In the spring of 1987, lawyer Steve Massarsky closed a deal with Marvel Licensing for the live action performance rights for ALL Marvel characters for two years. His intention was to produce a traveling children’s arena show. He had previously tried to get the rights to the Cabbage Patch Kids and failed. Massarsky had no experience as a producer and no credibility whatsoever as a licensee. Nonetheless, he easily convinced Marvel’s licensing people to grant him the rights. He paid an advance of only $25,000—put up by a friend in the smoke alarm business. The Marvel licensing people had no idea of the value of the characters! They thought they were stealing the money!
During the negotiations, one concern Massarsky had was finding someone who knew the characters to write the show. The licensing people assured him that, once the deal closed, they would get Marvel’s “genius” Editor in Chief—that would be me—to find them a suitable writer. The licensing people thought highly of me because I had helped them close many deals. Taking me along to pitch to potential licensees, like Mattel, meant that they didn’t ever actually have to open a comic book, or have a clue who the characters were. And I was great at selling the sizzle, the romance of the characters that I loved.
Example: The licensing people thought that the Amazing Spider-Man and the Spectacular Spider-Man were two different characters and licensed them to different film producers. Lawsuits ensued. They licensed the Avengers, including Iron Man, to a film producer, then, having no clue that Iron Man was an Avenger, licensed Iron Man to another film producer. Lawsuits ensued.
The live action rights, however, were clean.
When Massarsky closed the deal, he asked to be introduced to the “genius,” and was told that I had been fired days earlier. But, no worries, the licensing people said. “Get Jim to write the show and approval is guaranteed. Nobody knows the characters like him.” That is an actual quote.
Massarky asked me to write the show. I was unfamiliar with kids’ arena shows. Massarsky provided me with scripts for a couple of them, and I actually went to see one at Madison Square Garden. It starred Gumby and the Thundercats. On roller skates. It was moronic. The parents were in boredom Hell and the kids all had their backs to the show, busy playing with their souvenir swords and toys. The scripts I read were worse. Children’s arena shows largely consisted of Bugs Bunny or his ilk bouncing on a trampoline to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
Though I needed work, I turned the gig down.
Massarsky told me he didn’t want standard fare. He wanted the Wizard of Oz, only Marvel—something that would entertain the adults and fascinate the children. All righty, then.
I wrote the show. One thing Massarsky had was connections. He got the best booking agent, the best road manager, the best musicians, the best production people…. He got Charlie Reynolds, the best illusion engineer to create the magic tricks and effects. He got a commitment from the Nederlander organization to stage the show in all their amphitheaters.
Massarsky sent the script to Marvel for approval. They rejected it, based on then Editor in Chief Tom DeFalco’s objections. Massarsky asked for a meeting. We met in Tom’s office—formerly my office.
Tom’s first objection was that characters weren’t properly introduced. Every instance he cited, I cited the previous page and lines that introduced the characters. I guess he hadn’t read it carefully.
The licensing people pointed out that stagecraft was not in Tom’s purview anyway. The director would sort that out, if necessary. His job was to make sure that the Marvel characters were accurately represented.
Okay, he said. He pointed out that there was a line in the script in which a civilian said that they once saw Spider-Man pick up a bus. Tom said Spider-Man wasn’t strong enough to do that. I pointed out that in the intro panel of the Spider-Man Sunday strip, drawn by John Romita and written by Stan Lee, that Spider-Man had been picking up a bus for more than a decade—however, if it made him happy, I’d change it to “a car.”
His next objection was that the Maestra, a new character I’d invented, wasn’t horrified when she saw Doctor Doom’s face. I pointed out that many Marvel characters had seen Doom’s face and not shrunk back in horror. Mark Gruenwald was in the room. I cited a number of instances—Doctor Donald Blake, Sue Storm, several others. Mark, the Marvel encyclopediac, had to agree—but fearing to displease Tom added that, in those instances, the characters could have recoiled in horror “between panels.” I kid you not.
I also pointed out that while Tom might have jurisdiction over Marvel characters, Maestra was MY character, and she acted—and reacted—the way I said, not the way he said.
The licensing people called the meeting to an abrupt halt, led Massarsky and me to their offices upstairs, signed the approval and swore they would never ask DeFalco’s opinion on anything ever again.
Massarsky pitched my script to MCA Records. They loved it. The MCA guy said, “The hell with an arena show, this is a major motion picture! Let’s do it!” I pointed out Marvel’s legal quagmire, and they settled for an arena show. They offered $1 million dollars (a lot of money back then) for the rights to the music (pending the completion of fund-raising) and guaranteed staging in all MCA Universal amphitheaters.
All Massarsky needed was to raise another $2.5 million. He spent months trying. He kept barking up wrong trees—largely, I think, because he only went after targets that would be silent partners, leaving him in control. No dice.
Finally, with the clock running out on his two-year deal, he pitched to Radio City Music Hall. They loved it, and agreed to put up all the capital required—with the stipulation that they, not Massarsky, would be the producers. He’d get his money, no worries there, and an “executive producer” credit—but they weren’t about to put their fate in the hands of a beginner. Fine.
The show would have debuted on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, as it happened, two weeks after the premiere of the first Batman movie. Think anyone would have come?
There wasn’t enough time left on Massarky’s license to mount the show—so he went back to Marvel seeking an extension. Somebody had wised up, and Marvel demanded millions for an extension. Massarky went back to Marvel with the power people of MCA and Radio City at his side to convince Marvel that, if they were reasonable, they’d have a big money-maker. Marvel refused to cooperate and the license expired.
On the day the license expired, Marvel business affairs Executive V.P. Joe Calamari went to MCA and Radio City seeking to do the same deal without Massarsky!
The Radio City honcho, Phil Mayer (not sure of the spelling) called me up and told me that Marvel claimed it owned my script. I said they didn’t. It wasn’t written work-for-hire.
Phil called a meeting—the Radio City people, Joe Calamari, representing Marvel, Massarsky and me.
Calamari insisted that Marvel owned my script. I asked him to show me a W4H document. He shouted (!) at Massarsky that he should have gotten me to sign a W4H, and that Marvel would sue. Massarsky pointed out that Marvel’s contract was with “TM Productions,” a shell corporation with no assets, and that he was welcome to sue his brains loose. Massarsky was a lawyer, after all.
Then Calamari stood up, angrily stuck his finger in my face and shouted that I had no right to make a non-W4H deal. What? I assured him that I was a freelance writer, entitled to make any deal I pleased.
In an attempt to restore order, Phil asked me what I wanted. My handshake deal with Massarsky was “pretty rich,” he said, on the back end. He said, usually, the writer, the composer and the lyricist split a 6% royalty pool. I told him that was fine by me. In fact, I demanded to be treated normally, to have the normal deal. Screw the “rich” deal. I would cheerfully give up the perks Massarsky had offered me to see the show mounted.
To Calamari, Phil said, “Joe, this is the most reasonable man on Earth. Let’s make a deal.”
Calamari said that Marvel would be content to take HALF the writer’s royalty. They would get half the writer’s share, leaving me with 1%. I repeated that I demanded to be treated normally, like any other writer, and Marvel stealing half my share was unacceptable.
Calamari started shouting again. He said that they didn’t need my script, that he would have STAN LEE HIMSELF write a script.
And, in one of the highlight reel moments of my life, a life chock full of such Pyrrhic victories, Phil tapped his finger on my script and said, “Joe, we like this one.”
That was about it. Massarky and I left.
Days later, Variety and other rags announced that Stan was writing an arena show, to be produced by Radio City.
Either the script never got done or it was not accepted, because nothing ever came of it.