That Time a Major Studio Intentionally Made a Crappy Fantastic Four Movie
Long before they were in the business of making movies themselves, Marvel infamously sold off the film rights to some of their most beloved characters for pennies on the dollar compared to their current worth today. Most pertinent to the topic at hand is their sale of the superhero team that helped Marvel redefine the superhero comic genre- the Fantastic Four.
In 1983, German producer Bernd Eichinger met with Marvel icon and the co-creator of the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee, to discuss the prospect of Eichinger’s company, New Constantin, purchasing the film rights to both the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer comics. A huge fan of Marvel’s work, Eichinger noted of this meeting, “When I shook [Lee’s] hand I was kind of wobbling. It was like meeting God.”
Unfortunately for Eichinger, no deal could be made at that point. The problem was that Marvel had already sold the rights to the Human Torch to an executive at Universal studios called Frank Price. However, Price never ended up doing anything with this and as per the deal he had with Marvel, the rights reverted back to the company in 1986. When this happened, a deal was struck with Eichinger.
Under the terms of the deal, Eichinger had until December 31, 1992 to make a movie about the Fantastic Four and until that time owned the exclusive film and TV rights.
And it’s important to note here that when we say they sold off the rights to the characters, it wasn’t JUST the main characters they were selling, but also basically every facet of the storylines and side-characters depicted in that characters’ comics.
So, for example, when Fox bought the film rights to X-men, they didn’t just buy the X-men, but also the very concept of Marvel mutants with super powers. This is speculated to be why when Marvel introduced such characters as Squirrel Girl, now a budding fan favorite, they specifically included a section of one of the comics having a doctor note that she is not actually a mutant, but something different the doctor had never seen before. Had she been classified as a mutant, the film rights for her would have automatically been acquired by Fox.
In any event, so how much did Marvel sell such a vast property property in the Fantastic Four for? While there is no officially known figure, it’s generally thought to have been in the range of about $250,000 (about $577,000 today)… Yep…
If you thought that was bad, we should also point out here that this was around the time Marvel also sold off Spider-Man under a similar deal to Cannon Films for a mere $225,000. They also came to similar arrangements with other studios for other characters. Most notably variously selling off the rights to Daredevil and X-Men to Fox, Blade to New Line, and Hulk and Iron Man to Universal in 1990.
As for Iron Man, Fox acquired the rights from Universal in 1996, with actors such as Tom Cruise and Nicolas Cage both pushing to star as the title character. At one point Quentin Tarantino was offered the job of directing the movie, and a script by Stan Lee and Jeff Vintar ended up being written for the production. Luckily for all of us, Marvel was able to reacquire the rights to Iron Man in 2006 and immediately set about making the film that would launch the company into previous untold heights, as well as redefine the superhero genre of films.
Going back to the 1980s and 1990s, at the time these sorts of deals were seen as being a pretty good for Marvel as they were making money off their existing characters and storylines without actually having to do anything themselves. Further, if films and TV shows were made, it would only boost sales of their comics, functioning a bit like not just free advertising, but advertising they made money on. If no film ended up getting made, they got the rights back and could sell them again. And as they themselves had no plans to make such movies based on these characters at this point, it seemed like a slam dunk at any price.
Of course, with the release of Batman in 1989, which grossed a whopping $411 million (about $840 million today) off a budget of just $35 million, Marvel began to realise that they had massively underestimated the value of their characters and storylines, including, of course the Fantastic Four.
As for Eichinger, with the rights in hand, he was actively seeking out funding for a blockbuster Fantastic Four film, which he estimated would cost between $50-150 million ($100-300 million today) to reach the vision he had for it. With such a huge price tag, however, he was having trouble getting investors to bite.
Nevertheless, he was in active talks with director Chris Columbus to develop the film right up to the deadline when Eichinger’s rights to the Fantastic Four was to expire on December 31, 1992.
Needing an extension, Eichinger approached Marvel to work that out. However, at this point Marvel had zero interest in such at any price tag Eichinger was willing to throw at a deal- they wanted their characters back.
With the deadline fast approaching and Marvel unwilling to make a deal, Eichinger realised something crucial about the loose wording of the deal he’d made. To fulfill the terms of the contract he’d signed (and hold onto the the rights to the Fantastic Four for another 7 years) he only needed to be in the process of making a movie when the deadline arrived.
Critically, Eichinger also noticed that Marvel never stipulated how much a theoretical movie had to cost or how widely a release it needed to have. As Eichiner himself would later sum up: “They didn’t say I had to make a big movie.”
With this in mind, Eichinger quickly reached out to b-movie auteur, Roger Corman just three months before the rights lapsed and hammered out plans to produce a Fantastic Four movie on a budget that ended up being only around $1.5 million. (About $2.7 million today.)
