How the Hell Did Sony Get Spider-Man's Movie Rights Anyway?

Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe—hell, before Disney purchased the comics publisher—Marvel wasn't always a behemoth. Despite owning creations like the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man, the company nearly made itself extinct as it inched towards the turn of the century. Lo and behold, it'd be these three groups, and the web-slinger in particular, that'd eventually save Marvel from the pits of despair.

Having focused largely on its publishing efforts for the vast majority of its then-60-year life, the early and mid-1990s were unkind to the House of Ideas. So much so, the company went under a restructuring from Marvel Comics to Marvel Entertainment Group, in hopes of helping expand their characters to other mediums outside of sequential storytelling.

This restructuring ended up involving the purchase of Toy Biz, a massive toy manufacturer owned and operated by Avi Arad. The toy magnate managed to build an empire using Marvel licenses at the same time Marvel's own ledgers were faltering. With Marvel Entertainment Group now owning a majority of Toy Biz, Arad managed to leverage his position as CEO at the toy company and turn it into a presidential role at Marvel Films, a fresh new subsidiary under Marvel Entertainment Group.

As Arad thought, money was to be had outside of publishing, and it turned out the executive was right. After a mass exodus of Marvel creators, the company's publishing efforts led the company straight into Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the end of 1996.

Knowing that Marvel characters could make money—Arad's empire was built off Marvel licenses, after all—executives with Marvel made the decision to part ways with film rights of the company's most popular characters. Not wanting to waste a major name on a test, the Arad-led group struck a deal with New Line Cinema. The outfit could license the rights to Blade and associated characters to make a film.

Despite the fact Blade—a half-vampire known as Eric Brooks—wasn't a big-name from the Marvel library at the time, Arad and company thought an adult movie featuring one of Hollywood's most-known actors at the time could kickstart something major. And kickstart it, Blade did. When all was said and done, the movie ended up earning about $131 million worldwide and Marvel made a killing out of one of its least-known characters.

Suddenly, the offers quickly started to come in and, like every other outfit in Hollywood, Sony was interested in getting in on the cash cow. Not only that, the studio was interested in the largest steer Marvel had to offer.

Enter, Spider-Man.

Peter Parker was one of Marvel's biggest characters since his inception, and film rights for the character had already been bouncing around for decades. After Blade made it big at the box office, however, Sony went straight to the top. After options at 21st Century Films and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer expired, Marvel secured the film's rights to the character the second the company emerged from bankruptcy in 1998.

Now, a deal could be made — but Sony didn't want to be in the business of licensing. Still reeling from a Chapter 11 reorganization, Marvel agreed to flat-out sell the film rights to Spider-Man—and his expansive library of characters—to Sony. For a single $7 million payment, Sony would own the film rights to Marvel's most popular character, and Marvel would receive 5-percent of any movie revenue and a 50/50 split in any merchandising efforts.

And that, my friends, is how the hell Sony got its hands on Spider-Man, and how it retains ownership of the film rights today. Since then, there have been a few changes in the deal. After buying Marvel in 2009, Disney soon bought back Spidey merchandising rights while relinquishing its rights to any box office revenue. Then, of course, the two deals Disney and Sony have struck to allow the character to appear in the Marvel  Cinematic Universe.

As it stands now, the latest deal is quickly running out. Spider-Man: No Way Home finishes the character's obligated solo films and all that's left after that is a contractually-obligated appearance in someone else's MCU movie. All that said, the future does appear bright for the character, with both Sony and Marvel executives teasing future appearances by Holland as everybody's favorite Neighborhood Spider-Man.

But for now, Sony still owns the film rights to Spider-Man and his massive library of characters.

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