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Marvel Studios’ Origin Secrets Revealed by Mysterious Founder: History Was “Rewritten”

With 'Angry Birds' headed to theaters, producer David Maisel spills all on how he played a key role in turning Marvel Studios into a global film power as, he says, an inventor of its sequels and quasi-sequels strategy and engineer of the Disney sale.

Even the most ardent fans of Marvel and its heroes probably haven’t heard of David Maisel. But he is one of the key architects of the studio that turned Iron Man, Thor and Ant-Man into a multibillion-dollar movie universe.

No, he is not Kevin Feige, who has become known as the key creative force behind Marvel’s stunning run of success — including Captain America: Civil War, headed for a massive U.S. opening May 6 — and the issue of who deserves credit for Marvel is a highly contentious one. But Maisel was an essential player in conceiving and executing a plan to transform Marvel Studios from a shop that licensed characters to other studios into a true production company that financed and took creative control of its own films. When he joined Marvel in 2003, the company was valued at about $400 million. Six years later, Disney bought it for $4 billion.

Now, as Maisel attempts to launch another franchise with a movie based on the popular mobile game Angry Birds (hitting theaters May 20), he recalls the dealmaking that made it possible for the Avengers to be united on the big screen. His successes come despite an intense, hyperfocused personality that defies any known category of Hollywood dealmaker. “There is such a thing as a Hollywood guy, and David — he’s not,” says veteran producer Sid Ganis, who sat on Marvel’s board. But given Maisel’s abilities and performance, “not being a Hollywood guy? What the heck. Who cares?”

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Clearly, some do. Producer Avi Arad, who was head of Marvel’s studio until 2006, disputes parts of Maisel’s account, though others with firsthand knowledge of his tenure support it. Says another executive familiar  with Maisel’s role at Marvel: “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.” Still, few who have worked with Maisel are willing to talk about him on the record, even to offer a canned positive quote. “There’s no question that Maisel has extraordinary financial brainpower, but his emotional IQ is his greatest challenge,” says one who worked closely with him at Marvel. “That may be what ultimately limits him.”

Asked how he sees himself, Maisel puts it this way: “The best description of me — I got it from my mom — is if you mix Peter Pan with Tony Stark. I don’t have Tony’s wealth, but I do have his love of intellect. Tony enjoys his life and Tony is single. I have more naivete. I don’t try to own a room the way Tony Stark would. But there’s a lot about Tony Stark that was me.”

Maisel pitched Angry Birds studio Rovio on an idea for a film franchise based on his experience with Marvel.

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Maisel — who left Marvel when it was sold — made tens of millions on the deal. Yet the 53-year-old bachelor still lives near The Grove shopping complex in a relatively modest two-bedroom rental he shares for most of the year with his 89-year-old mother. “I don’t have an agent, I don’t have a lawyer, I don’t have an assistant,” he says. “It’s a very peculiar life, and I know that’s different.”

Maisel grew up in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., graduated from Duke and earned a business degree in 1987 from Harvard. After a few years at a Boston consulting firm, Maisel wrote a letter to Michael Ovitz, then running CAA, after he read a cover story about him in a 1993 issue of BusinessWeek. To his surprise, Ovitz agreed to meet. “I remember him making me wait all day for my five-minute interview,” says Maisel. Months passed, but finally Maisel was hired as an adviser. Ovitz secretly was managing a sale of MCA/Universal to Seagram, giving Maisel an inside view of a major transaction.

When Ovitz left CAA in August 1995 for his ill-fated stint as president of Disney, Maisel went along and became acquainted with rising players including Bob Iger, then ABC’s president and COO. More importantly, Maisel began to understand the power of franchises. “In 2016, it’s such an obvious thing,” he says. “But it wasn’t back then.”

When Ovitz was fired, Maisel stayed with him. In June 1998, Ovitz took the helm of theater-production company Livent and made Maisel its president. Maisel soon found the company was riddled with fraud; within months, it had filed for bankruptcy. Maisel then joined an internet company in London months before the dot-com bubble burst in March 2000.

