Village Roadshow Chief Bruce Berman on Legendary's Warner Bros. Split and Summer's Tentpole Disaster (Q&A)
Bruce Berman tells THR he spoke with Thomas Tull before the financier changed partners (and warns "the grass isn't always greener"), talks about the crisis in "dumbed down" movies and why he still will invest in big budgets.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the midst of all the turbulence at Warner Bros. -- which recently has seen the departures of executives Jeff Robinov and Bruce Rosenblum, the end of its co-financing deal with Legendary Entertainment and the crash-and-burn of Legendary's Pacific Rim -- Village Roadshow Pictures Entertainment has been an island of stability.
Warners' longest-running financing partner, with 30-plus employees, has paid for about half of the production and marketing costs for nearly 80 pictures during the past 15 years, including the hits The Matrix, Ocean's Eleven, Gran Torino and most recently The Great Gatsby. All of them have been put together with an almost familial sense of trust, agreed to on a one-on-one basis without a long-term "slate" deal.
That's helped by the fact Village is headed by former Warners executive Bruce Berman, 61. After studying film at CalArts and law at Georgetown, he worked for Jack Valenti at the MPAA and at Universal before joining Warners, where he rose to president of worldwide production and stayed 12 years before exiting in 1996. Berman segued to Village Roadshow in 1998.
His importance to Warners takes on added significance with Legendary moving to Universal in 2014, meaning Village -- for now -- will be its sole financing partner. That explains why Berman was one of the first people with whom Kevin Tsujihara met after being promoted to CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment in January. (Asked for details of their conversation, Berman laughs, "That's private.")
After a rough patch in 2009, when one of its backers faced a cash squeeze, Village (jointly owned by the much larger Australia-based Village Roadshow Ltd. and private-equity funds) is back with a $1.1 billion credit line, along with plans to fund six to nine movies a year.
It now has eight movies in production, including Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow, director George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road and the Wachowskis' sci-fi film Jupiter Ascending.
The easygoing Berman is a married father of two, with a 3-year-old daughter from second wife Lea Russo (an art-collection manager) and a 24-year-old son. His personal taste in film leans toward Hitchcock and Kubrick, but even they come second to his great love: photography. Having contemplated becoming a photographer, Berman has a celebrated photo collection.
The Hollywood Reporter: How does Legendary's exit affect Village Roadshow?
Bruce Berman: I don't think there's going to be a substantial effect. Now that we're healthy [financially] and we're the primary partner, that can only be good news for our company, even if [Warners] takes on a new partner -- which I expect they would because we're not prepared to do the whole slate of movies. One of the good things about having other partners is that you don't feel pressure to take a movie you don't want.
THR: Did you discuss Legendary's exit with its CEO, Thomas Tull?
Berman: We did until he got really serious about it, then we didn't. In other words, we discussed his frustrations with the company.
THR: What was your advice?
Berman: He never asked my advice. [But] I would never advise someone to leave Warner Bros. with the successful track record that the two companies had together. From my viewpoint, the relationship was working; obviously, from his viewpoint, the relationship could have worked better somewhere else. I've been around long [enough] to realize that the grass isn't always greener.
THR: Were you offered Pacific Rim?
Berman: Pacific Rim was developed by Legendary and they offered it to Warner Bros., and they took 25 percent. They could have had 50, I think.
THR: Is there a movie in your career that you regret doing or not doing?
Berman: When I was at Warner Bros., we were three weeks away from photography on Home Alone -- then we gave [Fox's] Joe Roth the gift of a lifetime. It became an industry. And it [left Warners] over a budget difference of $3 million.
THR: Warners recently has gone through a big management shift. With Robinov's departure, was there a sense of deja vu for you?
Berman: Yeah, there really was. You always wish upon people the hindsight that you have, and it's hard to impart until it's too late. I think Jeff will do very well somewhere, and it might not be theatrical movies -- it might be television, it might be cable, it might be new media or a combination of all kinds of things.
THR: How did you leave your post as production chief?
Berman: I wanted to be president of the motion picture group, which was a job that did not exist. So I wrote a Jerry Maguire-type mission statement, which was ultimately my undoing. I thought there was a case to be made that the structure of the company could accommodate a president of the group, [but then-studio chiefs Bob Daly and Terry Semel] weren't ready to change the structure of the company. Six months later, they sat down with me and said, "We think you'd make a great producer."
THR: Were you devastated?
Berman: I was totally devastated. I must have been in a big state of denial to not realize that was a possible consequence. Then I learned Village Roadshow was talking about a co-financing deal.
THR: How does Village Roadshow's deal with Warners actually work?
Berman: Generally speaking, we have a 50/50 co-financing deal, production costs and P&A [prints and advertising]. What we do is, we look at Warners' development inventory from the moment a property is acquired. Practically speaking, we usually greenlight anywhere from two to five movies at a time, [with a] budget range from $20 million to $225 million. It doesn't include a movie that costs $300 million, but with sequels there are no limits. We tend to want to make movies that lean more international.
THR: What about television?
Berman: Television we have not engaged in yet. I say "yet" because I see no reason for us not to think about doing it.
THR: But you didn't go after Rosenblum when he left Warners and went to Legendary?
Berman: No, but I think what Thomas is doing and what Bruce is doing is very viable once you've stabilized your core business, which is feature films. It's certainly something we'd consider.
THR: How do you pick projects?
Berman: It's an ongoing discussion, virtually three to five times a year of coming into very senior management saying, "We want to do these movies." But way before that, we're talking to the producers and production executives about either becoming a friend of the court or not. There is a misunderstanding in the community that Village, because it doesn't develop formally, is not a creative partner -- and nothing could be further from the truth.
THR: Warners doesn't keep its best properties to itself? What about franchises like The Dark Knight?
Berman: Here's the situation on The Dark Knight: We had the first look at Batman Begins. At the time we looked at Batman Begins, we were also looking at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This was sort of early to midway through our company's history, and we didn't have the capacity to make both. [Village opted for Charlie.] Charlie made a lot of money [$475 million worldwide]. And [Warners] also was not willing to guarantee sequel rights on Batman.
THR: Steven Spielberg warned in June that there might be an "implosion" if the business continues to rely on megabudget tentpoles. Do you agree?
Berman: I'm concerned. That was a shock-value comment that had a lot of truth underpinning it. It's an issue, especially in this golden age of TV.
THR: Given all of the misfires this summer, will you invest in fewer big-budget movies?
Berman: The problem is, the movies that do the [most box office] worldwide are the very types of movies that they say are going to be the ruin of the business. That's the paradox. They may be right -- and it is certainly depressing that a lot of the product has been dumbed down, and some of these movies feel indistinguishable. You feel like, "Where are the great movies we grew up with?" It's kind of a quandary: The kind of films that we love and the films that we make might not always have a symmetry to them. But you have to make movies that you think are commercial.