July 7, 2005

Marvel Banking On Hit With ‘Fantastic Four’

LOS ANGELES -- The "Fantastic Four" will descend on North American movie theaters on Friday, marking Marvel Enterprises Inc.'s latest venture to turn its comic book heroes into box office superpowers.

The comic book publisher, home to more than 4,700 characters, has had mixed results in Hollywood, ranging from the wildly successful "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" franchises to clunkers like "Elektra" and "The Punisher."

"Fantastic Four" revolves around four astronauts who are transformed into superheroes by cosmic rays.

Various screenwriters and directors came and left the project over the course of 11 years, requiring Marvel to invest millions of dollars in the preproduction process.

An earlier version made in 1994 was shelved by Marvel and distributor News Corp Inc.'s 20th Century Fox.

Fox originally planned to release the upcoming movie on June 29, but moved it to avoid clashing with the debut of "War of the Worlds," which led the box-office with about $77 million over the long July 4 holiday weekend.

Marvel Studios chief executive Avi Arad expected "Fantastic Four" to top the box office this weekend and eventually take in $100 million at North American theaters.

"I feel very comfortable and my expectation is to be No. 1 this weekend. I'm banking on us doing well," said Arad.

When asked about the difficulties in making the film, he cited challenges in capturing the characters' attitudes.

"We set out to make a feel good movie of the summer with happy heroes without secret identities. We wanted to feel comfortable in delivering this," he said.

Arad said marketing missteps had undercut "Elektra," which earned only $24 million.

"Elektra was a disappointment, but I have no qualms about the rest," said Arad, noting that Marvel's aggressive slate of planned movie releases remained unchanged.

"We plan to roll out two or three more comic book hero movies every year. This thing isn't going way. It's flourishing in fact."

Marvel earns income on toy sales related to its films, as well as sales of DVDs and video game revenues.

J.P. Morgan analyst Barton Crockett in a note said Marvel would earn substantial licensing revenues deriving from an estimated $80 million in "Fantastic Four" toy sales, while the movie is projected to generate $103 million and $200 million at domestic and global box offices.

But he said a weak "Fantastic Four" box office could weigh on toy sales and sentiment for the stock.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co., said the debut of "Fantastic Four" right after "War of the Worlds" was good for the slumping industry, which has seen North American ticket sales fall for 19 consecutive weekends.

"It's going to be a very competitive weekend and that's a good thing," he said.


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