With more than $16 billion in global box office, how does Marvel do it? It boils down to Kevin Feige, sole producer of 19 Marvel movies since “Iron Man” in 2008, all of which opened at number one. Marvel’s master is a Boston-born, New Jersey-raised movie nerd who collected ticket stubs, sat through “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” 13 times and was rejected by USC film school four or five times before being accepted.
There, he saw an intern posting for The Donners Company, where he swiftly rose to assistant to producer Lauren Shuler Donner. She eventually let him sit in on meetings for “X-Men,” which led to meeting his future Marvel boss, Avi Arad. Little by little, people listened to his ideas: All the answers were there in the Marvel comics. “The comic book tells you everything you need to know,” he told Produced By Conference moderator Pete Hammond.
When Sony chairman Amy Pascal asked if he would give her notes on the next “Spider-Man,” he had the temerity to say no. “I don’t think that works,” he blurted. “Why don’t you let us do it?” The meeting was over. But she thought about it, and later saw the wisdom in his offer. Before she did, Feige had two working versions of “Captain America: Civil War,” with and without Tom Holland as Spidey. “We were still negotiating with Sony,” he said.
Here’s more sage advice from arguably the most successful producer in the history of Hollywood.
Take the plunge
Marvel raised funding for the first “Iron Man” with overseas pre-sales. Paramount made its distribution deal after its success, and in 2009, Disney paid $4 billion for the company, with 2012’s “The Avengers” the first movie paid for and marketed by the new owner. Those resources were crucial, Feige said: If Marvel hadn’t gone all in on the first four origin myths leading to “The Avengers,” they were sunk. Nothing was guaranteed, but they needed to believe that audiences would engage with Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Thor, so that when they came together in “The Avengers,” it played. “We had the belief these characters could do well,” he said. “You keep moving forward with your instincts. We were all in. It was a big swing.”
After the credits on “Iron Man,” Samuel L. Jackson popped up in an eye patch as Nick Fury, saying: “Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”
Make original sequels
“I love sequels,” he said. “I’d argue that our movies are as original as anything happening right now. The audience is saying, ‘We’re here with you, we want to spend more time with these characters.'”
He likes to change it up with surprising shifts in tone (“every one should be a different genre”) and bringing on inexperienced but talented directors — from James Gunn and Jon Watts to Taika Waititi — to work with his more experienced team led by Marvel executive producer Louis Esposito, who was line producer on “Iron Man.”
For the third “Thor,” a conversation with Chris Hemsworth, who was jealous that Captain America kept being joined by so many Avengers, yielded a sequel idea. “Who am I getting, mate?” he asked. Feige started telling him if he lost his cape, blond hair and beard, and hammer, he’d still be Thor: “Let’s do all these things!” And so came “Thor: Ragnarok.”
As for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the comics and their 8,000 characters were always interconnected. Feige’s original idea for “The Avengers: Infinity War” came four years ago: “A movie in which they do not win,” he said. But in the final days before the movie opened, he felt some anxiety about the audience reaction to tearing half the universe apart. “What if they rebel?” he asked. “Seeing people have an emotional, visceral response to pretend characters was the best.” (He refused to explain which fan favorites will inevitably return in other Marvel movies.)
Lean into diversity
“Black Panther” was a transformative experience, said Feige. When he saw the final movie, he turned to writer-director Ryan Coogler and said, “That’s the best movie we’ve ever made.” At the junket he told the director, “You’ve made us a better studio.” Coogler’s suggestions for production and costume designers and cinematographer were all better than the ones Marvel had in mind, added Feige.
Feige’s goal for that movie: “It had to succeed to disprove the myth that black movies don’t perform around the world.” He continued, “I don’t want to be in a room where everyone looks like you. It’s detrimental to the project you are working on.”
Add women before and behind the camera
“Ant-Man and The Wasp” has just finished in time for its July 6 release. It’s the first Marvel movie with a co-title female hero, Evangeline Lily’s Wasp, ahead of Brie Larson as “Captain Marvel,” which is the first movie with a woman director — Anna Boden co-directs her with husband Ryan Fleck — with writing credits going to six women and Fleck. “No matter how liberal you think you are,” said Feige, “unconscious bias is a real thing.”
Marvel expects to promote many rising female staffers. And the agencies are stepping up, he said, sending Marvel more women than men for future assignments. “A heck of a lot” of their upcoming movies will be directed by women, he promised.
Rein in costs
The movies will cost more because the above-the-line costs keep going up, said Feige. “Over the years, the actors deserve to get paid.” But he insists the below-the-line stays much the same. “Money won’t solve a creative problem,” he said.
“My favorite movies have comic moments,” he said. From the start with “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau took the characters seriously but allowed them to get into funny situations. “That worked quite well and was a lesson for us,” said Feige. “If you get the audience laughing with you, have a better chance of getting other emotions along the way.”