08.31.09

Spidey's Billionaire

Who's the eccentric mogul behind the $4 billion Disney-Marvel deal? Kim Masters on the CEO more mysterious and secretive than a comic book superhero.

Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment is of course a big deal for the Magic Kingdom and CEO Bob Iger. And it stands out as the first big mid- or post-recession deal for the entertainment industry generally. But so far, there’s only one clear winner and it isn’t Iger or those who want to believe that the big studios still have some fight left in them. The victor is the little known Ike Perlmutter, who was running a company called Toy Biz before wresting control of Marvel from Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn in 1998.

Twelve years ago, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Perlmutter and his then-partner convinced a group of bankers that Marvel was worth saving from the scrap heap. Thanks to this deal, he’s pocketed about $1.5 billion.

Perlmutter is a man of mystery in Hollywood and beyond—go ahead, try to find a picture of him. He’s so committed to keeping things secretive that a studio source says Perlmutter attended the premiere of Iron Man disguised in glasses and a moustache—though it’s unclear how anyone would have recognized him if he’d just come as himself. In Monday’s conference call with investors about the deal, Perlmutter’s voice was never heard.

   Perlmutter attended the premiere of Iron Man disguised in glasses and a moustache—though it’s unclear how anyone would have recognized him if he’d just come as himself.     

By all accounts, Perlmutter—who will remain at the helm of Marvel—was not into comics when running Toy Biz, which manufactured memorabilia based on Marvel characters. And he wasn’t into movies when he took over Marvel Entertainment. According to those few who know him, he’s a tough boss who would work a 27-hour day if that were possible. “He’s like a garment-cutter guy.... like a little old Jewish guy,” says one. (Perlmutter is 66.) “He’s been with his wife forever. They have places in New York and Palm Beach. He has a thick Israeli accent and he’s behind the scenes. He could care less about the movies.”

Perlmutter may not have great love for comic-book characters, but many fans do. After three movies, a Spider-Man musical is heading to Broadway next year. The X-Men franchise has been passed on to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and next Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool. And Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man turned out to be box-office platinum. So it would appear to make sense for Disney to buy Marvel. The deal provides movie fodder for a studio that could use a boost in live-action. And it serves Disney’s purpose of extending its franchises into testosterone territory, notably for its new XD cable channel. (The company’s got the girls pretty well sewn up; even as Hannah Montana slips into something a little more uncomfortable, an appealing successor— Wizards of Waverly Place star Selena Gomez—is already well established.)

But there is room for debate about the price tag—$4 billion worth of cash and stock. As industry analyst Harold Vogel put it, “I’m not doing cartwheels in the office over this.”

All of Marvel’s big winners— Spider-Man, X-Men and Iron Man—and their sequels are distributed by other studios (Sony, Fox, and Paramount, respectively). There have been less successful efforts with The Hulk. (Universal tried that one. Twice.) Vogel says he believes it’s a law of business that a company like Marvel makes most of its money from a handful of key characters. And in Marvel’s case, he says, those characters are “getting long in the tooth.”

But in the conference call, Iger said there are plenty of great characters to exploit and that Marvel’s creative executives have a strong understanding of those characters and their stories. Disney will “rely on them thoroughly,” he said. But he added that Pixar's presiding genius, John Lasseter, has already met with key Marvel creative executives and that “the group got pretty excited very fast.” With Lasseter putting some irons in the Marvel fire, Iger expressed the hope that “sparks will fly.”

At this point, Vogel figures Marvel needs lots of capital “to finance new projects and cover the downtime in between.” Under Perlmutter, Marvel has run a very tight ship; you might recall that the company made waves by offering Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke a piddling $250,000 each to appear not in the art-house movie of someone’s dream but the Iron Man sequel. (The number eventually went up to something over $400,000.) If any company can make use of Marvel’s properties, it would appear to be Disney and even if it doesn’t produce fabulous results, Vogel sees no lasting harm.

The loser in the deal would appear to be Viacom, which not only has to do without a much-needed supplier of big movies to its studio, Paramount, but looks as though it was not in a position to bid for Marvel even if it had wanted to. (A company source says it did not). Viacom is simply too beset with issues—especially CEO Sumner Redstone’s complicated debt--and Paramount has bumped from one off-screen drama to the next.

First DreamWorks moved to Disney; then the studio moved Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, a thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio, from an October release into next year because it would have required too much cash to release sooner. DreamWorks Animation, another key supplier of movies, is also looking to go elsewhere.

At this point, Viacom is at the center of a paradox: Even as the town argues that the price tag for Marvel may have been too high, Paramount is getting blamed for letting the company get away at the hands of Marvel’s Mister X.

Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.