'India can become our number one market in Asia' : Simon Phillips - Marvel Entertainment International president

Marvel Entertainment is tapping the comics business in India. Holding the rights to iconic characters like Spiderman, X-Men and Hulk, it has appointed Kids Media India (KMI) as a subsidiary of Spacetoon Media to represent its licensing, merchandising, publishing and promotional rights in the country.

Marvel superheroes will be immediately available for licensing on a wide range of consumer products including apparel, stationery, publications, toys and games, party goods and accessories.

In an interview with's Ashwin Pinto, Marvel Entertainment International president Simon Phillips talks about the company's plans for India.


From a commercial standpoint, which are Marvel's top five characters?

The number one character is Spiderman. We have had three successful movies with Sony. An animated Spiderman TV series, with 26 half-hour episodes, is scheduled to come out next year. Then there is the comic book programme.

Our number two character is the Hulk. The TV show in the 1980s, which played globally, grew this character. A movie comes out next year.

Our number three character is the X-Men. This is a combination property and we have made three movies with Fox. A number of animated TV shows have been made around the X-Men.

Ironman is another character and we are putting a lot of efforts in launching it as a film. This will be the first film that Marvel Studios has done and will star Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow.

What is great is that Ironman is a superhero without superhero powers. While Spiderman got his powers after being bitten by a spider and Wolverine has claws, Ironman gets his strength from a suit.

Tony Starr is also clever and can analyse situations very well. For us, it is about the relationship between the consumer and the character. The closer it is, the more chance there is to develop characters and create a broader licensing programme.

The great thing is that our characters are flawed, and this makes audiences identify with them. Spiderman, for instance, has financial difficulties and so he has to take a job in a pizza parlour.

Globally, is there is a difference in the popularity of these characters?

Each country has different characters for comic books. In Australia, Elektra is a very popular character. Jennifer Garner played her in a film.

The great thing about Marvel is that we appeal to a broad spectrum. Since we have 5,100 characters, we expose as many of them as possible. If you are a comic book fan, you would know that the Marvel storylines are all interlinked. Thus, you have comics where Hulk meets Spiderman and others where Ironman meets Hulk and Captain America. The more comics people read, the more familiar they become with our various characters.

Marvel's business is divided into four operating segments - publishing, licensing, toys and film production. How much does each contribute in terms of revenues?

The break up changes every year. For example, this year we have had three very successful movies. We started off with Ghost Rider with Nicholas Cage, which, in India alone, generated $4 million. We followed that up with Spiderman 3, which was one of the biggest movies of 2007.

We rounded off the year with Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Although our roots lie in comic book publishing, our box office presence coupled with our publishing business meant that our licensing and merchandising programme grew significantly.

How much of Marvel's business comes from Asia?

The global comic market is fragmented. What you have is traditional comics, and when you go to Korea and Japan you have Manga. We are breaking into that area. If you talk about traditional comics, Marvel is number one.

Asia is a growing market for us. Japan, the Philippines and Singapore are our top three markets. However, I see this changing over the coming years.

How does India fare?

We entered India late last year. We had a successful merchandising programme for Spiderman 3. We have a successful publishing programme for Spiderman in India for many years with Gotham Comics. We have also published an Indian version of Spiderman.

What I am learning is that while the market is a niche vis-?-vis the population, in terms of numbers it is huge. I would like to think that within four years, India would be our number one market in Asia. With Spacetoons, we will be on track to achieve this goal. We have already started working with Spacetoons in the Middle East.

For India, why did you decide to go with Spacetoon?

We went with Turner for Spiderman 3. However, Warner has DC Comics, and so we realised that continuing the relationship would not be beneficial for either party. We did research on the intermediate market. We are happy with the work that Spacetoons does in the Middle East for us. We are impressed with how they have invested and grown that market.

Which are the key areas being looked at for India?

We have three areas to develop our licensing programme. These are publishing, television and films.

As far as publishing is concerned, we will work with Gotham comics. Over the next three years, they will be developing localised, Indian content around Marvel. It is not just about publishing in English; it is also about publishing in Hindi and regional dialects. We don't want to create an elitist view of Marvel. The characters belong to everybody.

Our movies have worked well in India. Ironman and The Incredible Hulk are slated for release next year. Another movie called The Punisher will also be released. In 2009, Wolverine with Hugh Jackman releases. It shows the origins of this X-Man.

We follow this with television. The great thing is two of our animated shows are being made in India. Ironman is being produced by DQ Entertainment and Wolverine by Toonz. These will complement our film offerings.

The emerging trend for us is movies, followed by animation and then merchandising. We are able to be consistent on air, and that is why the consumer has a better relationship with our characters on a continuous basis.

'We need to look at Bollywood and animation in India. We want to see how Indian storytelling can be incorporated into the Marvel world'

In terms of merchandising, what are the key categories being looked at?

