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'The Avengers' to assemble -- for a sequel

The avengers
The superhero team that conquered the U.S. box office will be suiting up for a return engagement.

Walt Disney Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Robert A. Iger said its Marvel Entertainment group is already in development on a sequel to "The Avengers," which shattered the opening weekend box-office record domestically -- and in markets around the world.

The movie, featuring a slew of stars including Robert Downey Jr., raked in $207 million in its first three days of release in the United States, bringing its global box office to around $702 million.

"It's a great illustration of why we like Marvel so much -- great characters, great storytelling and a wonderful ability for them to bring their characters and stories to the big screen so effectively," Iger told analysts Tuesday during the company's quarterly earnings call.

Disney is aggressively mining Marvel's library of comic-book characters, who were the key attraction when the Burbank entertainment giant acquired Marvel for $4 billion in 2009. Disney plans to release "Iron Man 3" and "Thor 2" next year, Iger said, with a sequel to "Captain America: The First Avenger" due out in 2014.

The success of "The Avengers" is propelling merchandise sales. In many cases, products are sold out, Iger said, prompting the global licensing team to work with licensees and retailers to restock shelves as quickly as possible. Even Marvel's big green monster, the Hulk, is getting love from consumers, thanks to Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of Bruce Banner and his powerful alter ego.

"We expect, given the interest in this film, that demand for its product is going continue to be strong pretty much throughout the year," Iger said.

Iger also said that Disney's parks and resorts planning group, known as the "Imagineers," have been working on ways to incorporate Marvel into the company's theme parks, beyond Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where Universal Studios holds the rights to the characters.

"We have a number of other opportunities ... at our other parks, notably California and Europe and in Asia -- I guess that pretty much covers the rest of the world," Iger said. "And our Imagineering group has been working over the last year ... to create more opportunities for Marvel in the parks."

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Photo of Chris Evans, portraying Captain America, left, and Robert Downey Jr., portraying Tony Stark, are shown in a scene from 'The Avengers."  Credit: Zade Rosethal / Disney

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

Disney, DMG team up to make 'Iron Man 3' a Chinese co-production

Iron man 2

The Walt Disney Co. and its Marvel Studios subsidiary said Monday that "Iron Man 3" will be a co-production with China, as the Burbank company teamed with DMG Entertainment of Beijing to co-finance and distribute the film.

Robert Downey, Jr., Gwynneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle will return for the third movie in the hit franchise, whose two films grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and $42.8 million between them in China. The third installment of the movie will be directed by Shane Black unlike the first two installments which were directed by Jon Favreau. Filming in the U.S. is to start in May, and in China in late summer; the movie is slated for release in May 2013.

Foreign films co-produced in China have an easier time getting cleared by Chinese censors and do not fall under the country's annual import cap. 

“The popularity of the Marvel franchise globally creates a huge opportunity to deliver fans yet another action packed film,” Stanley Cheung, Disney’s greater China managing director, said in a statement.

DMG and Disney did not reveal how much DMG would invest in the production, nor did they give specifics about what plot elements would be shot in China. Last week, DMG's chief executive Dan Mintz told the Los Angeles Times that the film's budget was $200 million.  A Disney spokeswoman said she had not heard what the budget was to be.

DMG is a 19-year-old private Beijing advertising firm-turned-film producer and aspiring distributor. It is a partnership between two Chinese and Mintz, an American. 

DMG will manage the Chinese production elements of “Iron Man 3’’ and keep the China distribution rights.

“Our collaboration with Disney and Marvel marks a milestone in the global entertainment landscape, as this signifies the first multi-billion dollar franchise to be produced between Hollywood and China,” Mintz said in the statement.

DMG boasts close working ties with the state-run China Film Group, the country’s biggest studio and monopoly importer. DMG helped CFG with the production and marketing of two recent major propaganda films, one made to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2009 and the other the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Both films were hits but were still out-earned by Hollywood imports.

Last spring at a black-tie party, Mintz emceed the announcement of DMG’s partnership with Endgame Entertainment to make Rian Johnson's film “Looper.” DMG added little-known Chinese actress Xu Qing to the time-travel action film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt, which will arrive in U.S. theaters this fall.

