Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios and the Disney Crown

No sooner had Rich Ross announced his resignation Friday as chairman of Walt Disney Studios than talk turned to Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios' baseball cap-wearing president of production, as his potential successor.

At 39, Feige is the driving force behind what's become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an ambitious slate of interconnected films that's grossed more than $5 billion since the 2008 release of "Iron Man." Four years and five movies later, all eyes are on "The Avengers," the $220 million crown jewel of Marvel Studios whose May 4 opening is made that much more important to parent company Disney by the disastrous performance of "John Carter." But with the abrupt departure of Ross, who was blamed for the poor marketing of the sci-fi flop, the spotlight also turns on Feige, a producer who, by all accounts, is more comfortable in a rumpled sweatshirt on a film set than in a jacket and tie at a board meeting.

The prevailing belief, according to Variety, is that Feige is the top choice of Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger to replace Ross, and the job is his if he wants it. That, of course, raises the multibillion-dollar question: Does Feige want it?

A one-time intern and assistant to producer Lauren Shuler Donner -- she describes him as "a walking encyclopedia of Marvel" -- Feige's name has appeared on virtually every film featuring a Marvel character since "X-Men" in 2000. In fact, his career is so inextricably tied to Marvel that his IMDb page doubles as a timeline of the company's rise from licensor and co-producer to independent studio.

For all of Marvel's success with "Iron Man," "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "Thor," and the high expectations for "The Avengers" -- it's on track to open domestically to "Hunger Games"-like numbers, well north of $155 million -- films like Fox's 2011 hit "X-Men: First Class" and Columbia Pictures' upcoming "Amazing Spider-Man" serve as ready reminders that it wasn't so long ago that the company relied on other studios to bring its vast library of superheroes to the big screen. Those licensing agreements sometimes met with mixed results and, on more than a few occasions, legal action, with little payoff for Marvel.

Take for instance, Spider-Man, whose film rights were sold in 1985 for a mere $225,000 (about $480,000 by today's standards) over a five-year option period, starting the property on its journey down a tangled web created by sloppy contracts, overlapping agreements -- at one point MGM claimed a perpetual license permitted it to make a movie whenever it wished -- and bankruptcies, including Marvel's. An eight-year legal battle ended in 1999 when MGM agreed to settle with Marvel, leaving Columbia parent company Sony Pictures with the rights to produce a live-action Spider-Man feature and sequels. In return, the House of Ideas received a reported $10 million to $15 million advance against gross revenues, and entered into a far more lucrative joint venture to license Spider-Man merchandise.

Arriving less than two years after Marvel emerged from bankruptcy, the Spider-Man deal effectively brought to a close a dark era ushered in by the purchase of the company a decade earlier by corporate raider Ron Perelman, whose dreams of a media empire quickly crumbled. But it also highlighted the ascent of Isaac Perlmutter and Avi Arad, the co-owners of Toy Biz who became instrumental not only in Marvel's movie plans but in the future of the entire company.

It was Perlmutter who, according to the Financial Times, tried unsuccessfully to convince Perelman to move into film production to revive flagging interest in Marvel's superheroes (which, in turn, would boost sales of Toy Biz's licensed action figures). Ignoring that advice, Perelman drove the company into bankruptcy, leading to a showdown with investor Carl Icahn from which, against most expectations, Perlmutter and Arad emerged victorious -- and in 1998 took control of Marvel.

The longtime face of Marvel's movie ventures, Arad was initially sent to Los Angeles to assist Stan Lee, who moved to the West Coast in 1981 to develop the company's television and movie properties. That arrangement didn't last, however, as Arad soon unseated the legendary writer and editor. "Avi insinuated himself into the job," Lee told Fortune in 2007.

The same year Toy Biz bought Marvel, New Line Cinema released "Blade," the Wesley Snipes vampire action film based on the third-tier "Tomb of Dracula" character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan. The movie grossed $133 million worldwide -- Marvel's cut amounted to just $25,000 -- and proved to be a watershed event not just for Arad and the company but also for the film and comics industries, reigniting Hollywood's passion for superheroes. The success of "Blade" also paved the way for other deals that, while lucrative to the studios involved, didn't amount to major paydays for Marvel. (For instance, according to a Lehman Brothers analysis, Fox's first three "X-Men" movies grossed a combined $2 billion worldwide, but Marvel's share of the box office was a relatively paltry $25 million.)

Arad, chairman and CEO of Marvel Studios, was convinced the company should produce its own films, and in 2003 turned to Harvard MBA David Maisel, who came up with the idea to fund the venture by borrowing money against character rights. Marvel CEO Perlmutter quickly hired Maisel as the studio's chief operating officer, and with that -- and $525 million in financing -- the company was finally in the movie-making business. But just as Lee was nudged aside years earlier, so too was Arad after he and Maisel locked horns over the frequency of film releases and the caliber of characters involved. Perlmutter sided with Maisel -- "Ike was a supporter," Maisel told Fortune, "not just of the deal, but of my role" -- and in May 2006, Arad cashed out $59 million worth of stock and left the company.

