Every comic-book hero worth his ink has an origin story. Spider-Man’s Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive arachnid. The Hulk’s Bruce Banner ran afoul of a gamma beam. Daredevil’s Matt Murdock got atomic waste in his eyes. As for Marvel Studios president and CEO Avi Arad, he climbed eucalyptus trees as a child in Israel. ”He always claimed you could see the beach from up there,” recalls cousin Roni Bartur. ”Which, of course, was nonsense. But he’d say, ‘If you can make it to the top, you can see the beach.’ I don’t know what you call it. Crazy? Different?”
Try galactically successful. In less than a decade, Arad, 54, has combined the twin superpowers of vision and chutzpah to lucratively bring the Marvel pantheon to the big screen. In addition to Spider-Man, which is on its way to a $600 million global tally, he orchestrated deals for next year’s Daredevil with Ben Affleck, Ang Lee’s The Hulk, a sequel to 2000’s X-Men, and at least a dozen others in various stages of development. (See sidebar.)
Not bad for a guy who learned English in part from comic books, immigrated to America in 1970 (after being wounded in Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War), and put himself through New York’s Hofstra University with odd jobs like driving a truck. One place on his Long Island delivery route was toy company Aurora Products — soon launching a career in toy design that spawned such hits as Zap-it Guns and My Pretty Ballerina. In 1993, he joined fellow Israeli Ike Perlmutter at Toy Biz, which made action figures for Marvel. At the time, the beleaguered comics giant desperately needed a pair of superheroes: Reeling from poor management under Revlon billionaire Ron Perelman, who took over the company in 1989, Marvel would file for bankruptcy in 1996, battling a takeover bid by corporate raider Carl Icahn. But it was Toy Biz, through complex courtroom maneuverings, that finally conquered the boardroom.
From the start, Marvel’s new dynamic duo showed oversize ambition. ”In October 1997, Avi gave a speech that Spider-Man alone was worth a billion dollars,” says Dan Raviv, whose book Comic Wars chronicles the Marvel power struggle. While the comment seems prescient now, Raviv notes that the billion-dollar projection was a bit of a put-on: ”Unlike other business people, I don’t think he added it up. Business bores Avi.”
And yet, he seems to excel at it. Where Perelman’s regime cut not-so-super film deals — e.g. allowing Blade out the door without Marvel’s name on it — Arad and Perlmutter demanded a cut of box office grosses, including an estimated 2 to 7 percent of the haul for Sony’s Spider-Man, Fox’s Daredevil, and Universal’s The Hulk. Still, heroic bargaining didn’t always work. While negotiating rights to Iron Fist and The Punisher in 1999, Artisan Entertainment CEO Amir Malin declined Perlmutter’s request for options in the then-hot studio. And Fox continues to pursue a lawsuit against Marvel’s TV series Mutant X, which Fox deems a brazen infringement on their X-Men licensing agreement. (While Marvel declines to comment on the suit, Arad notes, ”Mutant X is an original series…. The letter x is widely used.”)