It used to be that mainstream movies were made because people wanted to see them.

The idea would have enough legs that studios knew they’d make their money back and satisfy the enormous amorphous blob known as the movie-going public. A major film flopping was a notable headline, the wound of failure being prodded by the trades, press, and audiences.

How did something a studio held such confidence in bomb so drastically? It’s a curious side of Hollywood lore, where examining its failures can be more illuminating than looking at its successes. Showgirls is certainly a more interesting pop culture artifact than Titanic, at the end of the day.

But now movies flopping is almost a weekly occurrence, and studios go into them knowing they’re holding a bomb. It doesn’t quite make sense. Look at Madame Web, Sony’s new entry into the Spider-Man film universe, which is currently making its way through empty movie theatre chains. Were you, dear reader, aware that there was such a character in Spider-Man named Madame Web?

Perhaps you missed the enthusiasm for the character, or the campaign to put the beloved character on the big screen. Or perhaps, you didn’t, as Madame Web wasn’t made for the enjoyment of, well, anyone.

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Madame Web is the product of a contractual stipulation between Sony and Marvel. The history of this ownership battle is convoluted but began when Sony bought the movie rights to Spider-Man back when Marvel was going through bankruptcy issues in the 1990s.

Fast forward and Marvel is one of the most recognisable and profitable brands around, their fight with bankruptcy reduced to a quaint footnote in this tale. Their need to license popular characters out to other studios for a quick cash hit is in the past, with Marvel Entertainment being bought and operated by the ever-extending tentacles of the Disney regime.

But Spider-Man is one highly valuable piece of intellectual property. Sony owning the character’s movie rights throws a wrench into Marvel’s plans to capitalise off their most popular character. What if Sony decides not to make Spider-Man movies and a highly lucrative IP sits dormant?

To the rescue is a detail in their contract agreement. Sony must make use of the rights around every five years, or they risk losing the character back to Marvel.

Simple, right? Just continue to make Spider-Man movies. But the issue is audiences get bored and soon a new Spider-Man movie lacks enticing. Studios must be careful with how they deploy their most valuable IPs and oversaturation can easily put a profitable entity into hibernation.

Marvel can avoid this issue, as their wealth of characters means no one hero or villain is put under the spotlight for too long. But Sony is limited in what they can do. They own Spider-Man and related characters, so naturally, they’ve chosen to run down assorted side characters from the comic’s history.

Their first effort in this direction was 2018’s Venom which was financially successful. But very quickly Sony realised the pool of viable characters at their disposal was incredibly thin. Hence Morbius. Hence Madame Web. Movies are being made entirely from a desire to protect the rights of a much bigger property, and not because anyone asked for it, or cares. A battle over ownership rights leads the floor on what gets made. Boardroom politics ungracefully seeps into popular culture.

In 2014, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 failed to make as big of a splash as Sony hoped. “I only have the spidey universe not the marvel universe…And in it are only his villains and relatives and girlfriend”, wrote former Sony Motion Pictures Group head Amy Pascal in a leaked email that surfaced after a major hack at Sony Pictures. “Unless I partner with marvel and have spiderman join their world, I'm running out of options.”

Sony would eventually lease the character to Marvel in a limited capacity. But they wanted to have their cake and eat it too, storming down the less-desired “villains and relatives and girlfriend” avenue, despite being considered a last resort internally.

Intellectual property becomes more and more invaluable over time as shareholders enjoy the late spoils of a less atomised, more universal culture of the 20th century. Why create the risk of producing new properties when the acquisition of legacy properties are much safer bets? Madame Web doesn’t have to succeed, be liked, or be wanted at all. It just has to exist, satisfying the arbitrary conditions where Sony can continue to profit greatly from the Spider-Man name.

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The corporate battles for ownership rights will get more intense and cutthroat as time goes on. The digital era has reduced the value of a media product to its lowest point, and entertainment conglomerates are well aware of this. Thankfully for them, legacy names and brands are still sure to print money for now.

But the ownership of intellectual property is a complex, tangled affair, and there is a frontline battle occurring (sorry for the spoiler, but the winner will be Disney). As decisions on what gets made drift further from any semblance of public appeasement or interest, it could soon be the case that popular entertainment is just a series of funnels to the "real" money. Whatever road is taken, it does nothing to stop the hurtling speed of mainstream cinema's dying breaths.