention a pantry filled with mutants, meaning Fox's X-Men. 

Sony’s slate is less diverse, and while it is moving ahead with spinoffs and a sequel to Venom, the future of Spider-Man is unclear. Holland, sources say, has an option for one more movie, while director Jon Watts is done with his two-picture deal and is free to pursue other projects. "The big test will be two years or so from now, when an eventual Spider-Man movie is made," says the Sony insider. 

Paul Bond and Georg Szalai contributed reporting.