Marvel's Fantastic High Stakes

Marvel Enterprises (NYSE: MVL  ) investors, the weekend you've been waiting for is here at last. As Fantastic 4 opens at a multiplex near you, the flick's box-office performance may dictate the stock's fortunes in the near term.

Come Monday, Steven Mallas will break down the film's critical opening-weekend numbers. It's been a dud of a year for theater operators; 2005's top dozen films thus far have come in 25% below their 2004 counterparts.

That's not necessarily bad news for the content providers. They'll make it up later in DVD sales and revenue-sharing rental deals. My bigger concern here, from Marvel's perspective, is that another poor showing by a Marvel-licensed film on the heels of The Punisher and Elektra's disappointing runs may make Marvel less attractive as a licensing partner with the major studios.

I voiced my skepticism last month. A few days later, Lawrence Meyers countered with a more upbeat outlook on the company. Marvel is a popular company to many of our fellow Fools; the stock has risen by 471% since we first singled it out for Motley Fool Stock Advisor subscribers three summers ago. The company was also the subject of the very first special report distributed to members of our Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter service in 2004.

It's not just Marvel banking that F4 will be a big summer blockbuster. If the movie isn't a hit, News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) 20th Century Fox studio will feel the sting, too. Activision's (Nasdaq: ATVI  ) F4 video game and Burger King's F4 kids-meal toys might also fare poorly if the movie fails to connect with audiences.

Marvel and Fox take comic book movies seriously. They're even teaming up to sue Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) for moving its superhero comedy Zoom to a May 2006 release that is just days before Marvel and Fox hit the big screen with the third installment in the X-Men series. The argument here is that Zoom's premise borrows liberally from the X-Men films' "mutant school" concept. The Tim Allen vehicle may be a light-hearted parody of comic-book themes, but Marvel and Fox claim that its new release date uses their intellectual property to sap the power of X3's pending debut. It's a case that may have some major implications, since movie studios do this kind of jockeying all the time. Remember how DreamWorks Animation (NYSE: DWA  ) shadowed Stock Advisor pick Pixar (Nasdaq: PIXR  ) by rushing Antz to beat A Bug's Life to the movie house? Ironically, Sony is another of Marvel's partners, gearing up for its 2007 release of Spider-Man 3.

The fisticuffs are starting to fly for Marvel on and off the screen. That the battle happens to involve the two studios responsible for Marvel's most popular movies -- well, that's simply a bonus. Tune in. And, please, pass the popcorn.

Four fantastic bits of related Foolishness:

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz hopes that his secret power isn't a knack for deflating hope. He does own shares in Pixar.The Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.

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