Case study

Case study
focus on the this question here is should Marvel branch out into 1) movies starring their lesser known characters and 2) should they change their business model so they’re more like Disney. Explain why and show why you have choose your choice.
Professor Anita Elberse prepared this case. Alexander Atzberger (MBA 2005) provided valuable assistance. HBS cases are developed solely as the
basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective
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photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School.
Marvel Enterprises, Inc.
It was June 29, 2004, one day before the theatrical release of the highly anticipated sequel to the
Spider-Man movie, which was based on Marvel Enterprises’ most popular character. The movie
seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of the original’s record-breaking box-office run by offering
its familiar mix of high-flying action and drama. However, Peter Cuneo, Marvel’s vice chairman and
former CEO, knew his management team had staged a rescue that Spider-Man (or any of the other
superheroes to which Marvel owned the rights) could never have pulled off—that of the company
itself. Only six years after the company emerged from bankruptcy, and only three years after it
posted a loss of over $100 million and saw its stock hover at around $1, Marvel had amassed a market
value of more than $2 billion, recorded over $300 million in sales and nearly $170 million in operating
income in 2003, and seen its stock soar to over $20 (see Exhibit 1). “The culmination of our work
came a few weeks ago, when The Wall Street Journal reported on the best-performing stocks,” Cuneo
said. “Guess who was number one on the New York Stock Exchange over the past three years?”
Not only had Marvel’s original comic-book publishing business been turned into a profitable
division, its toy and licensing operations had also generated impressive returns in recent years (see
Exhibit 2). In the past three years alone, Marvel had lent its characters to eight movies, including
Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man, Universal’s The Hulk, Twentieth Century Fox’s X-Men, and Lions Gate’s
The Punisher. It had also made licensing deals for a wide range of other products, ranging from toys
to video games, apparel, party items, and food. “We contribute our characters and our knowledge of
the characters, we work hard to find the right partners, and we approve the products for quality, but
we don’t contribute any capital. We just collect checks,” Allen Lipson, Marvel’s president and CEO,
said. “It’s a gold mine. Cash just comes in every day,” added Isaac Perlmutter, Marvel’s other vice
chairman and biggest shareholder.
Despite Marvel’s remarkable rise, doubts about its business model and its growth potential
continued to exist. That same day, The Wall Street Journal had reported on mounting concerns about
the company’s future in a lead article entitled “Marvel May Need Heroic Help.”1 The same paper that
had compared Marvel’s rise to “Spider-Man scampering up the sides of tall buildings”2 had now
expressed fears that the company had “milked the best gains from its most prominent characters”
and had questioned Marvel’s ability to “use lesser-known superheroes such as Namor, Ghost Rider,
Iron Man, Punisher and The Fantastic Four and sequels to boost growth.”
1 “Marvel May Need Heroic Help,” The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2004.
2 “Shareholder Scoreboard: Leaders and Laggards in the Rankings,” The Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2004.
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“There is no end to our success—we have a great library of characters,” responded Avi Arad,
Marvel’s chief creative officer and Marvel Studios’ chairman and CEO. “I do feel frustrated by all the
revenue that we are just giving away,” he admitted, pointing to Marvel’s relatively modest share of
the revenues for its motion pictures. For instance, despite Spider-Man’s impressive theatrical boxoffice
gross of over $820 million worldwide and sales of about 7 million DVDs (with an average retail
price of $20) on the day of its release in the U.S., Marvel had received only about $25 million from
Sony Pictures. According to The Wall Street Journal article, the sequel would have to be “one of the
biggest hits on record” in order to contribute much more to Marvel’s bottom line than the $10 million
that Sony had paid in advance. “We have been focused on activities that require minimal capital
investment on our part,” said Cuneo. “There are bigger bets to be placed as we move more into the
production and distribution of content—but there could be bigger rewards, too.”
Cuneo knew that Marvel’s management faced two sets of questions that were critical to its future.
First, could Marvel sustain its success in the coming years, or had its winning streak been just a fluke?
That is, was Marvel’s success dependent on a limited set of “blockbuster” characters, most notably
Spider-Man, and should Marvel continue to capitalize on those characters, or was it time to seek
growth in a larger set of lesser-known characters? Second, in exploring growth opportunities, was it
wise for Marvel to venture more outside the safety of its current business model and move into more
capital-intensive activities? What marketing strategy would allow Marvel to sustain its success?
Company Background
The Marvel Universe
Marvel owned and managed one of the oldest and most recognizable collections of characters in
the entertainment industry. Its proprietary library of over 4,700 characters included Spider-Man, XMen,
The Hulk, Blade, Daredevil, Elektra, The Punisher, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Namor, Thor,
and Silver Surfer (see Exhibit 3 for some examples). Marvel’s characters had been developed through
a long history of comic books—the first Marvel comics appeared in 1939—which had contributed to
each character’s personality and context. The fictitious Marvel Universe provided a common historical
and contextual background for the characters and story lines. Popular characters would often make
“guest appearances” in comic books of lesser-known or newer characters. Morton Handel, Marvel’s
chairman, commented on the characters’ appeal: “They have some kind of vulnerability attached to
them. Spider-Man is just a kid with glasses. Although they have superpowers, our characters are
presented as normal people, with problems that anybody else would have.”
Lipson clarified the nature of the content library: “You’ve got to think of the 4,700 characters not
as individuals but as families. We have 40 years of Spider-Man stories. There might be 50 bad guys
associated with Spider-Man and 50 friends. So the Spider-Man family consists of 100, maybe 200,
properties. The Hulk accounts for another 100, while X-Men has about 400 characters.” While many
properties had been turned into household names, Spider-Man was widely perceived to be Marvel’s
most popular character. Cuneo agreed: “There is nothing close to Spider-Man. He is our number one
character, with the widest demographic appeal of any fantasy property. His appeal starts with twoyear
old children who wear Spider-Man pajamas and goes up to consumers in their 60s—they all
enjoy Spider-Man. I wish all our characters were that broad.”
