How Marvel's Legal Team Is Involved in Film Development

Marvel Studios' creative process has been consistent for over a decade, but the entertainment giant has undergone numerous evolutions along the way. When Marvel Studios launched their Phase 1 of films, they began by leasing out their popular titles to various companies. Paramount Pictures handled the distribution of Iron Man and Thor, while Universal Pictures had its banner attached to The Incredible Hulk. Even after Disney came into the picture, Marvel evolved again in 2021, expanding its cinematic universe with serialized streaming shows.

With an operation this massive and multiple variables at play, Marvel Studios often seek out legal assistance with their projects' developments. Speaking on his entertainment law podcast Better Call Paul, former Marvel Studios attorney Paul Sarker shined some light on how the MCU's various teams operate behind the scenes.

"They're not going to necessarily involve legal at the junior level, unless there's a contract that needs to be signed, or some sort of problem. But at the strategic level, they'll involve business affairs and legal very early on, with regards to things that are going to impact, like we're at a fork in a road, or we want to plan it out the next couple years, which characters are restricted, which characters are we going to have to share?" Sarker said. "Back in the day, would we have to share with Fox and Sony on, which characters are off-limits. So from those high level discussions, they're going to talk to the brand people, the marketing people, and the head of business affairs in legal and get direction. But then they're going to go off and do their thing. I mean, strategically, I believe [Marvel President] Kevin [Feige] would talk to the head of business affairs on a regular basis."

Those contracts are the bread and butter of Marvel's legal department. While the bulk of those kind of contracts are talent-related, the most all-encompassing contract task legal deals with revolves around the blockbuster budget.

"Say a couple years from now, for example, we think we're going to do Endgame, we're going to need to spend 200 million on talent alone for these movies, and we're going to want to shoot them in Atlanta, we're going to want to shoot them back to back," Sarker continued. "Something like that conceptually is going to have to be brought up early on with legal. And then they're going to have to get the budgetary approvals in place so that when they want to do it and execute it, because that's not necessarily just run-of-the-mill deal-making. You have like a constellation of 20 stars that have all appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some of them are the biggest, highest paid actors in Hollywood. They have other schedules they're doing. Some of them are regularly in movies, some of them haven't been in our Universe in two or three years. So in that scenario, you need lead time to make that work. But junior lawyers don't need to get involved in that necessarily. That's more at a high level."

Even once production commences, Sarker noted that many pieces are still moving at the drop of a dime.

"On the production, I would say there's countless times where you find out a day or two in advance that something's got to happen," Sarker said "For example, like testing for a role, whether it's, I don't want to say Tom Holland in particular, but a lot of times when you're bringing people in to test, the casting team and the creative team are waiting until basically the last minute to give us their list of people they'd like to do deals with.

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"And then boom, you get the deal terms, you try to do some business affairs, you get the reps, you get their quotes, you try to paper the deals, you have the authority. Where you're allowed to agree, the deal comes together very quickly, then you have to paper it. But that whole process might only take three or four days or less, because until the decision's made, there's no need to get a contract done, right? So strategic decisions that the leaders of the business affairs team are brought in earlier, or something like who works for TV, or what story arc do we want to develop for Disney Plus, things like that get mentioned to legal early. If it's a matter of just getting a contract done, sometimes you just find out at the last minute."