Avi Arad: A force outside, 'a kid inside'

"Arad seems to love all of the 4,700 characters who populate Marvel's comic-book world. And he is protective of the few he lets venture onto the big screen. When an early script version of Spider-Man had the hero slashing someone's throat, Arad stepped in
Marvel's chief: A force outside, 'a kid inside'

LOS ANGELES — Step into Avi Arad's office and you'll understand why he is one of the most powerful studio executives in Hollywood.

A 6-foot-tall inflatable Spider-Man greets visitors. X-Men posters dot the wall. Little Incredible Hulks, in the form of action figures, cereal box trinkets and metal collectibles, clutter the shelves.

Arad, 55, makes no apologies for the décor. His job title may be CEO of Marvel Studios, "but I don't think of myself that way," he says. "I'm really just a kid inside."

A kid who is rolling in dough and clout. As the head of all things in the Marvel movie universe, Arad is on a hot streak, having cranked out six No. 1 films beginning in 1998 with the surprise Wesley Snipes hit Blade.

He'll probably get his seventh No. 1 smash June 20 with The Hulk, the adaptation of one of Marvel Comics' most beloved franchises.

Acclaimed director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm), directs and Eric Bana stars in the film, which Arad blatantly hawks — as he does all his movies.

"You've never seen anything like this creature," Arad says of the computer-generated title character. "He looks so real and does things that no movie character has done before. Even we couldn't have done it with the technology we had just two years ago. I love it."

Protecting Spidey

Arad seems to love all of the 4,700 characters who populate Marvel's comic-book world. And he is protective of the few he lets venture onto the big screen. When an early script version of Spider-Man had the hero slashing someone's throat, Arad stepped in.

"That would be the end of everything," he told the writers. "Spider-Man kills nobody."

That tenacity has earned him the respect — and occasional ire — of big-studio executives.

"To say he's unique is an understatement," says Mary Parent, co-president of Universal Pictures, which is releasing The Hulk. "I've never met anyone who gets so excited about his movies and his characters. He's like a big kid whose energy is infectious."

Lee says Arad's energy raises the bar for directors.

"He cares so much about his characters that it causes you to care just as much," he says. "I didn't know that much about The Hulk before I began this. But I knew that it meant a lot to Avi, and I didn't want to disappoint him."

There has been little disappointment in Arad's world since he and Ike Perlmutter teamed up in 1998 to head Marvel Entertainment Inc. Since then, the company's stock has risen 136%, and Marvel's portion of the comics industry has grown to 42%.

Just another comic fan

Arad serves as producer or executive producer for all of Marvel's movies. Marvel has creative control over its properties, to maintain the integrity of the characters, but contracts with other studios to physically produce the films.

In today's world of corporate-minded film executives, Arad is an animated character, spurning suits and ties for superhero T-shirts, lapel buttons and a Spider-Man pinky ring. His studio consists of a six-room office in a nondescript building in West Los Angeles.

"When you talk with him, it's like talking with any other comic book fan," says Ben Affleck, who played the title role in this year's Daredevil.

"He's a savvy business guy, but he's also a fan," says Affleck. "That's the key to doing comic book movies well. You have to respect the material or the diehard fans won't buy it. Avi respects the material and the fans."

'Fantastic Four' coming

Those fans will have plenty to enjoy soon. In addition to upcoming film projects due next year, including Spider-Man 2, The Punisher and Fantastic Four, Arad has a deal with Artisan Pictures to make films, TV shows and videos out of 18 Marvel characters, including Captain America and Black Panther.

"People in our business tend to be creative or commercially savvy," Artisan chief Amir Malin says. "Avi is one of those rare guys who is both."

Arad dismisses the compliments and credits the success of his films — which have grossed $1.5 billion worldwide — to something simpler.

"I'm a boring guy," Arad says. "All I do is work."

Respect for the genre

A burly man who rides a Harley Davidson, Arad says his success is due to a respect for comic books that few give the genre.

"I believe that comic books are as valid a form of literature as any other," says Arad, who is married with three children. "They are literate, dramatic, compelling — and come in storyboard form. That's what makes them perfect for movies. Someday people are going to believe me."

But you won't find him hobnobbing with many Hollywood power brokers to plead his case at cocktail parties.

"I'm not into the big social scene," he says. "I'd rather go home and play pinball and air hockey."


His life could be a movie

For much of his early life, all Avi Arad did was read. The son of Polish refugees who emigrated to Israel after he was born in 1948, Arad grew up on Superman and Spider-Man comics translated into Hebrew.

"We didn't have much back then," Arad says. "Maybe I just wanted to escape that life into something more fantastic." From 1965 to 1968, he was in the Israel Defense Forces. He was wounded in the Six-Day War and spent 15 months in a hospital, recuperating from injuries he won't detail.

He came to America in 1970, working as a truck driver and teaching Hebrew to put himself through Hofstra University in New York. He also designed toys for Mattel, Hasbro and Tyco. In the late 1980s, Arad joined with fellow Israeli immigrant Ike Perlmutter at Toy Biz, where Arad created Rollerblade Baby, My Pretty Ballerina, Baby Wanna Walk, Baby Loves to Talk, Magic Bottle Baby and Giggles 'n' Go. He also created a series of X-Men action figures that made more than $30 million.

In 1993, when Marvel acquired a chunk of Toy Biz, Arad became head of Marvel Studios, the division devoted to film and TV projects. In 1998, he returned to Marvel after its bankruptcy settlement, and he and Perlmutter took over Marvel Entertainment.

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