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Early History: Marvel Comics
Marvel Comics had been founded in the 1930s. In the late 1930s and 1940s, its comics featured
superheroes such as The Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner, and Captain America. The subsequent decade
was characterized by a slump in sales, partly fueled by controversy about the potentially harmful
effect of comics on children. Marvel’s competitor DC Comics was the first to recover in the 1950s,
with The Flash and The Justice League of America (which included Superman, Batman, and Wonder
Woman) superhero series. In the early 1960s, following in the footsteps of DC Comics and led by
editor/writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, Marvel revived its lineup of superheroes, created the
Marvel Universe, and introduced continuity by moving away from single-issue story lines. Several
popular characters arose in this period, including The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man, and
Marvel emerged as the second-largest comic-book publisher behind DC Comics. After Lee stepped
down, Marvel continued to thrive for most of the 1970s and 1980s, although overall comic-book
industry slumps generally also had their effect on Marvel.3
The Perelman Years: Marvel Entertainment Group
In 1989, investor Ronald Perelman bought Marvel and turned it into a publicly listed company,
Marvel Entertainment Group. He eliminated unprofitable lines of business, streamlined operations,
acquired other comic-book publishers, and diversified outside the core comic-book business. Initially,
this led to a solid performance record. However, in the mid-1990s, the core business began to falter.
For years, Marvel had capitalized on a speculative frenzy among collectors by significantly increasing
the number of titles (which lowered the comics’ overall quality) and by nearly doubling prices (to
$3.00 per book). When the frenzy ended, collectors were left holding worthless paper, and many
“regular” consumers had dropped out of the market, causing a plunge in Marvel’s comic-book sales.
Amid accusations that Perelman had mismanaged the company for his personal gain, Marvel was
forced to file for bankruptcy in the late 1990s.4 A fierce legal battle for the company ensued between
various parties. Eventually, on October 1, 1998, a public toy company called Toy Biz, Inc. acquired
Marvel Entertainment Group out of bankruptcy. The new entity was named Marvel Enterprises, Inc.
The Turnaround Years: Marvel Enterprises, Inc.
Marvel’s new board, which included the former Toy Biz owners Perlmutter and Arad, named
Cuneo CEO in July 1999 and hired several other new executives. The company’s new start was a
difficult one. After posting a $105 million loss for 2000, the stock traded at just over $1. However,
after that year, performance substantially improved (see Exhibits 1 and 2).
Marvel’s new strategy was first aimed at monetizing the content library via licensing characters
for use with media products (such as motion pictures, television, publishing, and video games) as
well as other consumer products (such as toys, apparel, collectibles, and food). Activities in these
areas reinforced each other, according to Cuneo: “If you have seen our movies, you might get into
our comic books, you might get into our video games, you might buy a T-shirt with a Marvel
character, or you might buy some of the other consumer products.”
3 See ( and Les Daniels, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest
Comics (New York: Abrams, 1991).
4 “Bankruptcy and Restructuring at Marvel Entertainment Group,” HBS Case No. 298-059 (Boston: Harvard Business School
Publishing, 1998).
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Managing the library of characters to foster long-term value was the second key focus of Marvel’s
new management. Arad stated: “Almost everybody will have heard of Captain America or The
Fantastic Four. They may not know anything specific about the characters or the stories, but we can
change that. We can bring them to life, using motion pictures, television, animation, or toys.” Cuneo
added: “We’re planning the career of each of our characters. Spider-Man’s career over the next five
years is going to include two more movies, DVDs, toys, a video game, a promotion with Burger King,
and so on.” Bruno Maglione, president, International, went one step further: “We’re sort of like a
talent agency—but instead of Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, we have Spider-Man and Elektra.”
Retaining some form of control over the creative process—to ensure the quality of the content that
featured Marvel characters—was the third main strategic dimension. A high level of consistency in
characters and stories was emphasized. Quality control was particularly relevant for the comic-book
publishing division. Cuneo stated: “We knew we had to rejuvenate our publishing business, because
that’s where a lot of our credibility came from. Our comic book lines were embarrassing. Before the
turnaround we had a 25% share of the North American market, and DC Comics had a 43% share.
Today it’s reversed.” Marvel’s management team had hired well-known artists and writers to lead its
creative efforts in the publishing division, including popular writers from the film and television
industry, and had started to sign exclusive contracts with key creative talent.
The strategy had been extremely successful by virtually any measure. In mid-June 2004, Marvel
was able to redeem all of its remaining long-term debt and emerge as a debt-free company—a fitting
end to the turnaround phase.
Marvel’s Divisions
Marvel operated as what Kenneth West, executive vice president and chief financial officer,
referred to as a “mini-conglomerate.” Each of its divisions—comic-book publishing, toys, and
licensing—were run as distinct businesses, but the Marvel Universe provided a common theme to all
Comic-Book Publishing
Products The large majority of comic books revolved around the classic Marvel superheroes,
such as Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four, while a small fraction of titles featured newly developed
characters. Comic books came in two main formats: periodicals and graphic novels. Periodicals were
comic books that looked like small magazines, contained roughly 30 pages (with advertisements) that
were stapled together, appeared biweekly or monthly, and were typically priced around $3. Graphic
novels (“trades”) were mostly collections of periodicals that captured a “complete” story about a
character’s adventure, usually contained roughly 150 pages (without advertisements) bound as a
book, and typically sold for anywhere from $10 to $25 (see Exhibit 4). Although the number of titles
had decreased significantly compared with that in the mid-1990s, Marvel maintained an “aggressive
publishing schedule,” according to Gui Karyo, president of Publishing. About 60 periodicals
appeared each month, and 100 to 300 graphic novels were published each year.
Increasingly, popular superheroes appeared in several series, each aimed at a specific audience.