In an interview with The Times last week, Mintz said DMG was going to “talk to the whole world but try to infuse Chinese elements.”

The announcement on "Iron Man 3" comes just days after Disney said it would join an initiative with an animation arm of China's Ministry of Culture and China's largest Internet company, Tencent Holdings Ltd., to develop China's animation industry. Disney said it would offer its expertise in areas such as story writing and market research to help develop local Chinese talent.

In the first quarter, China overtook Japan as the world’s second biggest box office market after the U.S. Last year, China's box office posted its 10th consecutive year of double-digit growth to gross $2.08 billion, up 31% from 2010.

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-- Jonathan Landreth in Hong Kong

Photo: Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Robert Downey Jr. as billionaire industrialist Tony Stark in the movie "Iron Man 2." Credit: Francois Duhamel / Marvel Entertainment 

On Location: 'Iron Man 3' lands in North Carolina

Iron_Man_Robert_Downey_Wilmington_Screen_Gems

In a blow to Los Angeles' below-the-line community, Marvel Studios will take its next "Iron Man" movie to Wilmington, N.C.

After weeks of speculation about where the movie would land, EUE/Screen Gems co-owner and Chief Operating Officer Chris Cooney confirmed Thursday that Manhattan Beach-based Marvel will shoot its next "Iron Man" movie at his studio in North Carolina.

“We aggressively pursued this piece of business,” Cooney said at a press conference held at the studio. “We negotiated hard and it paid off.”

Marvel also had been considering Michigan, but uncertainty surrounding the future of that state's tax credit took it out of the running.  Marvel executives also weighed filming in Los Angeles -- where the first two films in the superhero franchise were shot -- and New Mexico, but executives were ultimately wooed by North Carolina’s 25% film tax credit, in addition to the large Wilmington studio. California offers a film credit of up to 25% but it excludes big-budget movies like "Iron Man 3."

“We have a massive film facility and the third-largest film and television based crew in the country,” EUE/Screen Gems Executive President Bill Vassar said.

Vassar also noted that EUE/Screen Gem’s relationship with Disney, which bought Marvel Studios in 2009, played an instrumental role in getting Marvel executives to consider the Wilmington studio for filming. EUE/Screen Gems, which owns additional studios in Manhattan and Atlanta, also operates a lighting and grip company in Charleston, S.C., that has worked with Disney on several projects including the ABC pilot “Revenge" and four seasons of the television series “Army Wives."

“We’ve been under Disney’s radar for a long time,” Vassar said. “We have a wonderful relationship with them.”

“Iron Man 3,” scheduled for a 2013 release with a budget estimated at more than $140 million, will be the largest film to shoot in North Carolina so far. Offices will open in early January and cameras are expected to start rolling in the spring, Vassar said.

Most of the production, expected to last about 10 months, will take place in the state. Marvel will use all 10 of EUE/Screen Gem’s stages, the largest of which is 37,5000 square feet and includes a special-effects water tank, over the course of production.

At the press conference, North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue predicted an economic windfall for the state. The movie is expected to create 550 jobs for crew members and crafts people and pump $80 million into North Carolina's economy, Perdue said.

Representatives of Marvel were unavailable for comment.

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-- Dima Alzayat

Photo: EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, N.C. Credit: EUE/Screen Gems.

Disney restructures Marvel Studios marketing department

Robert-downey-jr-at-d23 
Three top marketing executives at Marvel Studios have been ousted as part of a restructuring by corporate parent Walt Disney Co., a person familiar with the matter confirmed.  

Disney has taken over the marketing and distribution of Marvel films from Paramount Pictures, beginning with "The Avengers," which is due out next summer.

Indeed, the Burbank studio already is putting its promotional mark on the film. Last weekend, Disney brought in six of the movie's stars and showed a montage of action sequences from the upcoming picture at its D23 fan convention in Anaheim. 

Displaced in the restructuring were Dana Precious, executive vice president of worldwide marketing; Jeffrey Stewart, marketing vice president; and Jodi Miller, marketing manager. The news was first reported by Deadline Hollywood.