According to Cormon, the plan was to start production on the movie the day before the rights expired in order to give him every possible extra second to prepare to make the film. Cormon, of course, wasn’t aware that Eichinger wasn’t really concerned with whether the movie would end up being good, and so was giving it his best effort.
Eichinger didn’t like waiting until the last day, as he apparently felt it would make it too obvious that they were only making the movie so he could keep the rights to the Fantastic Four. Thus, he instead suggested they start filming on December 26th. Cormon reasonably responded, “It’s gonna be pretty obvious whether it’s December 26th or December 31st”.
After some back and forth between producer and director, they agreed to compromise and instead start filming on December 28th.
With the exception of Eichinger and Cormon (who, again, hadn’t realized Eichinger wasn’t really invested in this specific project), it’s reported that nobody involved with the production of the film knew that it was being made solely so that Eichinger could retain the rights to the characters.
Thus, everybody proceeded as if it was a film with the potential to be the next Batman, and did their utmost to make it the best movie they could make on a shoe string budget and a whirlwind timetable of what ended up being just 28 days of filming.
For example, the lead costume designer working on the film, Réve Richards, reportedly studied the original comics to ensure the costumes were perfect, and the actor who played The Thing- the rock-covered alter ego of character, Benjamin Grimm- shadowed the actor playing Grimm so that their mannerisms, gait and mode of address were identical.
Although Eichinger would later maintain that he did intend for the film to see a theatrical release, once filming wrapped in January of 1993 all communication with the cast and crew abruptly ceased.
Undeterred, editors worked on the film in secret on their own time between other projects, while the composers who had written the music already paid thousands of their own dollars to hire an orchestra to provide the film’s soundtrack.
When Eichinger showed no interest in advertising the movie, the film’s actors decided to promote it on their own, hiring a publicist with their own pooled money just to let people know the film existed. The cast also went on autograph signing tours, spoke to any magazine or newspaper that would listen, and even wore their costumes to Comic-Con to promote it.
Cormon meanwhile did his part by including a hastily cut trailer for the film on VHS copies of the direct-to-video movie, Carnosaur, which he also directed.
After a solid year of work and promotion, the cast and crew somehow managed to cobble together a workable version of the film and arranged for it to be premiered at a charity event at the Mall of America in Minnesota, and then given a wider release elsewhere. However, just days before the movie was set to debut, they received a cease and desist letter from Eichinger and the 35mm copies sent to theatres were summarily confiscated and destroyed.
Exactly what happened has never been properly established, with Eichinger, Stan Lee and the CEO or Marvel at the time, Avi Arad offering slightly different explanations for what went down.
That said, it would appear it mostly came down to the fact that Marvel caught wind of how cheap the production was and feared the potential damage it could to do to one of their strongest brands.
As for Stan Lee, he noted, “I have a sentimental attachment to The Fantastic Four, and I was heartbroken to think it might appear only as a low-budget quickie….”
Thus, according to Eichinger, Arad called him up and said,
“Listen, I think what you did was great, it shows your enthusiasm for the movie and the property, and I tell you what. I understand that you have invested so-and-so much, and Roger has invested so-and-so much. Let’s do a deal.” Because he really didn’t like the idea that a small movie was coming out and maybe ruining the franchise, you know?
As for how much Marvel paid, Arad told a crowd at a convention asking about the movie in 2002: “I bought Cormon’s Fantastic Four film for a couple million dollars and burned it.”
And, yes, you read that correctly- Eichinger not only managed to hang on to the film rights to the Fantastic Four in this scheme, but despite not releasing the movie at all, apparently made a small profited from it. Marvel also apparently in this deal ended up paying Eichinger almost 10 times what Eichinger had paid them for the rights in the first place.
That said, despite Marvel’s best efforts to bury the film, it somehow survived and bootleg, low-quality copies continue to circulate online. Amusingly, the film enjoys a score of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, the same as the 2005 Fantastic Four film which cost about $230 million to make. And it’s actually higher than the 9% rating the 2015 remake maintains, which cost $150 million.
In the end, Eichinger held onto the rights to the Fantastic Four until the 2000s, at which point 20th Century Fox invested in it following the success of the 2002 live-action Spider-Man movie which raked in over $800 million ($1.1 billion today) off a budget of just $139 million.
At some point 20th Century Fox were able to obtain the full rights to characters from Eichinger and at that point enjoyed the same deal with Marvel he did- basically that they have to make a movie featuring the characters every 7 years or the rights to the characters will revert back to Marvel.
Similar deals with Sony and Fox are why we have been constantly inundated with reboot after reboot on certain franchises with apparently no end in site until, at least on the latter, the Disney Overlords noticed they had $71 billion in their couch cushions and so went ahead and acquired Fox.
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