For example, The Amazing Spider-Man was a classic Marvel comic popular among core readers. Over
500 issues had appeared since the early 1960s. Ultimate Spider-Man, introduced in 2001, was a series in
the Ultimate comics line that was developed with new comic readers in mind. “One of the problems
with our standard comic books is that it’s hard for new readers to get into them if they’re coming into
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a story later—they don’t have an opportunity to read the previous 30 years of comic books,” Karyo
explained. “What we did with the Ultimate series is move to complete adventures in four to six
magazines, so a new reader can come into the series and get interested in the whole story.” Bill Jemas,
a former Marvel Publishing president and chief operating officer, added: “In the Ultimate series,
we’re retelling a lot of the classic stories in today’s milieu, so young readers can relate. For example,
in 1962 Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider. In Ultimate Spider-Man, he was bitten by a
genetically morphed spider—and he had a cell phone.” The newest line, Marvel Age, introduced in
2004, was aimed at the market served by mass merchandisers. Each magazine dealt with a complete
story, and artists adhered to specific style guides to ensure accessible content for readers of all ages.
Customers The primary target market for Marvel’s comic books consisted of male teenagers
and young adults from 13 to 23 years old, but established readership extended to adults in their mid-
30s. “The large majority of our readers are in their early teens to late 20s,” Karyo said. “They are
predominantly male, and they also tend to be well educated.” He estimated that there were about
half a million people who read Marvel comics on a regular basis in the U.S. Readers roughly fell into
two groups: those who bought comic books like any other magazines, and those who bought comic
books as part of a collection.5 “We’re good at listening to comic-book fans, really understanding what
they want, and getting that back to them in the comic books,” Jemas said. Retailers played an
important role in that process, he observed: “We realized that we will never understand the comicbook
customer the way the guy who works in the comic-book shop does.”
Distribution Marvel’s comic books were distributed through three channels: (1) to comicbook
specialty stores (the “direct market”) on a nonreturnable basis; (2) to traditional retail outlets,
including bookstores and newsstands (the “mass market”), on a returnable basis; and (3) on a
subscription sales basis (also see Exhibit 2).
The lion’s share of Publishing’s net revenues was derived from sales to the direct market, which in
the U.S. consisted of approximately 3,000 specialty comic-book stores.6 They played a crucial role.
“There are no other retailers in the world who are prepared to carry, or capable of carrying, as many
products as we produce on a monthly basis as comic-book specialty stores. We print around 60 titles
a month, DC Comics around 100, and there are a dozen other small publishers printing another 20
titles. All of these titles are best displayed with the cover clearly visible,” Karyo said. “Can you
imagine what it would mean for Wal-Mart, or even for a general bookstore, to display so many SKUs
[stock-keeping units] that way?” General bookstores and mass merchants typically did not carry any
periodicals and offered a limited selection of trade paperbacks.
However, the direct market had major disadvantages as well. Specialty bookstores generally did
not occupy premier retail locations, were often not managed as professionally as general bookstores
(such as Barnes and Noble and Borders) and mass-market retailers (such as Wal-Mart and Target),
and had a very narrow customer base. “It is enormously limiting,” Karyo said. “There has been little
effort to build the market, and new readers have not been coming in.” Marvel comic-book
subscriptions were available for all periodicals, usually at 90% of the cover price.
Market performance Marvel circulation had grown to 3.6 million copies a month in 2003:
approximately 1.6 million in the kids and teens market (17 years or younger) and 2 million in the
young adult market (18 years or older). On average, classic monthly periodicals sold about 50,000
copies, and trades about 10,000 copies. Best-sellers included the classic X-Men, the newly launched
5 Certain comic books were valuable commodities. For example, an early issue of Amazing Spider-Man in good condition could
fetch between $60,000 and $70,000 (Comics Price Guide, June 2004).
6 Comics & Games Retailer Magazine, June 2004.
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Astonishing X-Men, and Ultimate Spider-Man (Exhibit 5 presents key statistics for four popular titles
for a six-month period in 2003). Highly collectible issues (such as the first issue in a series or by a
particular artist or writer) sometimes generated sales of over 250,000 issues.
Sales often benefited greatly from exposure in other media, particularly movies. The publishing
division adjusted supply accordingly. “Around the time of The Hulk movie, we were printing an
enormous amount of Hulk product,” Karyo indicated. “There is nothing that supports sales more
than $20 million worth of advertising.” He added: “The Spider-Man movie began a wave of interest in
comics that actually grew the entire market. Before Spider-Man, the largest launch of a book with toprated
talent was around 100,000 units. Now a similar launch regularly breaks 200,000 units.”
The publishing division strived to make a profit on each title in its portfolio. Describing his
division’s performance over 2003, Karyo said: “There were only three books that lost some money at
the end of their stint. But more or less, everything we print is profitable.” He added: “We generally
don’t publish anything that has less than a 30% margin.” However, there was sufficient room for trial
and error, according to Jemas: “We can try new characters at almost no risk. We can put it out, watch
it for a couple of months, and if it doesn’t seem to take off, cancel it. We might lose $10,000, but that’s
nothing compared to the revenues from the winners among our 60 titles each month.”
The comic-book industry Total U.S. retail sales for comic-book periodicals and trades were
about $300 million in 2003. The market had been relatively stable since 1997, when annual sales also
totaled $300 million.7 Periodicals typically accounted for the lion’s share of sales—close to 90% in
2003. Marvel had a 40% dollar market share, compared with 35% for its nearest competitor, DC
Comics, which was part of the Time Warner conglomerate. Also, because many editors, artists, and
writers had worked for both Marvel and DC Comics over the course of their career, the comic-book
publishing giants were engaged in a relatively friendly rivalry. Marvel competed with a wide range
of other, smaller publishers that primarily produced creator-owned titles outside the superhero
genre. Eight of the top 10 monthly comic books typically were Marvel publications.