In India, apparel will be key. This wil include T-shirts, shorts, caps, etc. Back-to-school backpacks will also be there. But the main area for us is promotional tie-ups.

India has challenges. Retail is fragmented. It is not as developed as it is in the UK or US. You do not have multiple stores yet. They are coming though. We have to look at the available channels and then decide what will work the best. Our aim is to develop programmes that will cater to consumers at all levels.

We are looking forward to generating Rs 250 million in revenue from licensing in the first year. We are also keen on promotions as it will help FMCG companies cut through the clutter. For instance, two companies come out with mineral water. If one of them has the logo of Spiderman, that company gets an edge.

In addition to Spiderman, which are the other characters well known in India?

Hulk has a strong fan base as well. Ghost Rider was a bigger film than Shrek 3. In fact, it wasn't far behind Pirates of The Caribbean 3. The aim is to benefit from the success of films to introduce characters to India. Then we develop merchandise and benefit also from animation shows that we will launch. Not just in India but in many other countries as well, Ironman is seen as a new character by kids. The film is a great opening for us to tell them about this character.

Are you speaking to production houses regarding licensing your characters for film and TV?

I haven't looked at this yet. India has a strong animation business. I want to see Marvel find more production opportunities in India and in other countries. We need to look at Bollywood and animation in India.

In every culture including India, you have stories of heroes. Some characters might have mystical powers. I don't see those being too different from Marvel characters. Marvel characters live among us. Spiderman lives in New York. The X-Men characters are from San Francisco. We want to see how Indian storytelling can be incorporated into the Marvel world.

ACK Media recently acquired Amar Chitra Katha while filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and Richard Branson did a JV last year. Is Marvel also looking at acquiring an Indian firm, which has iconic Indian characters in its portfolio?

We would grow our business in different ways. I am always looking for the right deal, and if there are Indian characters that can enrich the Marvel portfolio, then we could consider it. But 5,100 characters give us a full portfolio.

What do you feel about the quality of animation production available in India?

When I see the two different types of animation shows being done for us in India, I realise that the technical quality is strong.

I would like to see Indian companies not just being production houses but also being distributors. At the moment, they are a factory. I would like to see Indian companies come to us for licenses, develop the stories, produce the work and then distribute it globally. At the moment they are more a development resource. I would like to see them progress to a level where they become partners.

How important are videogames globally?

We have the biggest licensing programme of any comic book company for this category. We have multiple partners. Sega is launching the Ironman game, while Activision has the Spiderman franchise. We work across multiple platforms - PS2, PS3 Xbox, PSP, PC-based games.

Is innovation important to keep the comics genre fresh?

Innovation is key. Marvel recently launched the first digital comic website. You have a growing consumer base who want to own a product. It is something better than having just a printed comic which is wonderful in its own way.

We launched virtual Marvel comics where you can read our offerings online. It is not just HTML text where you simply keep scrolling. We have created a technology whereby you zoom in on different parts of the comic.

Key partners for Marvel include Sony for films, Sega for video games and Jakks Pacific for toys. How have these relationships evolved over the years?

The relationships differ across the various segments. Our relationship with Sony has been for the Spiderman films. We are also doing a TV series with them. With Fox, we did the X-Men and Fantastic Four movies. Our biggest toy partner is in fact Hasbro. The innovation that Hasbro does and the marketing muscle that it puts behind our toys is important. Playskool is another partner. Our deal with Sega helps us embrace new technology and help kids and adults enjoy our offerings at new touch points. In Italy, we have a partner who makes toys, stationery and candy items. But they are not a big part of our US business.

What is the revenue split for film between theatre, DVD and merchandise?

It depends on the title. Sometimes merchandise contributes almost as much as the box office. In some markets, DVD is booming while in others it is giving way to VoD.

Is Marvel nurturing ambitions of becoming a studio to be reckoned with a few years down the line?

We have established Marvel Studios in Los Angeles. David Liezel heads it. He and his team are putting together the Ironman and Hulk movies. We want to bring the richness of our characters out into the market in a more effective manner. For Ironman, Paramount is our distribution partner, and for The Incredible Hulk, our partner is Universal.

While Spiderman is a hero, The Punisher can be seen as a dark antihero. To what extent, has this affected his appeal?

It appeals to a different audience. Spiderman is a crossover product. Everybody relates to Spiderman. The Punisher appeals to an older audience. Not every character can appeal to a universal fan base. The important thing is to remind them of the relationship they have through great content.

There is also a trend in films like Spidreman 3 and Batman Begins where the superhero has a dark side. It is also getting more violent. Can we expect more of this going forward?

Our characters reflect humanity. The dark side of Spiderman after he was infected with Venom was not an effort to do deep analysis. It is at the end of the day overcoming the dark side. Good must triumph over evil.

In terms of violence, Marvel comics are violent. They are not U-rated comic books.

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