Lucasfilm or Marvel: Which was Disney’s Best $4 Billion Investment?

Ryan Aday
TV Movies
TV Movies Games Comics Star Wars

In a period of four years, The Walt Disney Company shelled out major cash for two marquee purchases. In 2009, they acquired comic book giant Marvel. Then, in 2012, they purchased Lucasfilm and all things Star Wars. Strangely enough, both purchases added up to approximately the same amount: right around $4 billion.

Disney knows how to market. They are a global titan in media, toys, and entertainment. Their 12 theme parks across the globe boast close to $3 billion in profits annually. Recognized and established brands like Marvel and Star Wars have an infinite ceiling in the hands of Disney.

The question addressed here, however, is which $4 billion dollar investment was better for Disney? Fan Contributors Bob Aquavia and Ryan Aday attempt to dissect these purchases and present which they think was the better buy of these two cherished franchises.

Lucasfilm (Bob Aquavia)

The shiny green logo might as well be made of gold

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

The Star Wars universe is beloved worldwide, with multiple generations now having grown up dreaming of lightsaber battles or humming John Williams’ iconic score. I’d even argue that Star Wars, or more specifically, Lucasfilm itself, was a smarter purchase than the acquisition of Marvel.

At this point, Disney has become an entertainment juggernaut. Not only with its own properties, but with Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm under its umbrella, it has the market cornered on our childhoods. It’s hard to argue with the results: billions from their movies alone, licensing and merchandise adds to that figure exponentially.

Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012 was, to put it in the parlance, a massive disturbance in the Force. George Lucas had created the company from the ground up, and a huge part of that was how much control over their properties he had retained over the years. So when it was signed over to not just anyone but one of the largest corporations on Earth? It was a shock.

A New Hope

Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm gave new hope for the future to Star Wars fans

That shock changed, though. With announcements happening about the state of the company’s franchises, the fandom reacted with both suspicion and anticipation. Right at the jump, the new Lucasfilm announced the next Star Wars trilogy, a roadmap for future movies, and what felt like a surge of energy to the franchise. However, it wasn’t all good news. Their gaming division, long a major player in the industry, was all but shuttered. And in a huge move, Disney announced that the vast majority of works within the SW universe was no longer canon.

Reining in the Expanded Universe was a huge move and one that wasn’t taken lightly. It allowed for the creative teams to move forward without having to dig through decades of obscure characters and imperfect stories. It also allowed them to bring them in in new and exciting ways. A perfect example is the Star Wars Rebels cartoon bringing into the fold Grand Admiral Thrawn. A noteworthy adversary from the former post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe, he’s now setting his sights on the developing Rebellion in the pre-Rogue One/A New Hope timeline.

The Lucasfilm library may not have the deep bench that Marvel has, but their films are equally iconic. Star Wars may be the first of their franchises that always comes to mind, but there’s also the Indiana Jones films, Labyrinth, and Ron Howard’s Willow. Not only that, but Industrial Light & Magic, one of the most well-known and lauded visual effects companies, is part of that deal as well.

The Merchandising Awakens

The phenomena of Star Wars merchandise from the '80s is poised for a new era of entertainment

So what does Disney have with all of these properties at their fingertips? They acquired both an established audience and future potential. The Star Wars property is one that’s been insanely popular since 1977 across all forms of media: movies, tv, books, and video games. It revolutionized the collectible market and the licensing of a brand name. It’s popular enough to warrant a whole new redesign of the Disneyland and Disney World parks to allow for Star Wars Land.

Just from the film front, the first two Star Wars movies Disney released post-acquisition grossed over $2 billion (The Force Awakens) and $1 billion (Rogue One). Fans are insanely hyped for this year’s Episode 8: The Last Jedi and the new Han Solo movie that will arrive the following year. In other media, there are new video games, books, comic books, and TV series that are living up to the quality that we, as fans, want to see in one of our favorite properties.

So yes, Marvel has more movies and crossover appeal, but remember: Star Wars started the game 40 years ago. For Star Wars fans, we’ve always been patient, so the full court press of the universe is something that we’ve always wanted but never expected to happen. Disney is certainly going the route they have with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s going to pay off tremendously.

Marvel (Ryan Aday)

The size of the Marvel Universe the franchise indicates a high ceiling for profit potential

Before I get going on Marvel, let me say one thing about the other purchase. The Lucasfilm logo itself is priceless. It generates more of a pop from fans than the most beloved wrestler or home-run hitter ever could. I believe that the Lucasfilm investment was genius and the per-release money definitely helps tip the scale.

