Marvel's not-so-super Q3

Comic factory slips 32 percent post second Spidey flick. 2006 outlook absolutely villainous as film revenue dries up.

In any good tale of a comic book hero, a meteoric rise to power from obscurity should always be followed by a period of difficulty, where the character shows its true colors before springing back to greatness. Marvel Enterprises, which holds the licenses to top-drawing properties such as Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, seems to be writing its own financial story using that same formula.

Over the past decade, the company has turned its niche comic-book business into mainstream entertainment. Marvel-based blockbuster films like Spider-Man, X-Men, and Spider-Man 2 have pulled in nearly $2 billion at the box office worldwide.

The company has spread its success into the gaming industry, partnering with several top-tier publishers. Activision's Ultimate Spider-Man, VU Games' Hulk games, and Electronic Arts' Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects have all sold well in retail, and more Marvel games are in the works. Microsoft has acquired the rights to Marvel-based massively multiplayer online role-playing games on the Xbox 360, Activision has extended the rights to role-playing games featuring Marvel characters, and a slew of announced films under Marvel's new film initiative will likely lead to games based on Captain America, Avengers, and Nick Fury.

Unfortunately for Marvel, licensing games can only contribute to so much of a company's take. The revenues spun by Spider-Man 2 are slowing down, contributing greatly to a 32-percent slide in earnings for the company's third quarter. Earnings for the period fell to $23.4 million, down from 34.4 million from a year ago.

While the present isn't looking too great, the immediate future looks even worse for the company. During its financial report, Marvel said that it expects earnings for the next year to fall well short of analyst's expectations.

Marvel projects earnings of $111 million to $114 million this year, but only forecasts $38 million to $53 million in 2006. The news caused stockholders to jump ship at an alarming rate. The stock plummeted from just over $18 a share to just over $14 a share, a 22 percent tumble, as 13 million shares traded hands in comparison to the average volume of 790,000 shares. As of press time, the stock had limped back to $14.25 per share.

The three Marvel-character-based movies due next year, X-Men 3, Ghost Rider, and The Punisher 2, aren't expected to draw the same sort of box-office-busting numbers the Spider-Man movies did. In addition to fewer movie royalties, Marvel will be incurring expenses as it delves into making movies itself.

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