Marvel Studios spokesman Paul Pflug declined to comment.

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

Photo: Robert Downey Jr., who stars as Iron Man in the upcoming movie, "The Avengers," appeared at Disney's D23 fan convention. Credit: Walt Disney Co.

Judge rules in favor of Marvel in suit brought by Jack Kirby's heirs [Update]

Judge rules in favor of Marvel in suit brought by Jack Kirby's heirs

A federal judge in New York has ruled in favor of comic book publisher Marvel Worldwide in a dispute over who owns the rights to such popular characters as the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk.

The heirs of comic book artist Jack Kirby sought to assert their rights to such iconic characters in 2009, shortly after Disney announced it would acquire Marvel for $4 billion. Kirby's estate filed 45 notices of copyright termination, seeking to take back rights to characters created from 1958 to 1963, which they claimed were Kirby's creations.

Marvel argued that Kirby's work constituted "work for hire" -- that it was done by a freelance artist, under the direction and control of a company, which therefore retained the rights for such creative works.

"This case is not about whether Jack Kirby or Stan Lee is the real 'creator' of Marvel characters, or whether Kirby (and other freelance artists created culturally iconic comic book characters for Marvel and other publishers) were treated 'fairly' by companies that grew rich off their labor," wrote Judge Colleen McMahon. "It is about whether Kirby's work qualifies as work for hire under the Copyright Act of 1909."

McMahon found the Kirby works qualified as works for hire.

Marc Toberoff, an attorney representing the Kirby family, vowed to appeal the ruling.

"We respectfully disagree with the Court's ruling and intend to appeal this matter to the Second Circuit," Toberoff said. "Sometimes you have to lose in order to win. We knew when we took this on that it would not be an easy fight given various arcane and contradictory 'work for hire' decisions under the 1909 Copyright Act."

Updated:  2:40 p.m.: The Walt Disney Co. issued a statement, applauding the ruling. “We are pleased that in this case, the judge has confirmed Marvel’s ownership rights.”

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-- Dawn C. Chmielewski 

Photo: Actor Chris Hemsworth as the title character in the movie "Thor," from Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment. Credit: Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios

New Mexico's film business gets a lift from 'The Avengers'

Score one for New Mexico, California's arch-rival for film production.

In one of his last acts as New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson announced that the state's film industry he has long championed has landed its biggest catch: the superhero comic book movie "The Avengers."

"I'm announcing this as a Christmas present of sorts to the people of New Mexico,''  Richardson said in a statement. "This is a perfect example of the incredible job creation, economic impact and global visibility this industry has brought our state over the past eight years, and of the need to keep it moving forward."

Walt Disney co-owned Marvel Studios said it would begin shooting the movie, directed and written by Joss Whedon and featuring a raft of stars including Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, in April at the Albuquerque Studios.  Part of the film also will be shot in New York and Michigan.

With an estimated budget exceeding $200 million, the film is the biggest film ever to shoot in New Mexico, which also has hosted such movies as "Terminator Salvation" and "In the Valley of Elah."

The project comes at a welcome time for New Mexico, which faces growing competition from more than 40 states that offer tax credits and rebates to filmmakers. New Mexico offers a 25% production rebate to filmmakers, which is stronger than California's film tax credit (which excludes moves costing more than $75 million), but is less generous than what some other states such as Michigan offer.

It's not clear whether Southern California, where Marvel shot the "Iron Man" movies, was considered for the film. But Marvel selected New Mexico for several reasons, including its film rebate, close proximity to Los Angeles, diverse landscape and the fact that the studio had a good experience filming another movie there, "Thor."

"We had a terrific experience shooting portions of "Thor" in the Land of Enchantment and we are looking forward to making New Mexico even more of a home on our next production,'' said Louis D'Esposito, co-president of Marvel Studios.

-- Richard Verrier

New Mexico's film business gets a lift from "The Avenger"

Score one for New Mexico, California's arch rival when it comes to filming.
In one of his final acts as New Mexico's Governor, Bill Richardson announced Wednesday that the film industry he has long championed has landed a big catch: the comic book superhero movie "The Avengers."