At that point it was back to Hollywood, where Maisel spent a couple of years as an adviser to Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell at their Endeavor agency. But by 2003, he was poised to have what he calls “my beautiful moment.”

At the time, Marvel Studios consisted of a handful of staffers in a small office on Santa Monica Boulevard who were writing script notes for films made by the major studios. New Line had done well with Blade in 1998, Fox hit a home run with X-Men in 2000, and Sony had an even more massive hit with Spider-Man in 2002. “You didn’t make that much money from the movie as a licensor, but you normally keep half of the consumer products [revenue],” says Maisel. That enabled Marvel, which had been in bankruptcy just a few years earlier, to recover its financial health.

But Maisel says he knew from his time at Disney that the company still had a lot of potential. So he reached out to Arad, then the studio chief, who had teamed with fellow Israeli Ike Perlmutter a few years earlier to win control of Marvel Entertainment when the company emerged from bankruptcy. By 2003, a profile in USA Today described Arad as “rolling in dough and clout” in the wake of the early hits. Arad was passionate about and protective of the characters, vetoing a scene in an early Spider-Man script that would have had the hero slashing someone’s throat. When Maisel approached claiming he could improve Marvel’s returns, Arad arranged for him to meet the notoriously press-shy and tightfisted Perlmutter.

From left: Paramount’s Rob Moore, Maisel, Downey and Feige at the April 2008 premiere of Iron Man.

That meeting took place at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. At minimum, Maisel said he thought he could negotiate a bigger share of the box-office gross than the 5 percent or less the company had been getting.

Shortly thereafter, Maisel was hired as president and COO of the studio. As Maisel tells it, Feige then was a relatively junior executive giving script notes to studios. Maisel describes himself as Feige’s boss at the time but also his friend and says the two had late-night talks about what the future could be. Feige and Marvel declined comment.

Maisel says he had long before begun to ponder what would happen if Marvel owned its movies and could mix characters together as had been done in the comics, “so that each movie could become a lead-in to the next, and, basically, after the first movie, they’re all sequels or quasi-sequels.” Maisel says he was “very much inspired” by George Lucas’ strategy on Star Wars: “If we could do movies similar to the box-office average of the [Marvel films] that had been released or even a haircut to those, significantly, Marvel could be worth in the billions.”

Maisel says the company’s focus was on licensing other characters, “the more movies, the better because there’s more consumer products to sell.” Soon after he started, the company was poised to license Captain America to Warner Bros. and Thor to Sony. “If I had gotten there three months, six months later, those deals would have been done,” he says. “And there would be no chance to bring all these characters together.” Spider-Man already was at Sony, and Iron Man had been idling at New Line. (“They thought it was a lousy property,” says Maisel.) Hulk was at Universal, which had made one semi-successful film.

Maisel lobbied to block the Captain America and Thor deals. “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,” he says. As an early proof of concept, Maisel says he made a deal with Lionsgate to do low-budgeted animated Iron Man and Avengers movies that would go direct to DVD. Lionsgate financed the films for a distribution fee and half the profit. “It allowed me to say to people: ‘Look at the value of our IP. Here’s someone paying all the money, and we have creative control and get half the profits,’ ” says Maisel.

As Maisel pressed for Marvel to own its live-action movies, Perlmutter and the board told him to give it a shot as long as Marvel wouldn’t have to put up a dime. For the next year, Maisel says he worked on a way to execute. In April 2005, Marvel announced Merrill Lynch would provide $525 million and allow Marvel to greenlight any movie up to $165 million as long as it was rated PG-13. Marvel would put up no cash and assume no risk. “Too good to be true,” boasts Maisel.

The collateral was the movie rights to 10 characters: Captain America and something vaguely called the Avengers at the high end, dwindling to Shang-Chi and Power Pack. The plan was to make four movies. Marvel would collect a 5 percent producing fee on each before the banks could recoup, and keep rights to merchandise and video games. “We would have been no worse off in failure than if we just licensed those deals,” says Maisel. Marvel had to find a studio to distribute the films and commit to spending hundreds of millions on marketing, but the past performance of the Marvel movies made that seem reasonable. (The distributor would receive a percentage of box office and be first in line to recoup its costs.) Marvel’s first stop was Universal, but as talks dragged, the deal went to Paramount.

