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June 13, 2013

Superheroes have everything that (corporate) Hollywood loves – for better and for worse: a pre-existing and loyal fan base, franchise potential, visual 3D extravaganza potential, merchandise and amusement park revenue streams, undemanding plot logic requirements, easy formulaic scripts, predictable humor and much more. On the other hand, the cost of differentiating them is increasing beyond the ability of small players, which are gradually disappearing in this consolidating landscape.

This has been the decade of the superhero, and more specifically – the decade of Marvel’s superheroes. DC Comics, which is owned by Warner Bros., is still hanging in there, but they have only managed to capitalize on two key franchises – Batman and Superman. The first had a very good run with Christopher Nolan, but that’s over now and the latter is being rebooted these days – and doesn’t seem to be of the same scale.

Let’s take a look at the huge growth in this domain and at the changing relative market shares – by comics’ publisher (who own the rights to the characters) and by distributor:

Worldwide Box Office Grosses of Superhero Films - by Comics' Publisher [Real 2013$]

Worldwide Box Office Grosses of Superhero Films - by Distributor [Real 2013$]

You would think that since the Disney-Marvel merger of 2009, Disney would shoot forward as the leading distributor in this domain, but apparently (according to this article) – so many of the Marvel characters are tangled up in very complex licensing deals with all the other studios, so it will be years before Disney will be able to fully capitalize on its Marvel assets in the way WB is doing with DC Comics. But once the lawyers get paid, or once the current licensing agreements expire – we will probably see Disney emerge as the dominant Superhero player. WB & DC will always be relevant, but it looks like Marvel is doing a much better job at leveraging its arsenal of characters.

In any case, the domain of superheroes is consolidating. On the publishers’ front – the past decade and the decade to come will be dominated by Marvel. Most of the leftovers will go to DC Comics, but all the smaller players will have a much harder time, as these productions become more and more extravagant and expensive to produce and market.

On the distributor front – the upcoming decade will show a gradual shift in Disney’s favor, at the expense of Paramount and other studios that had licensing agreements with Marvel. Warner will have to up its game if it wants to rise to the level of Disney-Marvel. The others will have to figure out what to do, as there’s not much left for them in this domain. Perhaps coming up with original superheroes? Yeah, right…

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