The Marvel Studios film, written and directed by Joss Whedon and featuring a raft of stars including Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Samuel Jackson, will film begin filming at Albuquerque Studios in New Mexico in April. Parts of the movie also will be shot in New York and Michigan.

With a budget exceeding $200 million, the film represents the biggest ever to film to be shot New Mexico, which has hosted such movies as "Terminator Salvation"  and "In the Valley of Elah."
"I'm announcing this as a Christmas present of sorts to the people of New Mexico,'' Richardson said in a statement. "This is a perfect example of the incredible job creation, economic impact and global visibility this industry has brought our state over the past eight years, and of the need to keep it moving forward."

The news comes at a welcome time for New Mexico, which bills itself as "Hollywood's Newest Home"
but has faced growing competition from some of the more than 40 states that offer tax incentives and rebates to filmmakers. New Mexico offers a 25% rebate on production costs. That's better than California's film tax credit program, which excludes movies with budgets of more than $75 million, but is well below what states such as Michigan offer.
It's not clear whether Walt Disney Co.-owned Marvel, which filmed its "Iron Man" movies locally and has been shooting "Captain America" in London, considered shooting in Southern California.
But Marvel favored New Mexico not only because of its rebate, but because of its diverse landscape, close proximity to L.A. and a good experience the studio had in the state during the of filming "Thor,"  people familiar with the matter said.
-Richard Verrier

On Location: Captain America will be filmed in...London


Captain Few comic book characters are as homespun as Captain America, who uses his superhuman powers to fight the Nazis during World War II while draped in the colors of Old Glory.

Yet even Captain America's overtly patriotic credentials weren't enough to keep a film about his exploits from being shot overseas.

The upcoming movie from Marvel Studios was originally to be filmed in Los Angeles. Instead, "Captain America: The First Avenger," starring Chris Evans, Samuel Jackson and Hugo Weaving, will shoot this July in London, where the story is partially set.

That decision was a blow to L.A.'s below-the-line community, which had been banking on the project to employ hundreds of crew members at a time when relatively few big-budget features are shot locally, thanks to rising competition from other states and countries.

When Marvel, which is based at Raleigh Studios in Manhattan Beach, launched its studio in 2007, executives said they planned to film their first four projects in Los Angeles. The studio has largely delivered on that pledge. The hit film "Iron Man" and its sequel "Iron Man 2," currently in theaters, were shot in state, featuring locations including the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra, Edwards Air Force Base and the Sepulveda Dam.

Marvel's next release, "Thor," also was filmed mostly locally, including at the Getty Center in Brentwood, but also included scenes in New Mexico, which offers a popular film rebate.

But the studio, which was acquired by Walt Disney Co. last year, concluded that London was the best location for "Captain America," largely because the story is set in Europe and will feature a number of scenes in London such as Piccadilly Circus, and also because of favorable tax incentives.

Though Marvel could have done the stage work in L.A. and shot exteriors in London, it wasn't economically feasible to split the production between two locations, given the heavy filming required in Europe, said Marvel Studios co-President Louis D'Esposito, who oversees physical production.

D'Esposito, who was recently recognized by the Los Angeles City Council for his efforts to keep production in Hollywood, said he had strongly considered L.A.

"I actually had location scouts here to see what could be done,'' he said. "But it would have required so much visual-effects work and set construction, it didn't make sense."

D'Esposito acknowledged that Britain's film incentive, which offers a 20% to 25% payable tax credit on qualified expenditures, was another factor. Marvel could not apply for a tax credit from California's program because the film's budget, in the $140-million range, would make it ineligible, said D'Esposito, who personally lobbied California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to enact a film tax program, which took effect last year. California's program excludes films costing more than $75 million.

"This is one reason many advocate that our state's incentive program be revised," said Paul Audley, president of FilmL.A. Inc., which handles film permits for the L.A. area.

Either way, D'Esposito said, Marvel is not retreating from its long-term strategy of shooting most of its movies in state."These are tough financial times right now that could pressure us to look at other locations,'' he added. "But we have every intention of shooting the majority of films here."

-Richard Verrier

Marvel owners seek to invalidate Kirby heirs' copyright claims

HulkmovieThe battle between Marvel Entertainment and the Jack Kirby estate is bringing out each side’s inner Hulk.

