Disney Is About to Make a Huge Mistake

San Diego Comic-Con -- the annual mega-festival of comics, comic book movies, and related geekery -- is in full swing, and that means plenty of news from the major Hollywood studios.

Among the highlights:

  • Studio Chief Operating Officer Bill Damaschke told the Comic-Con crowd that DreamWorks Animation (NYSE: DWA  ) plans to make Kung Fu Panda 3 and a Madagascar spin-off featuring the series’ troublemaking penguins. The company also plans a New Jersey-area indoor theme park based on its animated characters.
  • Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) denied rumors that director Peter Jackson would turn a two-film set that begins with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey into a trilogy. In superhero news, the star of next year’s Man of Steel, Henry Cavill, is now expected on stage at Comic-Con to promote the latest in Warner’s Superman franchise.
  • Lions Gate Entertainment (NYSE: LGF  ) showed seven minutes of the final film in the Twilight series to fans at Comic-Con while, back at the company’s Santa Monica headquarters, executives cashed in on the feeding frenzy over the last film in the series, Breaking Dawn: Part 2, and March’s The Hunger Games, with a new $750 million credit facility. The deal could cut rates on some $436 million in debt, from 10% to 3%, saving millions in annual interest payments, Deadline.com reports.

Finally, Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) grabbed headlines for showing the first trailer for The Lone Ranger, which debuts next year, and stars Armie Hammer as the masked man and Johnny Depp as Tonto.

While that’s no doubt interesting to many, the bigger news for Disney investors came from – wait for it – News Corp. (Nasdaq: NWS  ) and its 20th Century Fox subsidiary. The studio is rebooting Marvel’s Fantastic Four film franchise. Production is expected to begin sometime early next year, Deadline.com reports.

Meet the new Mr. Fantastic
Josh Trank, best known for the sci-fi action hit Chronicle, will direct. He’ll replace Tim Story, whose two runs at the franchise -- 2005’s Fantastic Four and 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer -- resulted in more than $600 million in worldwide box office receipts. Fox is hoping to at least repeat that success with Trank’s try.

We don’t need to know what the box office might be to know that Fox’s decision to put Marvel’s favorite superhero family back on the big screen is bad news for Disney. Why? Because Fox owns the film rights to the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, and the House of Mouse can never produce a film in which characters from either team collaborate or conflict, which is a shame when you consider how well team-up flick The Avengers has performed at the box office.

Collaboration and conflict occurs all the time in the comics. Take the Avengers and the X-Men. Right now, the two teams are battling it out in the pages of a popular series of comic books called, unsurprisingly, "Avengers vs. X-Men." We’ll never see this come to be on celluloid so long as Fox controls the film rights to Marvel’s mutants.

Disney has a similar problem with Sony. The House of Mouse traded away its remaining interests in the Spidey live-action features in exchange for exclusive merchandising rights to the character. The latter will no doubt make Disney more money in future years, but at the cost of limiting storytelling options in the Marvel Universe.

Building a better box office hero
Chances are that Fox is rebooting the Fantastic Four because it can, and also because it must. Film rights to the FF would revert to Marvel and Disney if Fox waited too long to make a new film starring the characters.

But a new FF film could also be so much more than a do-over. What if, instead of a simple reboot, Disney and Fox figured out a studio crossover? I realize the business details could get tricky, but if the success of The Avengers proves anything, it’s that a series of interrelated works can draw interest, attention and, ultimately, an audience. Fans might appreciate an FF feature made in the same spirit. Disney and Fox, meanwhile, would get to share costs as well as profits. Everyone wins ... maybe.

It’s at least worth discussing at Comic-Con. Because even if Disney’s $4 billion theft of Marvel looks great now, the threat of another reboot proves the superhero subsidiary is using just a fraction of its powers.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Time Warner and Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home, portfolio holdings, and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has sold shares of Sony short. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney and DreamWorks Animation SKG. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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