Marvel’s toy division designed, developed, marketed, and distributed a limited line of toys to
markets across the world. In July 2001, Marvel had entered into a five-and-a-half-year exclusive
licensing agreement with TBW, a Hong Kong-based independent company. Under this agreement,
TBW licensed the right to manufacture and sell action figures that featured Marvel characters. In
return, Marvel received a royalty fee of 15% of the wholesale value of toys sold. Also, because action
figures generally accounted for 90% of Marvel’s toy-licensing revenues, the deal had major
implications for the way in which the toy division operated. Under a related agency arrangement,
Marvel’s toy division agreed to take care of product design, marketing, and sales for TBW with
respect to Marvel-licensed toys. Marvel received a fee for those services that generally exceeded 20%
of toy wholesale revenues. Spider-Man was the only character that was excluded from the deal with
TBW—Marvel had a separate arrangement with Sony Pictures for that character.8
The nature of the agreement with TBW had important benefits for Marvel. “We are able to
maintain control over the quality of the product, from design to final engineering and execution,”
explained Alan Fine, president and CEO of Marvel’s toy division. “Of course we are also intimately
knowledgeable about and aware of our characters—we know what they are all about, what their
7 Comics & Games Retailer Magazine, 2004.
8 Marvel had also bought the rights to design, develop, market, and distribute toys based on the trilogy The Lord of the Rings.
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powers are, and what the story of their life is.” West pointed to another benefit: “Toy companies
always are at risk that their toys don’t sell. They risk their investment in inventory, the possibility
that the items will be returned, and so on—risks are everywhere.” He added: “We have toy
designers, salespeople, and merchandising expertise. TBW is a manufacturing company. It is a perfect
Because senior executives and salespeople in the toy division had been part of Toy Biz, Inc., the
company that had acquired Marvel in 1998, Marvel had a great deal of experience with the toy
business. In the early 2000s, Marvel’s toy division was widely recognized as one of the world’s
foremost designers of action figures, action-figure accessories, play sets, and boys’ role-playing toys
for the mass market. The toy division maintained a product development and marketing staff of 12 to
14 people, sometimes obtained new product ideas from third-party inventors, and employed a large
number of freelancers for the sculpting of figures and other toys.
Products Many of the toy division’s designs (see Exhibit 6) had received praise from industry
insiders and from consumers. The Electronic Hulk Hands, a pair of large green hands that produced a
noise when they made contact, had been given the Toy Industry Association’s “Boy Toy of the Year”
award in 2003. It had sold over 4 million units at an average retail price of $18, becoming Marvel’s
most successful toy ever. It exemplified the creativity and simplicity for which the toy division was
known, argued Jemas: “You’re a little kid. You weigh 12 pounds. Everybody in the world is bigger
than you. How do you play Hulk? It’s the big hands. You put those big hands on and you feel the
noise, the power. . . . Once I put on a pair of the hands I knew we had a hit.” Fine added: “Our Spider-
Man Web Blaster this year is going to be the biggest toy we’ve ever had. It’s just a glove with a can of
Silly String—you can shoot Silly String directly from your hand. No fancy technology, but a huge
amount of play value, a chance for a child to become Spider-Man—all for a $15 retail price.”
The assortment of toys for movies was generally very broad. For a Spider-Man movie, for instance,
Marvel designed at least five sets of Spider-Man action figures, each with an accessory, and each with
a number of supporting characters, as well as a number of other toys. Prices for end-consumers
ranged from $7 for an average action figure to $15–$20 for role-play toys. A special line of toys for the
collector market, Marvel Select, was sold for a minimum retail price of $20. Retailers generally
received a margin of 35% to 50%.
Toy design and marketing activities were largely dictated by upcoming movie releases, Fine
indicated: “Avi Arad gets a script into my hands as early as possible, and we have lots of dialogue on
it. When we develop a line for a movie, we’re using lots of the material from the script. We try to
represent that in the direction and the tone of our toys.” He added: “We know that toys usually
represent the first exposure of a child to a character. It determines whether it’s going to be thumbs up
or thumbs down. If it’s thumbs up, then the likelihood of that child buying a T-shirt, a lunchbox, a
backpack, and a pair of sneakers based upon that character is much higher.”
Customers Marvel toys were “primarily aimed at boys from four to 12 years old,” according
to Fine. “The sweet spot is a boy who is six to seven, maybe five to eight years old.” “There’s also a
collector segment,” he continued, “which consists of the adults who have grown up with action
figures, who now buy the figures, store them, and watch them grow in value over the years.” The
collector market accounted for about 20% of total sales, according to toy division executives.
Distribution With the exception of Marvel Select figures (which were exclusively sold through
specialty stores and comic-book stores), outlets for toys included specialty toy retailers, mass
merchandisers, mail-order companies, and variety stores. Marvel also sold toys to independent
distributors who in turn shipped the products to retail outlets. The toy division’s five largest
customers were Wal-Mart, Toys ‘R’ Us, Target, Kay-Bee Toy Stores, and Kmart. Together, these
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customers accounted for 66% of Marvel’s total toy sales in 2003. Direct sales efforts to retailers
typically started 12 months prior to the period in which Marvel sought to sell toys, to ensure that
retailers provided a guaranteed minimum order and sufficient shelf space for the toys. Because the
time from concept to production of a new toy could range from six to 12 months, that meant sales
efforts usually started well before the product development process.
Market performance In 2001, the line of toys based upon the first Spider-Man movie had
accounted for more than 10% of Marvel’s net revenue. In 2002, the year in which the first movie was
released, the share was just over 35%. In 2003, without the support of a major movie, Marvel had sold
more than 1.5 million units of the Spider-Man Dual Action Web-Blaster.9 For 2004, the year of the movie
sequel’s release, Marvel expected Spider-Man toy sales of around $165 million.
The toy industry The toy business as a whole generated over $20 billion in sales in 2003. The
action figures and accessories category accounted for $1.2 billion in revenues.10 By industry
standards, the last few years had been lackluster. Intense rivalry existed among the big retailers. For
example, specialist retailers FAO Schwarz and Kay-Bee Toy Stores had both filed for bankruptcy in
recent years. The high level of consolidation had made retailers very powerful vis-à-vis toy
manufacturers vying for shelf space. Also, because toys were characterized by short life cycles,
competition for shelf space was intense. Marvel’s main competitors included Bandai (with its Teen
Titans line), Hasbro (with its Star Wars and G.I. Joe lines), and Mattel (best known for its Barbie line).
