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Mickey to Marvel and a lesson in the value of IP

Over almost a century Disney has grown and protected its IP assets and squeezed maximum profits from them
Mickey to Marvel and a lesson in the value of IP
  • Three major acquisitions and many creative minds have given Walt Disney an army of valuable characters
  • Protecting the brand has helped deliver huge profits

In 1960, brothers Stanley and Larry Leiber wrote a new character into the 13th edition of their comic book series, Tales to Astonish. His name was Groot, an extraterrestrial, tree-like creature known as a Flora colossus who leapt onto page as a villain, intent on stealing human secrets of sentience. A starring role came in 1976 when he was one of the six savage forces to fight the Hulk in the fifth annual edition of Bruce Banner’s adventures as a radioactive monster. 

And then for three decades Groot went quiet, consigned to Marvel’s vault of heroes alongside almost 7,000 others. 

The company was not alone in filing away many of its characters during the 1970s and 80s as demand for comic book heroes dried up. But, unlike many of its peers, it did not forget about them completely. When the 28-year intellectual property protection expired, Marvel renewed the license of every one of its heroes, saving them from the clutches of the public domain and ensuring that they were ready to return to action when needed. 

In 2006, Groot re-emerged as one of Nick Fury’s ‘Howling Commandos’, a group of noble alien beings who went on to form the Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2014, this unlikely quintet was given its own film. And then a sequel, which together have generated $1.6bn at the global box office. 

Groot – a 60-year-old character who started life as a second-rate villain – has generated billions of dollars for Marvel’s now-parent company, Walt Disney (US: DIS) via four films, 34 comic books and hundreds of thousands of dancing toys. 

And therein lies the beauty of the Disney business model: the company has an unmatched ability to squeeze phenomenal profits from decades-old intellectual property. It’s a talent that has served it well during the pandemic. With parks, studios and cinemas closed, revenue dried up at all of the company’s major subsidiaries, but media networks and Disney+ kept some cash rolling in and, more importantly, ensured the Disney brand remained on everyone’s radar. How many people who have worked their way through the Disney+ library of content this lockdown will be itching to go and relive the magic at one of Walt Disney’s 12 theme parks?

 

Top Trumps: Disney’s most valuable IP

So who and what are the jewels in the Disney crown? Here are our current top three – before a Disney executive digs into the vault and pulls out another gem.

Millennium Falcon 

Key Stats

Cost

$4.1bn cost of the LucasFilm acquisition in 2012

Films

10 (including one Lego)

Television series

Two

Video Games

20+

Key Merchandise

Millennium Falcon Lego set (RRP: £650)

Attractions

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (DisneyWorld Florida)

Star Wars Adventure (Epcot, Florida)

In 2019, Disney reported an 8 per cent rise in revenue at its parks, which was attributed almost entirely to higher spending at the newly launched Star Wars attraction. Guests are invited to ride the Millennium Falcon, shoot down enemies and fix the damage caused by the battle. The attraction is also fully immersive and can (if you allow it to), use your smartphone to track your progress, inviting staff (cast members) to interact with you. 

The Millennium Falcon – the world’s most recognisable spaceship – has featured in four films since Disney bought LucasFilm for $4.1bn in 2012. Those films have made over $5bn at the global box office. No doubt the Millennium Falcon will also feature in the upcoming Star Wars series on Disney+, winning it a new generation of fans. 

 

Buzz Lightyear

Key Stats

Cost

$7bn cost of the Pixar acquisition in 2006

Films

Four (plus three short films)

Television series

NA 

Video Games

12

Key Merchandise

Buzz Lightyear action figure (RRP: £30)

Attractions

Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin (DisneyLand, Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo)

Toy Story Mania (DisneyWorld, Florida)

Tour Guide Barbie – who in 1998’s Toy Story 2 takes the film’s main characters around Al’s Toy Barn – pokes fun at Disney: “And here is our Buzz Lightyear aisle,” she says, “back in 1995 short-sighted retailers did not order enough dolls to meet demand.” 

It’s a dig at the fact that the company and its licensees Thinkway Toys failed to predict the popularity of Buzz. In the Christmas after the film’s release desperate parents were reportedly trading the hero's costume on the black market for four times the shop price. Buzz and his friends generated $9bn in retail sales from the first two films, roughly 20 per cent of which ended up in Disney’s pockets. After the third film that had doubled. A fourth film was released in 2019 and Buzz toys, games and T-shirts continued to fly off the shelves. Toy Story has generated more retail sales than any other film in history, on top of the $3bn in box-office sales.

 

Mickey Mouse

Key Stats

Cost

NA

Films

200+ (plus many cameo appearances)

Television series

100+

Video Games

75

Key Merchandise

From plush toys (RRP £30) to Swarovski earrings (RRP: £500) and everything in between

Attractions

Fantasmic Show

Parades 

Disney Illuminations

There was something about Oswald the Rabbit that executives at Universal Pictures didn’t like. So, in 1928 the young cartoon artist Walt Disney decided to shorten his ears, lengthen his tail and give him a name which rolled off the tongue a little easier. 

Mickey Mouse was given his screen debut in 1928’s Steamboat Willie and starred in 19 more short films (which landed him 10 Oscar nominations) before his first feature length production in 1940’s Fantasia. By then, Mickey had become the face of Walt’s burgeoning media empire. Today his iconic silhouette can be found on every single Disney film, piece of merchandise and television programme. He has countless rides and statues in Disney’s 12 theme parks. He has met every single US president since Harry Truman and can reportedly be identified by 98 per cent of children, globally. 

Mickey is one of the reasons the Walt Disney brand is one of the most enduringly valuable in the world. As he approaches his 100th birthday, the empire over which he presides is very different to the one he was born into. But at its heart it is just as magical as ever, because, as Walt Disney said in a quote which is now emblazoned across many posters, board games and jumpers, “I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – this was all started by a mouse.”