Marvel has sued Sony Pictures for the third time in the past year. This time the dispute is over $6 million in merchandising royalties, which Marvel claims based on its ownership of rights for the Men in Black property acquired when Marvel purchased Malibu Comics in 1995. Although the two Men in Black movies have grossed more than $768 million in revenue worldwide, Sony's 'Hollywood accounting' indicates that the films actually lost money. Marvel is disputing the claim, citing 'unexplained and excessive charges for advertising and overhead.'
Last April, Marvel hit Sony with a $50 million suit charging that Sony was trying to 'take over' the Spider-Man character (see 'The Mother of All Contract Suits'). Sony reacted with a countersuit and the presiding judge denied Marvel's call for a jury trial and sent the case 'to a reference before a private judge' (see 'Judge Jolts Marvel'). In late June Marvel sued Sony again for its refusal to license Spidey for consumer electronics products (see 'Marvel Ups the Ante').
Coincidentally Sony's fiscal earnings report last Wednesday demonstrated how important blockbusters like the Spider-Man movie are to the studio. Sony Pictures Entertainment's operating income for Q4 of 2003 was down 82% versus the same period in 2002 when Spider-Man added $347 million in video revenue during its first two months of release (November and December 2002). Sony's drop in revenue was especially revealing since the studio's theatrical earnings for the quarter were actually higher in 2003 than in 2002. Sony should be due for a rise in Q4 revenue in 2004 thanks to the release of Spider-Man 2 this July and the all-important Q4 DVD release. Marvel's trifecta of lawsuits indicates the company's displeasure with its current Spider-Man deal with Sony, a feeling that was probably only exacerbated by the recent revelation of Spidey's importance to the profitability of Sony Pictures.