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Sony leaks shed light on Gursky’s licensing battle over super heroes

Gagosian Gallery and six Hollywood execs in months of negotiations to use images of Superman, Iron Man and Spiderman

by Julia Halperin  |  28 May 2015
Sony leaks shed light on Gursky’s licensing battle over super heroes
Andreas Gursky. Photo: © Hans Peter Schaefer
What does it take for an artist to license images of comic-book superheroes? Extensive negotiations and lots of favours, according to the leaked Sony emails. Gagosian Gallery worked for months to license images of Batman, Superman, Iron Man and Spider-Man for a series by the German photographer Andreas Gursky. The works, which made their debut at White Cube in London last spring and are due to travel to the US this year, include images of Iron Man embracing his girlfriend on a beach and Spiderman sitting glumly in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker.

More than six prominent Hollywood executives were involved in the negotiations, including Robert Iger, the chairman of the Walt Disney Company, Kevin Tsujihara, the chairman of Warner Brothers, the producer Charles Roven and the chief executives of DC and Marvel Comics. A director of Gagosian began by contacting Michael Lynton, the chief executive of Sony Entertainment and a client of the gallery, in 2013. Gursky, who “vaguely knows Gwyneth Paltrow”, according to the emails, was able to secure the Iron Man image himself. (The actress played Iron Man’s girlfriend, Pepper Potts, in the films.)

Marvel, which publishes the Spider-Man and Iron Man comics, drove a hard bargain. The publisher sought a 10% royalty on all sales of photographs featuring Marvel characters and also sought to approve how each image would be used, according to the emails. After several months of negotiations, Gursky offered to give Marvel a small print of the Iron Man and Spider Man photographs (valued at around €100,000 each) in lieu of a licensing fee. The retail price for the full-size images is around €350,000 each, according to the emails.

Roven, the producer of the Batman films, was also difficult to convince. He was concerned that the Batman images Gursky wanted to use would be out of date. (Christian Bale, who played Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy, left the franchise in 2012; Ben Affleck, who is due to reprise the role in future films, had not yet been photographed in costume.)

The final terms of the agreement have not been made public, but the comic-book publishers appear to retain tight control over copyright. When the series made its debut at White Cube, photography was strictly prohibited. Gagosian declined to comment.

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