The licensing division licensed Marvel’s characters to a variety of media, including feature films,
television programs, video games, animation, and destination-based entertainment (such as theme
parks). Marvel also received fees from the sale of licenses for use in a wide variety of consumer
products. “We’re helping our licensees sell their products under a Marvel brand,” Handel said. Two
teams handled activities with U.S. licensees. Marvel Studios, based in Los Angeles, primarily dealt
with motion pictures and had 11 full-time employees. Marvel’s Consumer Media Group, based in
New York, coordinated activities for all consumer products and consisted of three salespeople and
three assistants, supported by 15 legal and product-approval specialists. Marvel had recently opened
offices in Tokyo and London to increase its licensing activities in international markets.
Motion pictures Marvel had licensed several of its most popular characters with studios for
use in motion pictures. The company pursued a diversified base of studio partners, both to ensure
their commitment to each project and to mitigate risks. Exhibit 7a provides details on the eight
movies released since 1998. Spider-Man was the most successful in terms of box-office performance—
it was the highest-grossing film of 2002, the sixth-highest-grossing movie ever in the U.S., and the
10th-highest-grossing movie ever worldwide. However, with the exception of The Punisher, all movies
had captured the highest box-office grosses in their respective opening weekends, and four movies
had held on to that position for two weeks. All sequels had outperformed the originals. Exhibit 7b
lists Marvel’s movie schedule through 2006. Spider-Man III was targeted for release in 2007. Not all of
Marvel’s more popular characters had been licensed for use in motion pictures as of June 2004;
unencumbered properties included Captain America, Thor, and The Avengers.
All motion picture projects found their origins in the existing library and story lines of Marvel
characters. Marvel Studios’ executives were closely involved in the film development process and
9 In 2003, the Lord of the Rings toy line contributed more than 10% to net revenue.
10 Source: Toy Industry Association, 2002 State of the Industry,
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played a key role in relaying information on characters and story lines to studio partners. “We don’t
want to be a regular studio and come up with new ideas for movies. Then we’ll be like everybody
else in this hit-and-miss business. That’s a shot in the dark—we might as well play blackjack,” said
Arad, Marvel Studios’ chairman and CEO. “We have to do things here that are in line with other
aspects of our business.” David Maisel, Marvel Studios’ president and COO, added: “Even though
the comic-book area is small, I bet you that if you asked people about Captain America or The Fantastic
Four, awareness is very high. Somehow the characters have permeated into our culture—that’s our
marketing advantage.” He continued: “The movies have showed that the characters resonated
strongly with a dramatically bigger group of people than were exposed to it through comic books.”
Specific details of licensing agreements varied across movie projects. Early deals, made in the
Perelman years, had been extremely unfavorable to Marvel. Since then, two main forms of revenuesharing
agreements had been in use (see Figure A for a simplified overview).
Figure A Common Revenue-Sharing Agreements
Revenue Participation
Profit Participation
Marvel’s share: 3%–7% of the movie studio’s
theatrical gross revenues
1%–2% of the movie studio’s
home video gross revenues
3%–7% of the movie studio’s
other gross revenues
50% of the movie studio’s
operating profit across windows
Definitions: Studio’s theatrical gross revenues: Theatrical box-office revenues minus the share
(typically 50%) for cinema operators
Studio’s home video gross revenues: Home video revenues minus the share (typically 40%)
for channel partners
Studio’s other gross revenues: Revenues in other release windows (e.g., television)
minus the share for channel partners
Studio’s operating profits: Total gross revenues minus production costs, costs of
prints, advertising expenditures, and distribution fees
Source: Marvel Enterprises, casewriter estimates.
Under all deals, the film studio retained the right to determine the release timing and strategy.
Marvel retained control over merchandising rights and never contributed to movie production and
marketing expenses. Those expenses were often relatively high. For the nearly 200 movies that had
been distributed by major studios, U.S. theatrical box-office revenues averaged just under $42 million
in 2003.11 The U.S. theatrical market typically accounted for 20% of total motion picture revenues, the
foreign theatrical market for another 20%, worldwide home video for 40%, and additional windows
(such as television) for the remaining 20%.12 Production costs averaged $64 million, and print and
11 U.S. Entertainment Industry: 2003 MPA Statistics, Motion Picture Association of America. “Major studios” refers to Buena
Vista, Sony, MGM, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Brothers.
12 “Industry Surveys: Movies & Home Entertainment,” Standard & Poor’s, February 12, 2004.
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505-001 Marvel Enterprises, Inc.
advertising expenditures $40 million in 2003.13 “Usually we get anywhere between $30 and $80
million in advertising devoted to our movies,” Arad said. “As a result, the word spreads like
wildfire—it leads to worldwide exposure for the Marvel brand and for the specific character.”
In addition to the eight films based on Marvel characters, nine other comic-book adaptations had
been released since 1998. Together, those movies had grossed $1.7 billion in the U.S. alone, of which
Marvel’s movies had brought in $1.2 billion. Non-Marvel movies mostly were adaptations of creatorowned
comics and covered more than just the superhero genre. Although Warner Brothers had a rich
history of movies based on DC Comics’ heroes (particularly Superman and Batman), Marvel’s main
competitor had played no role at the box office in recent years. Its pipeline was full, however, with
Catwoman scheduled for release later in 2004, Batman Begins and Constantine due in 2005, and a new
Superman movie rumored to be under development. A wide range of other movies competed in a
similar space. Pixar’s animated movie The Incredibles, a film about a family of superheroes due out in
the fall of 2004, was one particularly noteworthy example.
Other media Marvel licensed its characters for use with other media as well. For example, in
the summer of 2003, a half-hour animated show featuring Spider-Man, produced by Sony Pictures,
had appeared on MTV in the U.S. In May 2004, Marvel entered into an agreement with Lions Gate
Entertainment to develop, produce, and distribute original animated DVD features based on certain
characters within the Marvel Universe. Specifically, Marvel and Lions Gate would commence
production on eight original animated projects, the first of which was due for release in late 2005.
