Marvel characters Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth),… (Marvel )
Walt Disney Co.'s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment gave it the Hulk, Iron Man and other superheroes to fuel summer blockbusters for years to come.
It also got Ike Perlmutter.
Marvel's chief executive is hardly a household name. But Disney's purchase of the comic book publisher made Perlmutter one of the largest individual shareholders in the entertainment conglomerate, giving him special powers all his own.
Superheroes are big business in Hollywood, accounting for three of the top-grossing films in the U.S. this year: Marvel's"The Avengers,""The Dark Knight Rises" and"The Amazing Spider-Man."At a time when other expensive movie gambles such as"John Carter"and"Battleship"bombed, Disney's decision to pay $4 billion for Marvel in 2009 seems inspired.
"The Avengers" was Disney's biggest hit of the year, reaping $1.5 billion in worldwide box-office revenue. That came on the heels of last year's Marvel movies:"Thor"and"Captain America: The First Avenger"— which together brought in more than $800 million globally.
And there's more to come, starting with "Iron Man 3" in May and followed by new sequels to "Thor," "Captain America" and "The Avengers."
"Disney, Pixar and Marvel have the incredible characters and compelling stories that people connect to — the kind we've proven we can build strong, long-lasting franchises upon," Disney Chief ExecutiveRobert A. Iger said during a recent conference call with Wall Street analysts.
With great box-office strength comes great influence. Although he does not hold a board seat, Perlmutter is in regular contact with Iger and has played a role in executive changes at Disney Consumer Products, according to Disney insiders who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Perlmutter did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Disney or Marvel officials.
But according to people inside the Burbank conglomerate, Perlmutter backed a shake-up in the consumer products group that led to the film studio's distribution head, Bob Chapek, replacing retail veteran Andy Mooney. Mooney and Perlmutter were said to have clashed over the approach to merchandising Marvel characters. The change cleared the way for the Marvel executive to inject the Disney's merchandise licensing group with his cost-cutting sensibilities.
People who know the 69-year-old Israeli emigre are not surprised to find him taking a hands-on role at Disney, maintaining regular contact by phone.
"This guy's whole life is dedicated to being a success," said former Marvel CEO Scott M. Sassa, who is now president of Hearst Entertainment & Syndication. Sassa said Perlmutter has shown himself especially adept at turning around troubled companies, including Remington and Marvel.
"He's not Mr. Charming, but once you get to know him, he's a guy that I really like a lot," Sassa said. "He's super smart, incredibly loyal to people and highly principled."
By all accounts, Perlmutter has an eye for recognizing value in businesses that others deemed worthless, and exercises a frugality that has become the stuff of lore. Former executives say Perlmutter would retrieve paper clips from the trash and tear up old memos to create new notepads. One college intern called home to report that Marvel refused to turn on the air conditioning during one sweltering New York heat wave, according to a one person with knowledge of the incident who declined to be named because of the person's relationship with the company.
The bottom-line focus has extended to the New York-based Marvel's foray into Hollywood.
The upstart Marvel Studios quickly earned a reputation for keeping a lid on costs, seeking out filmmakers and stars who were hungry for a comeback and willing to work for relatively modest rates. Director Jon Favreau was still feeling the sting of "Zathura" when he signed on for his career-changing "Iron Man,"while Joe Johnston was fleeing the grisly failure of"The Wolfman" when Marvel handed him the shield of "Captain America: The First Avenger." ReboundingRobert Downey Jr. wasn't even the highest-paid star in "Iron Man." That was Terrence Howard.
Perlmutter personally oversaw marketing costs for "Iron Man" and other Marvel films, scrutinizing every cent spent on vendors and promotions and bringing an uncommon vigilance to expenses, say people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly. And agents consider Marvel one of the toughest places to make a deal for talent.
Perlmutter's power and influence at Disney are all the more amazing given his background.
Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter arrived in New York at age 24 with $250 in his pocket and dreams of making his fortune, according to longtime friend and former Marvel board Chairman Morton E. Handel. Now, Perlmutter has a net worth that Forbes magazine estimated at $1.9 billion, ranking him among the 500 wealthiest Americans. He splits his time between a $3.2-million Palm Beach, Fla., condominium and a Manhattan apartment near the East River.