Are Sony’s Massive Marvel Plans A Trick To Sell Its Movie Studio?

Sony Pictures has restructured its upcoming slate of Marvel spinoff movies, refreshing speculation that Sony may be looking to sell its movie production branch. The news comes amid ongoing negotiations for the sale of Fox to The Walt Disney Company for the eye-watering sum of $71.3 billion, and six years after Disney shelled out more than $4 billion to acquire Lucasfilm, the studio behind franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Sony currently has four different branches within the entertainment business: movies, TV, music, and gaming. Movies represent the fourth-biggest source of revenue, according to Bloomberg, generating more than $9 billion last year, and historically the motion picture production side of business has been useful in keeping Sony afloat while other aspects of business (like consumer electronics) have struggled. However, recently Sony Pictures has been struggling to match the competition from studios like Disney and Warner Bros. – in part, due to a lack of reliable franchises. In an effort to correct that, Sony has been trying to capitalize on its stable of Marvel properties, which include more than 900 characters, starting with this year’s release of Venom.

Related: Sony’s Spider-Villain Universe Should Just Recast Spider-Man

Recent changes to Sony’s Marvel plans include splitting the team-up movie Silver & Black into two movies (one about Black Cat, and one about Silver Sable), targeting a PG-13 rating for Venom (which presumably means we’ll just have to imagine that “turd in the wind” thing from the recent trailer), and developing movies based on a range of other Marvel characters, including Morbius the Living Vampire (who will be played by Jared Leto), Kraven the Hunter, Silk, Jackpot, and Nightwatch. One character who isn’t being included in those plans, however, is Spider-Man, since Sony’s current deal with Marvel Studios means that Spidey is tied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But with a bridge already established between the two studios, could other Sony-owned Marvel characters soon be joining Spidey?

Sony Has Been Rumored to be Considering Sale Recently

Rumors of Sony planning to sell Sony Pictures are nothing new. In December 2016, NY Post reported that CBS chief Leslie Moonves had flown to Tokyo with the aim of making an offer for Sony Pictures, after rumors that Sony was open to pitches for its entertainment assets. In April 2017, we learned that Sony Pictures had experienced a loss of $719 million at the box office over the previous year, due to new releases underperforming. Then, in February 2018, it was announced that Sony CEO Kaz Hirai – who had been a strong proponent of the company’s movie and TV properties – would be stepping down, and would be replaced by CFO Kenichiro Yoshida. Yoshida has been described as a numbers guy who is “not too keen on the entertainment business,” so his appointment led to speculation that Sony Entertainment – the branch that manages Sony’s music, TV and film properties – could be put up for sale, in part or in whole.

On the face of it, the fact that Sony Pictures is ramping up plans for a vast array of Marvel movies might indicate that the motion picture division won’t be up for sale any time soon, and that Sony is instead trying in earnest to build its own dependable money-making franchise. Certainly if Venom proves to be as successful as Iron Man was in establishing a comic book movie universe, Sony could well decide that its Marvel movie rights are more valuable where they are, rather than as part of a sale package to a company like Disney or Comcast.

On the other hand, Sony already has an existing deal with Marvel, and those 900 Marvel Comics characters have a built-in appeal for Disney, who already own the movie rights to most of the Marvel universe and will soon acquire the Fantastic Four and X-Men as well. A Disney-Sony deal would complete Disney’s Marvel collection and give the studio free reign to bring popular characters like Venom into the MCU. So, is Sony really making plans for a separate Marvel movie universe, or is it really all part of a plan to up the perceived value of Sony Pictures in anticipation of a sale?

Page 2: How Sony’s Marvel Plans Could Usher In a Disney Deal

Venom’s PG-13 Rating is Sale Friendly

A Venom movie has been in the works for many years, with the project actually predating Spider-Man’s move to the MCU. When the current iteration of the movie was finally locked in for production in 2017, it was reportedly being envisioned as an R-rated horror sci-fi film. However, there was also some confusion over whether or not it would be connected to the MCU, with producer Amy Pascal first describing it as an “adjunct” to the MCU movies, Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige then clarifying that it was “just Spidey” in the MCU, Pascal then agreeing that Sony’s other Marvel movies will not be in the MCU, and then confusing things all over again by saying that Venom will be set in the “same reality” as Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Putting these various comments together – along with hints from both Pascal and Feige that Venom could one day go toe-to-toe with Tom Holland’s Spider-Man – it seems as though Sony is trying to create a version of the character that was hypothetically standalone, but could also potentially be folded into the MCU without needing a reboot or reams of exposition. Venom shifting from an R-rating to a much more MCU-friendly PG-13 is indicative of that, and the recent trailers – despite taglines like “the world has enough superheroes” – definitely present the movie as a fairly traditional superhero origin story. Notably, the Tom Hardy’s version of Eddie Brock seems to be actively trying to hold back Venom’s worst instincts, unlike the comic book version of the character, who is cheerfully complicit in the violence. From what we’ve seen so far, this Venom could conceivably be integrated into the MCU as a more malevolent version of the Hulk.

Related: Venom & Sony’s Spider-Man Universe Is (& Isn’t) In The MCU

Sony’s Big Marvel Plans Could Be Disney Bait

If Sony is designing its Marvel universe around an eventual sale to Disney, it probably won’t happen in the immediate future. Speaking to Bloomberg, Morningstar Investment Service analyst Kazunori Ito noted that Sony’s entertainment properties will be a “crucial backbone” as Sony’s current game console, the PlayStation 4, reaches its peak. However, the same article also notes that Sony hasn’t had much success building a successful stable of franchises, which on average generate almost four times as much revenue as original films. An effort to reboot the Ghostbusters franchise in 2016 ultimately failed, and Blade Runner 2049 – while critically well-received – proved to be an expensive flop. Sony’s current biggest movie franchise (outside of Spider-Man, who is tied up with the MCU) is James Bond, and one big franchise movie every 2-4 years just isn’t enough.

With Yoshida now in place as CEO and Sony rumored to be quietly open to pitches, Disney could well turn its attention to acquiring the rest of the Marvel Comics characters once the deal with Fox is finalized (possibly by summer 2019). Bloomberg estimates that such an offer could feasibly be made at around 3.9 times Sony Pictures’ revenue, or $35 billion. And if Sony is looking to sell its movie division, then making big plans for a Marvel franchise is a smart way to drive up the asking price.

Although logically you might expect Sony to relax development in the lead-up to a sale – since movies being planned for four or five years in the future might end up being produced by a completely different studio – in actuality the plans for Black Cat, Silver Sable, Kraven the Hunter, Morbius, Silk, Jackpot and Nightwatch movies could be a way of making Sony’s Marvel franchise look as big as possible (picture a pigeon puffing up its chest). It’s effectively a showcase of Sony’s most high-value Marvel characters and what they could become – starting with a conveniently PG-13 Venom who exists in the “same reality” as Spider-Man.

Whether or not Disney is actually interested in taking the bait is another matter, of course. In addition to the massive stable of characters already under the Marvel Studios banner, Disney is about to acquire two more of the most famous Marvel teams – X-Men and Fantastic Four – with the X-Men alone bringing with them a huge number of characters (including established solo movie stars like Wolverine and Deadpool). Disney already has a number of successful ongoing Marvel sub-franchises, with many more characters still on the bench, and the studio can only release so many superhero movies every year. Moreover, Disney may not be ready to make another big purchase so soon after the $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox. If Sony’s Marvel plans are a roundabout way of flirting, don’t be surprised if they strike out… for now.

More: How The Sony Spider-Verse Is Run Differently To The MCU

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