On Sept. 10, thousands of fans will flock to Anaheim for D23, the Disney convention where Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige will unveil new footage and casting surprises from his upcoming films and TV series. The months leading up to the convention are among the most sensitive for Marvel security as it attempts to keep its secrets safe. But preserving those secrets has only gotten harder during the COVID-19 era, as filmmakers’ migration to work-from-home and social distancing protocols on set had the unintended consequence of giving more people the ability to see sensitive information, multiple sources tell. The News84Media.
Over the past year, Marvel — which managed to get through the rollout of Avengers: Endgame largely unscathed by plot leaks just a year before the pandemic hit — has seen an increasing number of stills and other images shared online ahead of release. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a prominent figure in the fan community who is regularly sent shots from upcoming MCU movies (but does not share them online) blames more lax work-from-home standards for breaches over the past year. Those include the revelation that Ben Kingsley was returning to Marvel for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the August 2021 leak of the trailer for Marvel and Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. In November, stills of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield back in action in that film also leaked.
Over the years, Marvel has built a reputation as the most secretive studio in Hollywood, with it becoming a cliche for its stars to cite a “Marvel sniper” with a target on their backs preventing them from revealing secrets. Perhaps apocryphal stories of mysterious Marvel security personnel in trench coats dropping off partial scripts at night were shared by actors like Lauren Ridloff during a PR blitz last fall surrounding the release of Eternals.
But even when they are not apparently donning trench coats, Marvel’s security team — a dozen strong if you check the credits for the Sam Raimi-directed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, quite a bit more than the credits from pre-pandemic titles — is on high alert at premieres and events such as the recent San Diego Comic-Con to ensure that the footage on display is not pirated by guests using their phones. Considered the unsung heroes of the studio, they aggressively follow tips and plug leaks as they emerge online. And, where sensitive subjects are discussed, Marvel even has a Black Widow Room at its Burbank headquarters, without internet connectivity or windows. Outside cleaning crews are not allowed to enter.
Marvel, of course, relies heavily on VFX for its tentpoles, and it’s not uncommon for a Marvel film to have a dozen or so VFX vendors. The studio’s No Way Home involved roughly 2,500 VFX shots; Shang-Chi required an estimated 1,760.
At the same time, as Marvel has entered the streaming wars, there’s been even more of a need for VFX, for which artists regularly work from home throughout the world. “Marvel is an example to how it’s been supersized because of their amazing scope of effects demands,” says a veteran VFX producer who has worked on Marvel projects.
“Practically speaking, with facilities running at — or really, beyond — capacity, it’s making the planning of VFX shows very tricky,” adds another veteran VFX producer who had trouble staffing a recent production. Overcapacity means that Marvel is distributing work to more — and smaller — VFX vendors who in some cases have had to beef up their security protocols to be qualified to take on Marvel work, according to one VFX vet. When considering the number of facilities and artists working on these productions, it’s no wonder security is top of mind at Marvel. “Extreme” is how one veteran VFX artist who has worked on Marvel projects describes the studio’s approach to security. “I had to go through a whole training course to make sure that I know exactly what I need to do and where to report [anything suspect],” this person says. Additionally, the source says the artists are required to sign agreements saying that there would be no “shoulder surfing” — meaning family or friends watching the movie on artists’ monitors — and that the work area is in a dedicated part of their home “that is not viewable from the outside world.”
Marvel carefully tracks its data, auditing suppliers, and has even pursued prosecution against violators. According to sources, some of the highest-profile leaks over the past year were not the result of a VFX artist intentionally sharing something online in an insidious attempt to spoil a movie. Some came from friends or family members who snapped a picture of a stray monitor, shared it with a friend and were dismayed to see it wind up online.
While work-from-home is a challenge for Marvel security, on-set secrecy has become tougher as well. Before COVID, members of a Marvel production would crowd around the monitor to see the shot. But social distancing protocols prohibit such gatherings, and now more people have access to a feed of the monitor on their own devices, making it easier for unauthorized people on set to catch glimpses over the shoulders of people, such as makeup artists and costumers, who need the monitor feed for continuity.
There are signs that Marvel is entering into a less leak-prone approach. In recent months, some VFX vendors have returned to the office, including those working on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which opens Nov. 11 and has not been subject to a major leak so far. But the studio has signaled that it can’t stop all leaks. “You need to make sure that the experience itself works regardless of what has been spoiled or not,” said Feige in May during press rounds for the Doctor Strange sequel. That film featured several cameos, including Prof. X and Mr. Fantastic, that were spoiled ahead of time.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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