The Inside Story of How Warner Bros.' Kevin Tsujihara Defied Skeptics, Personally Wooed J.K. Rowling
How the new CEO snared Ben Affleck as Batman, then deftly navigated creative demands (no script rewrites!) and is winning early praise.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
With a flourish as dramatic as any magician's reveal, Warner Bros. announced Sept. 12 that it is partnering with author J.K. Rowling on a series of films spun off from the megahit Harry Potter franchise. And standing center stage as the wizard who pulled off the unexpected was Kevin Tsujihara. The deal "would not have happened without him," said Rowling, allowing the new Warners CEO to take his first bow.
When Tsujihara beat out film and TV rivals Jeff Robinov and Bruce Rosenblum for the top studio job in March, skeptics doubted his ability to court talent -- after all, he'd worked his way up through the unglamorous ranks of home entertainment and digital distribution.
But with a couple of deft turns, many observers believe Tsujihara is turning that assessment around. First, on Aug. 22, Warners disclosed it had convinced Ben Affleck to don the bat cape in Zack Snyder's untitled Superman-Batman face-off, scheduled for 2015. Then, as fanboy outrage was dying down, Potter enthusiasts cheered the news that Rowling will return to the wizarding world.
The Rowling deal, more than a year in the making, calls for the author herself to write the screenplay for the first film in a series that will center on Newt Scamander, a Hogwarts alum and author of the go-to textbook Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them (which makes several appearances in the existing Potter canon). Tsujihara flew to the U.K. several times since the spring to meet with Rowling, who sparked to his demeanor.
"Kevin handled himself really well," says Ken Kleinberg, Rowling's L.A.-based attorney, who negotiated the deal with her U.K. agent, Neil Blair. "He was a great listener, and he conveyed sincerity and concern."
Tsujihara's wooing of the demanding author took some studio insiders by surprise. Many didn't think celebrity schmoozing was part of his skill set. It also temporarily took the spotlight off the studio's new reigning troika of Sue Kroll (president of worldwide marketing and international distribution), Greg Silverman (president of creative development and worldwide production) and Toby Emmerich (president and COO of New Line), none of whom took a lead role in the Fantastic Beasts talks.
Robinov still was serving as film chief during half of the talks, but sources say he mostly sat on the sidelines -- although one insider contends that Robinov, who is negotiating his exit from the studio, played a key early role in smoothing out a rights issue (Warners had movie rights to characters from the Potter universe but not Newt Scamander).
For Rowling, the most important issue was creative control‚ not an easy ask for a first-time screenwriter. Sources say Warners cannot hire someone else to rewrite her script without her approval -- a gamble for the studio and a departure from the Potter films, which were written by such seasoned scribes as Steve Kloves and Michael Goldenberg. Rowling also has script approval on subsequent Fantastic Beasts films.
Complicating matters for Tsujihara: The studio passed on Rowling's first non-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, which went to BBC-TV as a series (though Warners will distribute it outside the U.K.). He also had to establish a fresh rapport because her main studio contact had been Alan Horn, who left in 2011. Tsujihara enlisted a consigliere in DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson, who once oversaw the Potter brand. Also lending a hand were Warners' U.K. president Josh Berger and business-affairs head Steve Spira, and legal execs John Rogovin and Jeremy Williams.
With the Rowling deal in place, Warners is seeking a producer. Sources say talks are ongoing with David Heyman, who produced the eight Potter films as well as the studio's upcoming Gravity.
Tsujihara played a smaller role in the Affleck deal -- Robinov is said to have initiated the talks -- but he threw his full support behind the efforts to land the Argo director. "There's a million cooks in that kitchen, including Zack Snyder, Chuck Roven and David Goyer," says an insider. "It takes a village."
And Tsujihara suggested Sept. 12 he has more rabbits in his hat, including plans for DC's heroes involving video games, consumer products, TV and film: "DC really does touch a lot of parts of our business and is an important part of the strategy in how we're going to grow."
WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE FOR 8 HARRY POTTER AND 7 BATMAN FILMS: $11.4 billion