Today there might not be a bigger brand in movies than Marvel. 20 years ago, there may not have been a brand that meant less to movie studios.

For you young’uns reading this, it’s probably hard to believe that in the ’90s, Marvel was not only a tiny, miniscule fraction of what is now, the company nearly went out of business. In 1996, Marvel was forced to declare bankruptcy; it was later bought by an action figure company called Toy Biz. Slowly but surely, Marvel fought its way back from the brink. But it was touch and go for a while.

It didn’t help that at this time, Marvel had almost no footprint in movie theaters. Blade and X-Men were still years away, and the company’s previous movies like The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren, were mostly low-budget embarrassments. Marvel’s new chief tried to change that.

The story comes to us from Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz, who’s about to release a book on the film industry called The Big Picture. In an excerpt from the book, Fritz reveals that in the late ’90s, when Sony Pictures went to Marvel to lock down the movie rights to Spider-Man, they had the opportunity to get the film rights to all of Marvel’s characters ... for just $25 million:

In 2009, Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion. With a b. Oops.

Fritz also revealed that when Marvel chose to make Iron Man the first production from their in-house movie division, it wasn’t because of some grand creative impulse; it was simply because they believed an Iron Man movie would sell the most toys.

The Big Picture will be available on March 6. If it’s got more nuggets like that, it should be one heck of a read.

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