Today, Marvel will premiere its new live-action television series Agent Carter, on parent company Disney's (NYSE:DIS) ABC network, depicting stylish secret agent Peggy Carter working in 1940s America. She won't be alone: ABC already broadcasts Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Disney will also debut two new Marvel series on Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) this year -- Daredevil and A.K.A. Jessica Jones. Three more live-action Marvel series are planned for Netflix within the next few years. This rapid rollout is a key part of Marvel's strategy to capitalize on the characters in its comic book stable, a strategy that should pay investors handsomely over the next decade.
Marvel characters have performed exceptionally well in film, and Disney hopes to capture that lightning in a bottle for its television business, which represents over half the conglomerate's income. However, Marvel's television launches can also help build, develop, and promote the broader world of characters and properties the company is building in a lower-risk and cost-effective way.
Creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Marvel had begun work on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a fictional world inspired by, but distinct from, the Marvel comic book universe, before its 2009 acquisition by Disney. In the years since, Disney's coffers and distribution platforms have allowed the MCU to expand remarkably rapidly. Since just 2008, the 10 films of the MCU have become the world's second-highest-grossing film franchise of all time, with a worldwide gross of over $7 billion (the release of an Avengers sequel in 2015 will almost certainly garner the MCU the top spot).
Even with a new film or three every year, however, the well of characters and ideas Marvel can draw from is far too deep to plumb in movies alone. Television gives Marvel the ability both to more prominently feature popular film characters, as well as to debut new characters to test them for fans, all at a dramatically lower cost than a feature film.
Hayley Atwell's "Peggy Carter," for example, was first introduced as a supporting player in the hit Captain America: The First Avenger and its sequel, in which she received rave critical reviews. While Agent Carter was in production, the character was kept relevant to fans with a Marvel short film and a couple of scene-stealing cameos in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. So in Agent Carter, Disney has a character and an actress with a built-in fan base, not to mention the proven screenwriter team from Captain America, leaving the company in an unusually comfortable position in launching the show. After Agent Carter's eight-episode run, Marvel can assess the show's popularity and decide how best to next use Atwell's character, with options ranging from a second season on ABC to a feature film to retirement on the table.
Meanwhile, Marvel's Netflix shows allow the company to debut new characters that, in Disney CEO Bob Iger's words, are "not among the most popular and ... are characters that we probably were never going to make feature films about." Netflix was selected as a platform for heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage in part because it is a lower investment than placing the characters on ABC or another Disney-owned platform. Should the characters fail to find an audience, Disney can easily write off the loss. However, if any one of the characters proves to be a breakout hit, the upside potential is vast: as Iger has said, "if they're popular on Netflix, it's quite possible they could become feature films."
A scalable franchise
Crossovers and spinoffs are nothing new to the media business, but what Disney and Marvel are achieving with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is truly groundbreaking. Applying existing intellectual property to a multiplatform media franchise that is integrated and scalable allows Disney to make bold choices in developing properties while still effectively managing risk and preserving profit potential. With a development slate extending to 2028, Marvel is looking like quite the superhero itself.