Maisel at the August 2012 Broadway premiere of Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth with, from left, Spike Lee, Kanye West, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Tyson. Maisel attended the event at West’s invitation. Tyson is a mutual friend.

Just as everything seemed to be in place in the spring of 2005, underwriter Merrill Lynch balked, demanding that Marvel put up a third of the film budgets, which was a dealbreaker for the board. The solution: Marvel said it would pull back rights to the films in five foreign territories from Paramount and presell them to raise money. The financing closed in September, and Marvel moved to new quarters above a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Beverly Hills.

Meanwhile, tensions had ratcheted way up between Maisel and Arad. In 2005, Maisel was promoted to vice chairman of the studio and became a direct report to Perlmutter. The following year Arad left, selling most of his stock at about $20 a share. (Disney acquired the company three years later for $51 a share.) Maisel ultimately became chairman.

Now, Arad says simply, “Success has many parents. I respect David’s interesting mind.”

In 2007, Marvel announced that Robert Downey Jr., then known primarily for his stints in rehab and jail, would play Iron Man in a film to be directed by Jon Favreau (New Line’s rights to the superhero had expired in 2006). A board member told Maisel: “Don’t worry. We’ll be very happy if this breaks even and we can sell more toys.” It grossed $585 million worldwide.

Maisel says he wanted the next movie to focus on Hulk because Universal’s 2003 Ang Lee version provided some basis to predict how another might perform. But Universal still had rights. Maisel called Universal chief Ron Meyer and asked whether he had plans to make another Hulk. When Meyer said no, Maisel says he proposed that if Marvel could have rights back, he would make at least one more Hulk movie, spending $100 million-plus, and pay Universal to distribute. It was found money for Universal. The catch was that Universal could distribute the films only if Hulk were the central char­acter. Marvel owed Universal nothing if Hulk appeared in, say, an Avengers movie — which is, of course, exactly what later happened. (In one of several points of dispute, Arad says that he was the one who contacted Universal.)

On Feb. 18, 2009, Maisel met with Iger to talk about ways to expand a relationship between Disney and Marvel. Maisel then arranged for Iger to meet Perlmutter. By the end of August, the sale was a done deal.

Maisel says he was ready to slow down and enjoy the fruits of his labors. But in late 2010, he noticed his mother playing Angry Birds on her iPad. He contacted Rovio, the developer behind the game, and found himself in Finland pitching the idea of making a movie based on the Marvel model. This time, he didn’t need to raise financing; he persuaded the board to write a check (about $80 million). But he did need to invent a backstory for the titular birds and their green, porcine antagonists.

Though Rovio has faced challenges in recent years, Sony Pictures agreed to distribute the film. Maisel “has enormous ability and talent in spotting what could be very popular intellectual property around the world and is expert at crafting that into really wonderful movies,” says Sony Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton.

Maisel says he called on one of his friends, Sean Penn, to voice a pig in the film. (Penn grunts but doesn’t speak.) Penn says in a statement to THR that he found it “really impressive” watching Maisel bring the film from an idea to reality, adding, “I feel like I’ve now had a front-row seat at the ‘David Show’ and it’s no wonder he’s been so successful.”

Whether the Angry Birds movie can land with audiences with even a fraction of The Avengers‘ success obviously remains to be seen. But certainly Maisel has to appreciate Lynton’s nod to his skill at crafting movies. For him, it’s nowhere near enough to have made money on the Marvel deal or to have gotten compliments on his business skills. Maisel wants to be praised for creative contributions — something that Marvel never will offer him, though the company did throw a “Special Thanks to Marvel Studios Founding Chairman David Maisel” in the long scroll of end credits for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

That credit “helped me a lot,” says Maisel. “It did hurt, that history was being rewritten a little bit.”

This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.