Several licensees, including Activision, Encore, Universal Games, THQ, and Electronic Arts (EA),
produced video games based on Marvel characters. Activision’s Spider-Man game had sold more than
6 million copies since its debut in May 2002, making it one of the most successful video games ever.
Under an agreement with the leading video game publisher, EA would develop fighting video games
that mixed existing Marvel superheroes against a new set of EA’s characters. In addition, Marvel had
agreed to various licensing deals with theme parks, shopping malls, and special events. For example,
Marvel characters appeared in the Islands of Adventure theme park at Universal Orlando in Orlando,
Florida, at Universal Studios Hollywood, and at the Universal Studios theme park in Osaka, Japan.
Other consumer products Marvel also received fees from the sale of licenses for use in a
wide variety of consumer products, including toys, apparel, accessories, footwear, collectibles, and
food products. At the end of 2003, it had over 450 active license contracts in domestic and
international markets for such products. The company further sold licenses for short-term
promotional use, such as sweepstakes and contests.14
“Our strength is the Marvel Universe,” Timothy Rothwell, president of the Consumer Media
Group, remarked. “It’s very unique, and it allows us to continuously offer freshness—different
characters all the time.” However, not all characters were equally suitable for this form of licensing.
“Take a character like The Punisher,” Maglione said. “This was a low-budget movie. We’ve had a
movie and a video game, we will make money on the DVD, and we could easily do a series of adult
novelizations, for example. But it’s not toys, apparel, school products, games, promotions, pajamas,
skateboards, vitamins, lollypops—it’s not all those other things.” “With Spider-Man,” he continued,
“there’s virtually no limit.”
13 U.S. Entertainment Industry: 2003 MPA Statistics, MPAA.
14 For example, in March 2003, it had made an agreement with Pepsi-Cola International under which Pepsi introduced
hundreds of thousands of Marvel-themed soft-drink packages throughout Europe, Asia, and other territories.
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Marvel Enterprises, Inc. 505-001
Marvel’s goal was to secure the “best-in-class” licensing partners in all major categories. Licensees
entered into a legal contract with Marvel that gave them the right to use certain Marvel characters
within a product category. Most contracts involved one or more characters that had appeared, or
were scheduled to appear, in movies. Licensees had to adhere to strictly defined style guides in their
branding efforts and had to submit samples of the final product for Marvel’s approval. The contract
specified a minimum guarantee, which was to be paid to Marvel regardless of the sales of the
licensee’s product. The level of the guarantee typically depended on the popularity of the character. If
sales exceeded the minimum guarantee, licensees were required to pay additional royalties, so-called
overages. Royalty rates typically ranged from 8% to 15%, but could be as high as 30%, of wholesale
prices, depending on the category, the character, and other details of the licensing agreement.
Marvel had signed up 128 new licensees with an average guarantee of $348,000 in 2003—a 148%
increase compared with 2000. The increase was predominantly the result of the popularity of The
Hulk and Spider-Man classic toy lines. The large majority of licensing arrangements had resulted in
the payment of royalties, and the average royalty revenues per contract had increased from $78,000 in
2000 to $318,000 in 2003. Toys, apparel for boys, and video games generated about 50% of all of
Marvel’s licensing revenues.
The licensing industry Licensing represented a significant market opportunity.
Manufacturers paid $5.8 billion in licensing royalties in the United States in 2003, which projected out
to over $110 billion in retail sales of licensed products. The largest sector was entertainment and
characters, with $2.5 billion in royalty revenues, which corresponded to nearly $50 billion in retail
value. This sector was also the most concentrated of all major licensing sectors, with a few large
players representing the consumer products divisions of major entertainment studios, the main
sources of licensing activity in this sector.15 Marvel competed with a range of entities that owned
intellectual property rights in characters, including DC Comics and The Walt Disney Company.
Positioning Marvel for the Future
By June 2004, Marvel executives were convinced that the company was on the verge of a period of
enduring growth. However, they realized that two marketing challenges were critical to Marvel’s
future success.
First, Marvel managers had to decide how to use its library of characters. Two opposing strategic
directions could be distinguished.
•  Marvel could continue to capitalize on the strength of a limited set of prominent characters,
most notably Spider-Man. “There is no reason to believe Spider-Man is ever going to end,”
noted Maisel in support of this option. “There will always be an appetite for our primary
characters.” However, Marvel would have to address concerns expressed by channel partners
and the investment community. How long could the company create value with its main
characters? Consumer tastes for media properties were notoriously fickle. How real was the
risk of Marvel’s business turning sour as a result of consumers losing interest in a character
like Spider-Man?
•  Marvel could decide to shift focus to a larger set of lesser-known characters that might have
the potential of becoming blockbuster characters but were largely unknown to the wider
15 Source: Licensing Industry Survey 2003, The International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association. This survey was
conducted by professors Ravi Dhar (Yale School of Management) and Bharat N. Anand (Harvard Business School).
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505-001 Marvel Enterprises, Inc.
public. “This is about converting Spider-Man fans into Marvel fans,” said Cuneo. “We could
launch several new character franchises. For example, next summer, the big-event film is The
Fantastic Four. It’s going to be a family-oriented, action-adventure movie, with four heroes. We
can use that movie as the entry point for a Fantastic Four business.” Would Marvel be better
off dedicating its resources to growing businesses for its lesser-known characters? If so, how?
Second, Marvel executives would have to decide whether it was wise to venture beyond the
current business model and take on more capital-intensive—but also potentially more profitable—
activities in the value chain for entertainment products. “We create content in only two areas—comic
books and toys,” Cuneo said. “In other areas, we assist, but we don’t create content ourselves. For
example, we play a very important role in the movie-scriptwriting stage by providing information on
our characters, and writers can’t do without us, but we don’t make our own movies.”
Marvel’s success had brought the discussion about a possible role in content production and
distribution to the forefront. “We never had the cash to consider these issues,” Cuneo pointed out,
“but now we do.” “There are a number of ways for us to bring our properties to the market—film,
television, home video, the Internet, video games,” said Maisel. “The questions are which properties
to use, in what order, and what the best way to do that is on a spectrum from having a licensee
assume primary responsibility at one end to taking complete control ourselves on the other end.”
