When Edgar Wright departed the long-gestating Ant-Man that was scheduled to be the first part of Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel Studios' "Phase Three" film slate, many fans were left wondering whether the film would be delayed or possibly canceled outright. Instead, Marvel began looking for a replacement in the short time between Wright's departure and the scheduled start of filming later this summer.
The search seemed largely fruitless as first Adam McKay (director of The Other Guys and the "Anchorman" films) and then Rawson Marshall Thurber (We're the Millers, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) passed on the director's chair. It was finally announced over the weekend that Peyton Reed (Yes Man, Bring It On) would direct from a script that McKay will contribute to.
Given that filming is scheduled to start soon and the movie is still slated for a mid-July 2015 release despite just getting a new director and writer, it begs the question of why Marvel is so insistent on keeping the film on track.
Tales to astonish
Ant-Man and Marvel's apparent do-or-die attitude toward making the film gives us a rare glimpse into the business behind the studio. It also showcases a possible weakness in Marvel's business model that Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX.DL) rival Warner Bros. studio doesn't yet have with its DC Comics-inspired fare. Marvel is pushing forward with Ant-Man because its entire film structure hinges on it.
According to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, the studio has a film slate planned that extends to 2028. This includes the currently announced films like Ant-Man and Avengers: Age of Ultron, unscheduled but in-development projects like the "Doctor Strange" movie, and a few mystery films that have had dates reserved but have not been officially announced. The slate consists of two films per year, with a strong film leading the summer and a new or smaller film coming in blockbuster season. With a few exceptions, the films play into larger story arcs that culminate in crossovers (currently, the "Avengers" films).
This structure provides consistent releases (and revenue) for the studio, but it also provides very little padding for when things go wrong. Marvel's next three films are Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man. Beyond that, we have Captain America 3 and an unannounced movie (possibly the aforementioned "Doctor Strange" film). Of those, Guardians is fixing to hit theaters and Age of Ultron is currently filming. Captain America 3 doesn't have a script yet, and star Chris Evans is currently busy with Ultron anyway. "Doctor Strange" isn't even that far along. To maintain its schedule, Marvel needs a movie to start filming soon ... and Ant-Man is all that it has.
Ants vs. bats
Given how rigidly Marvel's film slate is structured, delaying Ant-Man simply can't be done without a significant impact. Not only would it leave a gap in the studio's release schedule, it would require other projects to be rearranged and possibly for an unannounced film to be scrapped entirely. If there hadn't been so much work done on the film already with a cast ready to start work, it's possible that Ant-Man itself might be the property that got tossed aside (assuming that it wasn't too deeply ingrained in the Marvel mythology to be removed).
Warner's upcoming Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn't have this problem. When potential delays arose, the studio was able to push the entire project back 10 months; this not only gave the studio extra time to work on the movie, but it also moved it into a different year than the release of Age of Ultron. The film will lead directly into the studio's upcoming "Justice League" team-up, and additional single-character films may then spin off from there. While the various films will all take part in the same cinematic universe, the spin-offs won't bear the same burden of building up to a massive crossover since the crossover event actually spawned them. Moreover, with what is currently a sparse release schedule, Warner has a lot more room to maneuver.
The Ant-Man cometh
The departure of Edgar Wright and the scramble to find a replacement has shined a spotlight on Ant-Man, and it remains to be seen how the cast and crew will handle the added pressure of changing directors so late in the game. There are several elements at play that will need to come together in a relatively short period of time, and if they don't then Marvel might have a highly publicized flop on its hands. A single flop won't derail Marvel's cinematic plans, but it may shake the faith of some fans in Marvel's overall franchise (which could be dangerous, since Captain America 3 is still currently slated to debut on the same day as Dawn of Justice).
If nothing else, the studio will have to put more work into promotion to show fans that Ant-Man is worth seeing than it would have otherwise ... especially since it would have been all but guaranteed another post-"Avengers" bump from Age of Ultron. Instead of being a surefire hit, the film now has to prove itself in a way that few Marvel Studios films have.