Endgame starts with the Avenger, or what’s left of them, rising from what seemed like a point of no return to avenge the destruction of their world. What a crazy story! Well, Marvel made quite the same come back in real life too. Back in 2003, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was conceived, Marvel was rising out of bankruptcy.
In 1995, Marvel had reported a loss of $48 million (₹3.36 billion) and a debt of $581 million (₹40.65 billion). Though they were making decent money from the cinematic rights they had auctioned to Hollywood, like Blade and Spiderman, no one really saw the cinema potential of the characters in Marvel’s superhero vault. No one except David Maisel and Avi Arad.
By 2005, Marvel made a deal with Merrill Lynch, a Wall Street firm. They put movie rights to 10 characters as collateral (e.g. Iron Man, Captain America, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Hawkeye, and well, most of the Avengers) for $525 million (₹36.73 billion). They planned to spend this money on 10 movies with budgets ranging from $45 million to $180 million (₹3.15 billion to ₹12.60 billion). If the movies did not make money, the characters they’ve pledged as collateral would belong to the bank. As much as a gamble as this might seem, it wasn’t. Movies with Marvel characters in the late 90s and 2000s were blockbusters. But what makes Marvel’s success truly spectacular is their long-term vision.
Marvel did not stick to just sequels like other superhero movies. They planned on cross-overs like they had in comics. Marvel struck a deal with Universal which allowed them to make one more Hulk movie (as the rights belonged to Universal) and they had to pay Universal to distribute. But the catch was that Universal could distribute the films only if Hulk was the central character. So the stage was set to bring Hulk to a crossover movie. And with the success of The Avengers, crossovers in movies were here to stay.
This helped them keep fans engaged for 22 movies. 22 MOVIES! I’ll let that sink in for a minute. The Dark Knight trilogy was, well, a trilogy. The Godfather Trilogy was, again, a trilogy. Back to the Future was a trilogy too. The only real comparison can be with Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. Even then, the MCU stands taller than the rest.
From sinking in debt 24 years ago to being bought by Disney for $4.3 billion (₹298 billion), the journey couldn’t have been a walk in the park.
The graph above shows the bumps (or troughs) in both Metascore (Metacritic scores) and in Opening weekend revenue. I’m sure at some point someone was looking at it thinking, “Are people getting tired of these superhero movies?” But they focussed on their vision and played the long game. And that’s made all the difference.
Marvel is not the only company that has had to go through choppy waters. Apple did so too. In 1997, Apple was on the brink of bankruptcy. They bring back Steve Jobs to be the CEO. Jobs went on to save the company he co-founded like Iron Man saves the MCU. He forms a partnership with arch-rival Microsoft, and Microsoft comes to Apple’s rescue with a $150 million investment. He cancelled costly projects like the Newton, and Apple regains its UX supremacy. Apple got through a tough time by allying with a competitor and abandoning a product ahead of its time, only to be back with iPods, iPads, iPhones, and iMacs; to become of the most valuable companies in the world.
If there’s anything that other companies can learn from Marvel and Apple, it is that you have to look beyond the immediate gains/losses and play long. Entrepreneurship is not a football game that ends after 90 minutes with a winner and a loser. It is an infinite game – you lose only when you stop playing.