The comic book publisher and movie producer, which was recently acquired by the Walt Disney Co. in a $4-billion deal, has unleashed a lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the copyright termination claims made by the heirs to the iconic artist. It's the latest tactic in the fight over profits from some of the most lucrative superhero characters.

The suit, filed in federal court in Manhattan on Friday, against the Kirby heirs is essentially a preemptive strike to halt the Kirby family’s bid to reclaim the characters. It follows a series of letters from Kirby estate attorney Marc Toberoff in September in which his clients notified various copyright holders and licensors of their intent to terminate copyright to a slew of properties at various points in the coming decade (when they will, in the heirs' view, become available). Those properties include The Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, The Avengers and many others from which the movie blockbusters are adapated.

Jack Kirby was a renowned artist instrumental in the creation and shaping of these characters, his family argues, and is thus entitled to profits like any other copyright-holder. Disney has maintained that Kirby’s work was considered for-hire and that his heirs are thus not owed any further profits. 

Like other heirs to 20th century comic book artists, Kirby’s progeny have become more aggressive in seeking to recoup their share of the profits.

The battle could impact Hollywood properties in a number of ways. If the heirs were granted copyright, it could force studios to hand a slice of movie and merchandising profits over to the family (making their tentpole franchises less profitable) or give the heirs a say on how and to whom those properties are licensed; in a worst-case scenario, it could hold up the development process for these films.

Nearly all the properties to which Kirby is seeking to terminate copyright are active Hollywood franchises. Paramount licenses Iron Man, for instance, and will release a new film this spring. Sony is working on a new Spider Man sequel (that may or may not see the light of day in 2011). And Marvel itself is preparing both Thor and Avengers pictures.

Neither Toberoff nor Disney immediately returned calls seeking comment.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: The Incredible Hulk; Credit: Universal Pictures

Comics artist Jack Kirby's children move to reclaim character rights from Disney, Marvel, studios

JackKirby

Walt Disney Co. may not end up with full ownership of many of Marvel Entertainment's most famous super-heroes if new copyright claims by the children of the late artist Jack Kirby prove successful.

The four children of Kirby, who co-created a number of Marvel's best-known super-heroes, including the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor and the Hulk, have served so-called notices of copyright termination for 45 characters to Marvel Entertainment, Disney (which recently agreed to buy Marvel for $4 billion), Sony Pictures (which owns movie rights to Spider-Man), 20th Century Fox (owner of movie rights to the Fantastic Four and X-Men), Paramount Pictures (which has a film distribution deal for four upcoming Marvel-produced films) and Universal Pictures (which has distribution rights to Hulk movies).

The filings came just a week after Disney unveiled its $4-billion agreement to purchase Marvel but were in the works before that deal was announced.

The children of Kirby, who died in 1994, are being represented by Los Angeles law firm Toberoff & Associates, which has represented Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in a similar claim against Warner Bros.

Kirby, who is widely considered to be one of the most influential comic book artists of all time, served as penciler and a co-plotter with writer Stan Lee on most of the Marvel characters in question. If Marvel, Disney or any of the other companies challenge his claims, it may be a complex legal process to determine what exact role Kirby played as creator or co-creator of various characters who first appeared nearly 50 years ago.

While Lee, who has also been Marvel's editor in chief, has been a public face of the company for decades, Kirby is less well known publicly despite the fact that he worked closely with Lee on many of the publisher's best-known characters. That's in part because Kirby left to work for competitor DC Comics in 1970.

Under copyright law, creators and co-creators can seek to regain copyrights they previously assigned to a company 56 years after first publication and can give notice of their intentions to do so up to 10 years before that.

Kirby's children would be eligible to claim their father's share of the copyright of the Fantastic Four in 2017, while the Hulk would come up in 2018 and X-Men in 2019. The copyrights would then run for 39 more years before expiring, after which the characters would enter the public domain under current law.

A representative for Marvel declined to comment. A Disney spokesperson said, "The notices involved are an attempt to terminate rights seven to 10 years from now and involve claims that were fully considered in the acquisition."

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