CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- For years, movies based on comic books weren't taken as seriously as other genres, such as science fiction, horror or other action movies in general.
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has been trying to change that. Starting as an associate producer on 2000's "X-Men," Mr. Feige has helped oversee a decade's worth of commercial and critical hits for Marvel and its studio partners, including the "X-Men," "Spider-Man" and "Fantastic Four" franchises.
Those early movies were licensing deals with the studios. With the 2008 release of "Iron Man," Marvel was producing its own movies, and the Walt Disney-owned studio has an ambitious slate for 2011: two major tentpoles for the summer -- "Thor" and "Captain America: First Avenger" -- that will further build anticipation for another potential blockbuster (and franchise), 2012's "The Avengers," which features not only Thor and Captain America, but also Iron Man, Black Widow and The Hulk. ("The Avengers" is the first official release of a Marvel Studios film by Disney, which last year bought back the distribution rights to it and "Iron Man 3.")
Mr. Feige and Marvel cut their teeth on the movie business by learning from studio partners such as 20th Century Fox (the "X-Men," "Daredevil") and Sony ("Spider-Man"). "We were very involved in the early films ... and as we made more of those films, we got a lot of experience," Mr. Feige said. "We got exposed to the top executives, top producers. It was an amazing learning experience." In 2006 came the financing to shift production of upcoming movies to Marvel, which wanted a "bigger piece of the financial pie." And that was before Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for about $4 billion in 2009.
Josh Silverman, Marvel's senior VP-global business affairs and strategy, last year told Ad Age that the biggest priority since the Disney acquisition has been to team up with the corporate parent's global retail and distribution partners to create a U.S.-centric global franchise-management strategy. It also helps set the tone for a blitzkrieg of toys, comic books and other brand extensions leading up to Marvel's busy theatrical slate.
One step toward a unified Marvel platform is to establish the look and feel of a Marvel movie, not unlike how audiences already know what to expect from corporate siblings Pixar or Walt Disney Pictures. At preliminary "friends and family" screenings for "Thor," Mr. Feige said he was heartened by feedback that the potential franchise "feels like a Marvel film." He admits that the problem with past adaptations of comic books is that filmmakers have often built their stories with little regard for what makes comics appealing in the first place. Sometimes it seemed the studios in charge of franchises based on beloved characters such as Superman or Batman allowed the films to slip into parody or camp, further alienating casual moviegoers as well as hard-core fans. "The secret is to just look at the source material. The spirit of each character and story line are there for you. ... You don't get legions of fans by not producing amazingly rich stuff."
"Marvel has changed the definition of the comic movie genre -- so that people can look at it differently, as a genre onto itself," Mr. Feige added. "[We] continue to expand the definition of a comic book movie. People still say comic books aren't for me, but they now look at [Marvel movies] as a summer blockbuster -- they know it's safe, even if they haven't read the comic books."
Marvel needs that type of branding to stand apart from the myriad other films flooding theaters next summer, an especially crowded four months with the latest installments of the "Transformers," "Harry Potter" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchises, as well as new entrants "The Green Lantern" (from rival DC Comics) and "Cowboys & Aliens," among others.
Like any studio with a summer tentpole -- let alone two -- the strategy is to own a weekend, and Marvel for the past few years has staked a claim to the first weekend in May. That's no different this year as Marvel opens "Thor" on May 6. And the studio is looking to bookend the summer with the July 22 release of "Captain America," by which time Marvel and Disney can get the trailer out on earlier releases to build anticipation. And as last year's "Inception" and "Salt" showed, July releases can command a sizable audience.
"The expectation any film is always high. These characters are extremely popular, especially dealing with "Thor" and "Captain America," characters that people have cared about for almost 70 years," Mr. Feige said. He added: "No matter what the movie is, there's a tremendous amount of pressure. You often get one chance to debut a character to fans and to the majority of people who might not have heard of [the hero]."
Marvel will be producing two films a year through 2012 with "Avengers" and "Iron Man 3" but expect audiences to get exposed to even more of Marvel's 8,000 characters as those costumed do-gooders make their way to the small screen as well.