With Arad gone, Maisel was promoted to chairman of Marvel Studios while producer Feige was elevated to president of production, even as filming began on "Iron Man." Maisel's role would soon grow well beyond his duties as chairman, however: He was the first Marvel executive to suggest a merger to Disney's Iger, and in June 2009 arranged his first meeting with Perlmutter. Disney finalized its $4 billion purchase of Marvel six months later, and Maisel stepped down from his studio position $20.3 million richer.

Feige remained, serving not only as steward of the company's film properties but also, like Arad and Lee before him, as Marvel's Hollywood ambassador. Described by some as a "fanboy executive," Feige is well-versed in superhero lore -- "Kevin is just a huge nerd," "The Avengers" director Joss Whedon told The New York Times last year -- and, more importantly, knows how to strike that delicate balance between pleasing comics die-hards and appealing to a broader audience. Just as critical, though, is his ability to do so on a tight budget.

Perlmutter, Feige's enigmatic boss, is as notoriously thrifty as he is reclusive. A self-made billionaire, the nearly 70-year-old chief executive has never given an interview to the press; the only public photo of him, sporting dark hair and a healthy tan, was taken almost three decades ago and looks as if it were a promo image for "Mad Men." So publicity-shy is Perlmutter that he reportedly attended the 2008 premiere of "Iron Man" in a disguise that fooled even close friends. He's also legendary for going to extraordinary lengths to save a penny, fishing paperclips out of the trash, limiting the number of coffee pots and reusing paper. "He used to do this thing in our office that people would laugh at," Arad told the Financial Times shortly after the Disney merger was announced. "If there was some used paper or a memo lying around he would rip it into eight pieces and he would have a new memo pad."

Reaping an estimated $1.5 billion in cash and stock from the Disney deal, Perlmutter was propelled onto Forbes' lists of wealthiest Americans and world billionaires and became the second-largest individual shareholder in the entertainment conglomerate behind the late Steve Jobs. He remains as head of Marvel, where he's said to have been behind the layoffs last year of some 15 employees. His cost-cutting hasn't been limited to the House of Ideas, however. According to Deadline, the "budget-obsessed megalomaniac" has also taken control of Disney Consumer Products, "firing here, fixing there," and generally making life miserable for Iger. Perlmutter was also counted among Rich Ross' most vocal detractors -- alongside the likes of Pixar/Walt Disney Animation chief John Lasseter, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and DreamWorks' Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider -- and may have contributed to his ouster from Walt Disney Studios.

For the past five years, Feige has maintained a similarly watchful, if perhaps less obsessive, eye on Marvel Studios' bottom line. A savvy businessman, he signed Samuel L. Jackson to an unprecedented nine-movie deal in 2009, and similarly negotiated multi-picture contracts with such acclaimed actors as Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Don Cheadle, Natalie Portman and Jeremy Renner (every one of them an Academy Award winner or nominee). When Terrence Howard wanted more money to reprise his role as James Rhodes in "Iron Man 2," Feige simply replaced him , and following widespread reports of conflicts between the studio and Edward Norton over the final edit of "The Incredible Hulk," he recast Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner for "The Avengers."

While quickly developing a reputation for calling its own shots, the studio also has drawn criticism for lowballing actors: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke were initially offered just $250,000 for "Iron Man 2," a figure eventually negotiated up to more than $400,000. "There's a real arrogance," an anonymous agent told the trade paper. "But in this environment where everybody's struggling to stay employed, their behavior is amplified." (Rourke, for his part, doesn't look back kindly on his Marvel experience, criticizing the studio -- specifically, "some nerd with a pocketful of money" -- for exerting too much creative control over the Jon Favreau-directed film.)

But in the entertainment industry, as Rich Ross can surely attest, results are what matter -- and Kevin Feige gets good results. Although 2008's "The Incredible Hulk" didn't exactly burn up the box office, it wasn't a failure, either, and the first two "Iron Man" installments, "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "Thor" have been certifiable blockbusters. "The Avengers," which debuts in just nine days in North America, is by most estimates destined to be the biggest Marvel release yet, surpassing "Iron Man 2's" $128 million opening.

Iger has at least five billion reasons to want Feige as the head of Walt Disney Studios. But the question remains: Does Feige, the master of Marvel's big-screen universe for the past five years, want the job? The sentiment, at least among the nameless insiders who weave in and out of Hollywood trade reports, is no. "He's a creative," one anonymous figure told Deadline. "I don't know that Kevin wants a desk job." Disney sources seem to agree, insisting to Variety that he's more interested in making Marvel movies and staying involved in the creative process.

Removing Feige from the picture would still leave Disney with plenty of choices -- the aforementioned Lasseter, Snider and Bruckheimer, to name a few -- but Iger may be eager to name Ross' replacement before the company releases its second-quarter earnings report on May 8. With such a short list of obvious candidates to choose from, who better to ease the anxieties of Disney shareholders stinging from "John Carter" than the shepherd of the studio's new record-breaking blockbuster?

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