Guardians of the Galaxy, the tenth – and latest – release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hit theaters this past August. Nearly a month before that, however, it stopped by Anaheim’s Disneyland and Orlando’s Hollywood Studios for a special “sneak peek.”
Why does this matter? Beyond being a cogent attempt by Disney to actually start integrating the Marvel brand into its theme parks (you’d think that, after five years and $4 billion, the company would be doing something more than just temporary character meet-‘n-greets), it actually touches upon a giant, thorny, messy legal rivalry between Disney and Universal that greatly impacts both Floridian resorts.
The opening salvo: Universal and Marvel sitting in a tree…
When Universal made the decision in the mid-1990s to expand its one-park footprint in Orlando to a multi-park, multi-day resort, it desperately wanted some superheroes to help fill out all that new space. DC Comics – home of Batman, Superman, and the Justice League – was first on its list, but corporate owner Warner Bros. eventually opted to go with the company that is today known as Six Flags (not the most fortuitous of decisions in hindsight).
Next up was Marvel, whose ever-changing corporate owners were happy to sell the amusement/theme park rights to just about anybody (just as they had done with the company’s movie rights all throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, selling them for dirt-cheap and losing a bunch of money in the process).
As part of the fairly standard deal, Universal agreed to pay an annual royalty to Marvel Entertainment; in return, Marvel ceded exclusive themed attraction rights in three critical geographical locations: the western continental US, the eastern US (a 250-mile radius around Orlando, to be exact), and in Japan.
Why those three specific places? Because these were where Universal opted to deploy Marvel’s characters, in one form or another: Universal Studios Hollywood received the short-lived Marvel Mania restaurant (1998), which was supposed to be the first of an international chain, along with an even shorter-lived Ultimate Marvel stunt show (2003) and costumed characters that would walk the park; Islands of Adventure got one whole “island” dedicated to the superheroes (1999); and, finally, Universal Studios Japan picked just one of Marvel Super Hero Island’s rides, the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, to port over to its park (2004).
In early 2009, just six months before Disney would purchase Marvel Entertainment, USH opted to not extend its contract with Marvel, as the last of the superhero characters had left the park in 2007 – thereby paving the way for Disneyland to host its Avengers meet-‘n-greets. In Japan, meanwhile, Universal’s master licensing contract is good until sometime in the 2020s, giving USJ a roughly 20-year window of exclusivity.
And, finally, on the East Coast, where one entire land of Universal Orlando Resort is dedicated to Marvel’s intellectual property, the exclusivity rights are in perpetuity. That’s right – Universal has them forever, posing something of a problem for Walt Disney World Resort.
Disney strikes back – or, at least, tries to
But all problems have shortcuts around them, right?
As the May 2012 release of The Avengers neared, Disney was very keen on marketing what looked to be one of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters to the literally millions of guests that visit Disney World every summer. It also wanted to skirt the legal situation with Universal, so only a minor effort was instituted: decking out one of the resort’s monorails with a themed Avengers wrap.
Universal, however, wasn’t very happy with the proposal, as minor as it was, and a series of very “intense” phone calls between the two corporations’ legal departments ensued. Ultimately, a compromise was worked out: Disney would be allowed to advertise the Marvel movie only on those monorail lines that stayed completely outside of the theme parks. Thus, the Magic Kingdom loop – which hits several deluxe hotels before dropping passengers off at the park’s front door – would be admissible; the Epcot line, which (famously) cuts past Spaceship Earth before disgorging guests, would be strictly forbidden.
The Avengers train debuted just a little over a month before the film came out, and the wrap was retired nearly ten months later, in January 2013. The enterprise, no matter its legal dramas and limited usability, must’ve proven beneficial, as Disney repeated the same exact marketing exercise for Iron Man 3 during the summer of ’13. (And both must’ve worked wonders, as their respective films each grossed over $1 billion worldwide.)
The effort to market each summer’s Marvel blockbuster was now officially in full swing.
Can we get back to Guardians of the Galaxy already?
Slapping several Marvel characters onto a monorail is one thing – showing footage from the actual films is another entirely. How can Disney brazenly get away with such a blatant legal incursion?
Robert Niles from Theme Park Insider wanted to know himself, so he did some digging, going through the actual contract on the US Securities and Exchange Commission website. What he found are three amazingly specific legal loopholes that allow Disney to get away with its special sneak peek:
One character = one park
The first hurdle that Disney has to overcome? It can’t utilize any of the characters that are already in use over at Universal Orlando.
And while this may seem rather straightforward enough, there’s a corollary here that’s a bit trickier: any of the characters that Disney wants to use can’t even be in the same family of characters – which means that if Disney wanted to parade Chamber (a favorite of mine as a wee lad), originally from the X-Men spinoff comic Generation X before eventually graduating to the X-Men proper, it wouldn’t be able to, since he’s on the same team as Storm, Rogue, Wolverine, and other characters currently in use at Islands of Adventure.
(Best of all, even if Disney could find characters who clear these hurdles, it still wouldn’t be able to use them if Universal had featured them in advertising during the previous year. Talk about restrictions!)
Disney can’t ever use the name Marvel in its attractions or, even, in its advertising of its in-park experiences. This is why, as Robert points out, Disney’s recent blog post says “From the studio that brought you The Avengers” instead of simply saying “From Marvel.”
No competition with Spidey
The contract between Marvel and Universal specifically states that, for those geographical areas that contain an Universal theme park, no “Marvel-themed simulator rides” will be permitted – presumably because of the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man attraction at both Orlando and Osaka. This once again explains some of the details from the Disney announcement, which notes that the Disneyland preview of Guardians will feature 4D effects (think Shrek 4D‘s vibrating seats, enhanced lighting effects, and water spritzers) to accompany its 3D film footage, but the Hollywood Studios version will not.
The Guardians of the Galaxy sneak preview began on July 4 at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios and only lasted for several weeks.
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