Given the potential costs and revenues involved, the preferred strategy in the area of motion pictures
was a particularly heavily debated issue. Were the rewards worth the risks?
“It only looks like magic from the outside,” Cuneo concluded. “It is an awful lot of hard work and
nail biting on the inside.” He knew Marvel’s executive team faced critical strategic questions, but he
was convinced of the company’s potential for growth. “We can take Marvel to a whole other level,”
he said. “If we are successful, people will one day talk about Marvel the way they talk about a
conglomerate like Disney.”
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Marvel Enterprises, Inc. 505-001
Exhibit 1 Stock Price for Marvel Enterprises (October 1, 1998–June 29, 2004)
Close Price
(Adjusted for Dividends and Splits)
Source: New York Stock Exchange.
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Exhibit 2 Selected Financial Information for Marvel Enterprises ($000)a
Category 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004, Q1
Publishing Net Sales 46,300 49,500 64,500 73,300 19,600
•  Direct Market — — 48,900 52,000 13,200
•  Mass Market b — — 8,700 9,100 2,500
•  Subscriptions — — 1,500 2,000 400
•  Advertising — — 4,200 6,400 2,700
•  Other c — — 1,100 3,800 800
Gross Profit 22,400 25,600 33,100 39,000 10,600
Operating Income — 14,500 19,600 25,400 7,300
Toys Net Sales 166,800 91,700 155,000 85,200 52,600
Gross Profit 61,700 26,900 48,800 40,000 21,000
Operating Income d — -5,800 8,900 21,700 15,600
Licensing e Net Sales 18,500 40,000 79,600 189,200 50,100
•  Apparel & Accessories — 7,700 11,300 39,200 19,700
•  Entertainment f — 14,800 39,500 50,600 5,400
•  Toy Royalties & Fees — 6,400 24,500 79,700 9,600
•  Other — 11,200 4,200 19,700 15,400
Gross Profit 18,200 40,000 75,100 189,200 50,100
Operating Income — 5,200 69,400 139,400 38,500
SG&A Total -107,500 -62,000 -85,800 -108,900 -32,100
•  Publishing — — -14,700 -13,600 -3,300
•  Toys — — -34,300 -14,800 -5,000
•  Licensing — — -19,500 -61,100 -19,700
•  Corporate — -12,500 -17,300 -19,400 -4,100
Total Net Sales 231,700 181,200 299,000 347,600 122,300
Operating Income g -59,000 1,300 80,500 167,200 57,300
Net Income -89,900 5,300 22,600 151,600 31,300
Source: Marvel Enterprises.
a Totals may not add due to rounding.
b Includes newsstands.
c Includes custom publishing, international, and other.
d In 2002, the toy division recorded write-offs of about $10 million related to the Lord of the Rings toy line.
e Toy royalties and service fees included in the “licensing” category relate to the licensing and agency agreement with TBW
(see page 6), while figures for the “toys” category capture only the Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings product lines.
f Includes studios, themed attractions, and electronic games.
g In 2001, amortization charges of $24 million depressed earnings. In 2002 and 2003, Marvel received $13.8 million and $10.8
million in income from its Spider-Man-related partnership with Sony.
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Marvel Enterprises, Inc. 505-001
Exhibit 3 Marvel Characters: Some Examples
Granted incredible arachnid-like
powers by a spider bite.
Mary Jane
Spider-Man’s love interest.
Green Goblin
Spider-Man’s greatest enemy.
Doctor Octopus
Another Spider-Man enemy.
Human Torch
A member of The Fantastic Four.
Invisible Woman
A member of The Fantastic Four.
Mr. Fantastic
Leader of The Fantastic Four.
A member of The Fantastic Four.
Captain America
The American Super-Soldier.
Blind, but his other senses have
superhuman sharpness.
Doctor Strange
Master of the Mystic Arts and
Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme.
Femme fatale, driven by tragedy,
honed by training, kills for hire.
Ghost Rider
A skeletal fire demon, avenges
just souls touched by evil.
Incredible Hulk
Turns into the personification of
his repressed rage and fury.
Iron Man
Invincible due to his high-tech
life-sustaining shell.
Namor the Sub-Mariner
The monarch of the mighty,
sunken empire Atlantis.
Source: Marvel Enterprises.
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Exhibit 4 Comic Books: Some Impressions
Amazing Fantasy, #15 (1962) Ultimate Spider-Man, #2 (2001) Marvel Age Spider-Man, #1 (2004)
Periodicals Inside a Comic-Book Store Graphic Novels
Source: Marvel Enterprises.
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Exhibit 5 Marvel’s Publishing Division: Statistics for Four Titles
Jul ‘03 Aug ‘03 Sep ‘03 Oct ‘03 Nov ‘03 Dec ‘03
Amazing Spider-Man
Number of publications 2 2 1 1 1 1
Retail price per copy $2.25 $2.25 $2.25 $3.50 $2.25 $2.25
Number of copies 315,500 333,500 165,000 225,200 165,400 158,304
Total revenue $710,000 $750,300 $371,200 $788,300 $372,100 $356,200
Marvel’s revenue $247,400 $252,300 $125,000 $291,200 $127,500 $122,100
Total cost of goods sold $98,400 $96,400 $53,000 $90,800 $52,500 $51,600
Gross profit $149,000 $155,900 $71,000 $200,400 $75,000 $70,500
Ultimate Spider-Man
Number of publications 1 2 1 2 1 2
Retail price per copy $2.99 $2.99 $2.99 $2.99 $2.99 $2.99
Number of copies 121,400 248,500 125,100 240,800 118,100 249,400
Total revenue $273,000 $559,200 $374,200 $541,800 $265,700 $658,000
Marvel’s revenue $119,200 $244,900 $163,900 $237,100 $116,200 $288,300
Total cost of goods sold $44,400 $89,900 $57,000 $88,400 $44,200 $124,000
Gross profit $74,800 $155,000 $106,900 $148,700 $72,000 $164,300
Number of publications 1 1 2 2 2 1
Retail price per copy $2.99 $2.99 $2.99 $2.99 $2.99 $2.99
Number of copies 50,300 49,900 99,100 106,500 102,000 47,600
Total revenue $150,500 $149,300 $296,200 $318,400 $304,800 $142,400
Marvel’s revenue $66,600 $66,100 $130,700 $123,600 $118,100 $64,000
Total cost of goods sold $40,600 $40,700 $81,100 $86,200 $85,200 $41,900
Gross profit $26,000 $25,400 $49,600 $37,400 $32,900 $22,100
The Fantastic Four
Number of publications 3 2 1 1 2 1
Retail price per copy $3.30 $2.25 $2.25 $2.25 $2.25 $2.25
Number of copies 169,400 137,900 68,473 67,400 131,100 64,300
Total revenue $559,400 $310,200 $154,100 $151,600 $295,000 $144,600
Marvel’s revenue $246,900 $135,600 $67,300 $66,100 $128,600 $63,000
Total cost of goods sold $72,700 $52,300 $26,300 $26,100 $51,500 $25,500
Gross profit $174,200 $83,300 $41,000 $40,000 $77,100 $37,500
Source: Marvel Enterprises.
