Unraveling Spider-Man's Tangled Web

After lawsuits and bankruptcies delayed the superhero's big-screen debut for 17 years, Sony may finally have a franchise with legs

By Ronald Grover

One of this summer's hottest films is likely to be Spider-Man, the $139 million extravaganza from Sony's Columbia Pictures scheduled for release on May 3. Spider-Man is the superhero who used to swing from the pages of Marvel Comics, catching bad guys with spider webs that sprang from his wrists. The big-screen version is getting heavy buzz and will get the customarily heavy summer season off to an early start, two weeks before it has to do battle with George Lucas' much-awaited Star Wars: Episode 2 -- Attack of the Clones.

Even Spidey, brilliantly characterized in the comics by writer Stan Lee, could never have spun a web as tangled as the one that ensnared him on his way to the multiplex. It took 17 years, three bankruptcies, and a half-dozen lawsuits -- involving, it seems, half of Hollywood -- before Sony was able to give it the green light. Finally, after filming was completed, the web-slinger's leap to the screen was delayed seven months so more special effects could be added.


  That the film was made at all speaks volumes about Hollywood's search for the Holy Grail: franchises that can be spun into gold in the guise of video games, fast-food tie-ins, and endless streams of sequels. And it says a lot about Sony Pictures, which has seen big-budget go big-bust for most of the 13 years since the Japanese electronics giant came to Hollywood. "This company," says Sony Chairman John Calley, "has always suffered from not being able to market a franchise film."

Ironically, the much-delayed film will be showing up from Sony just a few weeks before another oft-delayed project hits the screens, the sequel to Sony's 1997 Men in Black. Factor in the sequel to its 1999 Stuart Little, about an adorable adopted mouse, and Sony may have its first blockbuster summer in many years.

It's a good bet no one at Columbia Pictures ever thought the company would be looking to launch its summer with a second-tier comic-book character. Spider-Man, launched in 1965, is the story of high-schooler, Peter Parker, who acquires his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. When the rights to the comic-book character first came up for bid in 1985, it wasn't a good time for superheroes. Spider-Man was simply another of the properties then-bankrupt Marvel Comics was hoping to sell, and the mild-mannered showing for Warner Bros.' fourth Superman flick convinced Hollywood that superheroes didn't have much of a big-screen future.


  The only producer willing to take a shot at bringing Spider-Man to the screen was Israeli gadfly Menahem Golan, whose independent film studio Cannon Films bid a paltry $225,000 for the rights. Golan spent an additional $2 million on 10 different scripts but could never get anyone to back the film.

Faced with severe financial woes, Cannon within a couple of years was taken over by Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti's Pathe Communications, which eventually also bought the fabled MGM studio. Parretti himself then went bankrupt. As part of Golan's separation deal from Pathe, he took Spider-Man and in 1988 started another company, 21st Century Films. But he still couldn't get the financing.

Golan ended up selling TV rights for the film to Viacom and the home-video rights to Columbia. Theatrical rights went to Carolco, another one-time independent studio highflier, for $5 million. Carolco, famed for its ability to make big-budget flicks like Rambo II and Terminator, signed on the latter film's director, James Cameron, to write the script. Once budgeted at a modest $15 million, Spider-Man became a $50 million project.


  Then the legal fisticuffs began. In 1993, Golan felt he was being shoved out of the picture and sued to overturn his deal with Carolco. Before long, everyone was suing everyone else. Carolco sued Viacom and Columbia in separate suits to reunite the TV and video rights. Columbia and Viacom countersued Carolco. Even MGM sued -- naming Golan, Viacom, and even Marvel Comics -- alleging fraud in the original deal with Cannon. Within a year, Carolco, 21st Century, and Marvel had each filed for bankruptcy.

In 1998, Marvel emerged from bankruptcy and, more important, the courts determined that the rights it sold to Golan in 1985 had expired. Marvel then settled with both MGM and Viacom and, in 1999, sold the rights to Sony for a reported $7 million. Sony and Marvel formed a joint venture to handle the merchandising.

Of course, the problems weren't over. The script went through a dozen rewrites (an ongoing lawsuit by some of the screenwriters claims they were improperly stripped of credits on the final product) and a casting merry-go-round. Sony wanted Leonardo DiCaprio to play the superhero, then Freddie Prinze Jr., before finally settling on fresh-faced, 26-year-old Tobey Maguire. Kristin Dunst stars as love interest Mary Jane Watson. To direct, Sony turned to sometime-actor Sam Raimi, who headed the bust superhero film Darkman in 1990, a couple of small-budget movies, and The Gift, starring Hillary Swank and Cate Blanchett two years back.


  Spider-Man's filming finished last June, but the release, expected for Christmas, was bumped to May because additional special effects were needed. Even the advertising campaign hit a snag: The initial trailer, featuring the World Trade Center, had to be redone in the wake of September 11.

Now, with the darn thing done, it looks like Sony can breathe easy. Big-league composer Danny Elfman did the score. Promotional partners include Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hardee's restaurants, Dr. Pepper, and Kellogg's. You can catch Spider-Man images on Sony's new cell phones and on the covers of some of its Walkmans. Then, of course, are the tons of products, from Topps trading cards to action figures from Marvel's Toybiz division. Ads are already blitzing the airwaves, and there are magazine covers by the dozens. At last, it looks like Sony has its franchise in the making.

The film is already getting hot reviews by underground sites, including Ain't-It-Cool.com. An optimistic Sony is already gearing up for a second installment, due out for next summer. A sequel after a year? Not bad for a movie that took 17 years to get to the big screen.

Grover follows the ever-entertaining ways of Hollywood as Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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