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Given the ho-hum performance of last year’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, speculation had been mounting that Sony might sell the superhero back to Marvel and Disney. Instead, it made a move no one expected: opting to lease the rights to the web-slinger to its rival for a single film.

It was a savvy move for a beleaguered studio still feeling the aftershocks of the devastating November hack that led to co-chairman Amy Pascal stepping down last week, moving from the executive suite to a producer role on Spider-Man and other titles. Marvel has been trying for years to wrest the Spider-Man rights back from Sony, offering billions, sources say. But Sony, franchise-starved as it is, eschewed the quick cash to keep its $4 billion franchise in-house.

Sources say no money changed hands between the two studios in the deal and it is instead seen as a quid pro quo transaction. Sony benefits from the free exposure of a younger, rebooted Spider-Man in a film from red-hot Marvel, while Marvel gets its hands on the most prized superhero in its lucrative universe. Also, since Marvel controls the merchandising rights to Spider-Man, the effect this move will have on sales could be worth more than any cut they would have seen.

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