Box Office: Warner Bros.' Stormy Summer Leads to Strategy Questions

 

This story first appeared in the June 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

With Warner Bros. hitting an unaccustomed rough patch that could stretch into 2015, some are questioning its strategy of swinging for home runs on every project.

"They are the one studio that's made absolutely no bones about the fact that they only want to be doing huge mother-friggin' movies," says one producer. "If you go to them with a movie that costs $30 million but could do $100 million, they'll say, 'Chicken feed!' " ("Doubles," says this person, are routed to its New Line label.)

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But the long-dominant studio stumbled June 6 with Tom Cruise's $178 million Edge of Tomorrow, which opened to $28 million domestic, and on June 3, it bumped the Wachowskis' $150 million Jupiter Ascending from its July 18 release to February, perhaps looking to avoid two problems in one financial quarter (effects work was cited as the reason). Film studio president Greg Silverman acknowledges that he's aiming for massive hits but says Warners is not focused exclusively on spending big to win big. "That is people's perception, and it's wrong," he says. "Entourage is a $25 million movie, and I think it will have a huge audience."

With the Harry Potter and Christopher Nolan-directed Dark Knight franchises concluded, Warners faces a big-movie drought that could last months. The studio, which shared some of the risk on Edge of Tomorrow with Village Roadshow, could wind up taking a loss on the film. (Silverman notes that it is playing very strongly in Asia, with Japan still to come.) Still, the film won't generate the type of profit that a summer tentpole should deliver.

"It's not so easy, post-Harry Potter," notes a longtime observer. Warners puts "enormous" sums into production and marketing, he continues, but "spending a lot of money doesn't make something a franchise. … I think they're facing a strategic crisis."

What's underway at the studio is a test of the management installed a year ago following the departure of hands-on studio chief Jeff Robinov. While Robinov greenlighted Edge and Jupiter, he was not in place to guide the films through production or oversee the choice of release dates and the marketing strategies -- issues that he formerly managed. Now the studio is run by a triumvirate that includes Silverman; Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and international distribution; and New Line president Toby Emmerich -- all reporting to CEO Kevin Tsujihara. At this point, industry sources say Silverman is the lead on creative decisions.

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What's unclear is whether a trio of ambitious executives can pull together effectively. Silverman says he feels the new management structure is based on cooperation rather than rivalry. "It's working really well," he says. "I feel incredibly supported by my colleagues."

Warner Bros. has come in No. 1 or 2 in global market share for nine of the past 10 years. But the summer started to slide when Blended, the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore comedy, faltered over Memorial Day weekend. It has grossed only $39.2 million worldwide. Ironically, Edge is the best-reviewed Cruise movie in years outside of Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol in 2011. The one bright spot of the summer has been Godzilla, co-produced and co-financed by Legendary Pictures. The film has grossed nearly $395 million worldwide. Legendary took the lead on the $160 million film, which will turn a profit.

The rest of Warners' summer is iffy. Prerelease tracking for Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys (June 20) suggests it could open in the $10 million to $15 million range despite the success of the stage musical. Two New Line movies -- Tammy, a Melissa McCarthy comedy (July 2), and the tornado thriller Into the Storm (Aug. 8) -- and a Chloe Moretz teen drama If I Stay (Aug. 22) round out the summer.

For the studio to get its groove back, says a source with ties there, it needs new franchise material. It has strong opportunities, starting with Lego (March's The Lego Movie grossed $462 million worldwide with a sequel and Ninjago spinoff set). Warners will return to the Harry Potter well with a Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them spinoff trilogy set to begin Nov. 18, 2016. And the studio is betting big on Zack Snyder's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (May 2016) to kickstart a Justice League movie. Some doubt whether Snyder (300, Man of Steel) can replace Nolan, but Silverman says he's confident: "I have done really well in my career betting on Zack Snyder. If I can bet on him once or twice a year, I'd love it."

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.

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