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505-001 Marvel Enterprises, Inc.
Exhibit 6 Toys Based on Marvel Characters: Some Examples
The Hulk
(Electronic Hulk Hands)
(Triple Action Web Blaster)
(Action Figures)
(Oversized, Twist ‘m, Classic, Legends Series, Collector’s Edition)
Source: Marvel Enterprises.
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Exhibit 7a Marvel Movies to Date
Production Profit-Sharing Total Box Office
Title Description (Main Actors) Studio Cost Ratinga Arrangementb U.S. Release Date U.S. World
Blade The tortured warrior Blade (Wesley Snipes) may
be humanity’s last hope for survival against an
army of immortal vampires.
New Line $45M R HE August 21, 1998 $70M $113M
X-Men The X-Men (Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, and
others), a group of superhuman mutants, attempt
to stop Magneto (Ian McKellen), an angry mutant
who has vowed to eradicate human existence.
20th Century Fox $75M PG-13 HE July 14, 2000 $157M $296M
Blade II The sequel to Blade. New Line $55M R HE March 22, 2002 $82M $150M
Spider-Man High-school student Peter Parker (Tobey
Maguire) is bitten by a genetically altered spider
and wakes up with acute vision and incredible
strength. Peter Parker has become Spider-Man.
Sony $139M PG-13 RP May 3, 2002 $404M $822M
Daredevil Although attorney Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) is
blind, his other four senses function with
superhuman sharpness. At night Murdock is
Daredevil, a relentless avenger of justice.
20th Century Fox $75M PG-13 RP February 14, 2003 $103M $179M
X-Men II The sequel to X-Men. 20th Century Fox $110M PG-13 PP (but only 5%
share for Marvel)
May 2, 2003 $215M $406M
The Hulk After a freak lab accident unleashes a genetically
enhanced, impossibly strong creature, The Hulk
(Eric Bana), a terrified world must marshal its
forces to stop a being with incredible abilities.
Universal $120M PG-13 RP (but $5M
June 20, 2003 $132M $242M
The Punisher The Punisher (Thomas Jane) has no superpowers
to battle the evil he sees, only years of combat
experience and his iron determination to avenge
those wronged by society’s villains.
Lions Gate $33M R PP April 16, 2004 $34M TBD
Source: Marvel Enterprises.
a “G” denotes General Audiences, “PG” Parental Guidance Suggested, “PG13” Parents Strongly Cautioned, and “R” Restricted. Source: MPAA (
b “RP” denotes Revenue Participation, “PP” Profit Participation, and “HE” Hollywood Economics. The latter was a term Marvel used to describe deals in which Marvel receives a share of studio profits
after all expenses; the manner in which studios calculated such profits typically resulted in a negligible amount that could be shared.
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Exhibit 7b Marvel Movies: Pipeline for 2004–2006
Title Description Studio
U.S. Release Date Status
Spider-Man II The sequel to Spider-Man. Sony June 30, 2004 Completed
Blade III Third installment of Blade. New Line August 12, 2004 Completed
Elektra Elektra (Jennifer Garner), the girlfriend of blind lawyer Matt Murdock, is a mistress
of the skills of the ancient ninja of Japan. She must stand up to her ninja peers.
20th Century Fox February 18, 2005 Filming
Fantastic Four A freak encounter with cosmic rays forever changes the lives of a family of
adventurers rocketed into space, granting each unique powers.
20th Century Fox July 2, 2005 Contract, Script, Cast
Iron Man Gravely injured by an act of industrial sabotage, billionaire genius Tony Stark
saved his life by designing a life-sustaining high-tech shell.
New Line Q4, 2005 Contract, Script
The Punisher II Sequel to The Punisher. Lions Gate Q4, 2005 Contract
Ghost Rider Bad-boy biker Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) finds himself transformed into a
skeletal fire demon thundering through the night on a mystical motorcycle of
hellfire. As Ghost Rider, he avenges just souls tarnished by the touch of evil.
Sony Q4, 2005 Script, Director
Luke Cage Wrongly convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit, Luke Cage is submitted to a
strange experiment to win his freedom from prison. Years later, he continues to
fight the good fight . . . for the right price.
Sony Q1, 2006 Script
Black Widow Formerly an agent of the Soviet Union, Black Widow now uses her amazing
fighting skills and acrobatic abilities for good.
Lions Gate Q1, 2006 Contract
Deathlok A suburban husband and father who is infected with a techno-organic virus must
find a cure before it takes over his mind and turns him into a killing machine.
Paramount Q2, 2006 Contract, Script
X-Men III Third installment of X-Men. 20th Century Fox May 3, 2006 Contract
The Hulk II The sequel to The Hulk. Universal Q3, 2006 Contract
Namor Namor, monarch of the sunken empire Atlantis, rises from the depths of the sea
to defend all humanity.
Universal Q4, 2006 Contract, Script
Source: Marvel Enterprises.
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