However, the sheer number of marketable characters they possess makes Marvel the winner in this competition. The franchise boasts over 5000 characters in their library. Each character has several arcs and remakes, rendering the options for film, television, and comics virtually limitless.

A Bit of a Gamble

Though not quite as bad as the 1994 Fantastic Four, pre-MCU Marvel films left a lot to be desired

At the time of purchase, Marvel had only scratched the surface of its cinematic universe, and the results were mixed. X-Men and Spider-Man franchises enjoyed great success, but other films like The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Hulk, and Daredevil left something to be desired from fans and critics. I believe fans and critics are not who you should listen to when choosing a film. That being said, 2009 saw the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) nowhere near the made franchise it is today.

This was no sure thing. Comic books are popular, but on their own, they don’t have the earning power that film or television wields. An investment of this type wasn’t just about making toys and stamping Disney on the back. It was about maximizing the potential of the MCU and using movies to promote the franchise.

When Disney acquired Marvel, Iron Man had just come out, the first film of Phase one in the MCU. Though very familiar to comic book fans, this character lacked the appeal of crossover characters like the Hulk or Spider-Man. It is this film that really pushed Disney towards acquiring Marvel. The global success of this film (nearly $600 million box office) proved a model Disney could get behind. Spend good money to make a good movie with good people in it and make a good profit.

Now take this concept and multiply it by the 5000 characters in the Marvel universe and you can begin to see why $4 billion isn’t as crazy as it initially appears. Sure, most Marvel movies cease to even dream of the success that Iron Man has achieved. They don’t have to bring in hundreds of millions to prove lucrative. More profit stands up for grabs in licensing.

Major Promotion

Disney's marketing wing lifts Marvel merchandise potential to uncharted airspace

One of the major reasons I believe Marvel is the better investment is merchandising and licensing. I won’t argue that per film Star Wars will have more profit from merchandise. But let’s face it, at best Star Wars releases one film a year. This year is slow for Marvel (as they prepare for their next Avengers event) and there are only three films on the docket: Thor, Spider-man, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel’s phones are ringing off the hook with fast food chains, toy companies, and other retail outlets vying for lucrative contracts.

Pre-Disney Marvel’s global marketability lacked the limitless potential it now enjoys. Disney’s strong presence in Europe and Asia, combined with the huge popularity in North America exponentially increases profit potential. Disney drives the Marvel movie train to heights never imagined.

Untapped Potential

Star Wars land is coming but Marvel's new Guardians ride debuts this summer

Under the Disney’s guide, Marvel has explored other avenues to reach consumers. ABC, a network that Disney owns, delivers Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D every week. Though ratings have moved up and down, this action-adventure series had garnered success without any recognizable heroes. They have also effectively utilized Netflix to introduce some minor characters like Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist. Previously, Marvel’s television arm existed almost exclusively in cartoon form.

Another intriguing recent development involves Marvel wading (no pun intended) into the world of 17+ film. Deadpool unexpectedly exploded at the box office in early 2016, and when the dust settled, it ranked as the #1 grossing R-rated film of all time. Earlier this year, Logan earned over $500 million worldwide. Neither Lucasfilm nor Marvel previously explored this market. All indications point to untapped marketing potential.

Star Wars land is catching a lot of headlines as Disney expands the presence of the force in its theme parks. However, Marvel has secured attractions as well. Having visited Disneyland recently, I can attest to the majesty of the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout. This adventure ride (previously Tower of Terror) opens this summer at Disney’s California Adventure. On top of that, Marvel characters generate lines of children waiting to snap a pic or obtain an autograph, just like Mickey Mouse and Darth Vader.

The Future For Disney

The only conclusion to draw is that Disney made some very good investments early in the 21st century. Often times, having a competitor leads to better quality for both products. The bar is constantly set higher. Star Wars competed with Star Trek and arguably won that battle. Marvel currently sits in a battle with the upstart DC cinematic universe.

While neither has a clear advantage right now, the investment potential lies in what happens over the next 2o years. Most importantly, we know that three of the world’s foremost entertainment brands lie under one Disney-shaped umbrella. The potential of this synergy is immeasurable. If Disney had its way, the success of both would assure no clear winner be crowned in the near future.

Ryan Aday
Ryan is a former college athlete with a degree in Communication from Point Loma University. He is also a 5-time Game Show Contestant (Incl. Wheel of Fortune) and decorated fantasy football player (Fantasy Football Evolution National Champion Runner-Up). Mr. Aday is kind to animals.
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