Warner Bros. Summer Drama: Can 'Man of Steel' Protect Jeff Robinov? (Analysis)

12:56 PM PST 05/29/2013 by Kim Masters
Jeff Robinov with Ben Affleck.

As the Superman reboot looks to fly, studio politics and a rocky Legendary relationship leave the future of the film division's president in question.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Though Warner Bros.’ The Hangover Part III came in at a distant second to Universal’s Fast & Furious 6 over Memorial Day weekend, the studio is still poised for a high-octane summer — which makes the industry handicapping of film chief Jeff Robinov's future all the more complex.

Questions have hovered about the respected, though sometimes chilly, executive ever since Warners home entertainment chief Kevin Tsujihara was elevated to the CEO job in January. The May 15 ouster of TV chief Bruce Rosenblum was seen as inevitable given the friction generated by the notorious bake-off for the top studio job. Less clear was the future of Robinov -- the third competitor in that bake-off, though never perceived as genuinely in contention. Now speculation is rampant that the drawn-out competition also has taken its toll on Robinov's relationship with Tsujihara, possibly leading to a rupture by the end of 2013 or even much sooner. Tsujihara has said he hopes Robinov will remain -- but he said the same of Rosenblum.

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Given his track record, Robinov can make a strong argument for himself. After a rough start to the year, The Great Gatsby has crossed $200 million and Hangover III, though disappointing with a $63 million domestic opening, is not a disaster. More importantly, buzz is loud on the Christopher Nolan-produced Superman reboot Man of Steel that could launch a mighty Warners franchise and perhaps even a Marvel-style universe of films from its DC Comics division.

Robinov also has strong relationships with such talent as Nolan and Ben Affleck. And while not universally loved, Robinov's performance on the job leads one leading film agent to predict that he will remain at the studio. “The main thing you want is stability,” says the agent. “You’ve already got television in transition. Even with Jeff’s odd personality and quirks, I’d re-up him.” But this observer acknowledges that he is one of a minority wagering that Robinov will remain.

On the other side of the scale is the tension between Robinov and Legendary Entertainment, Warners’ partner on films including the Batman and Hangover trilogies. Sources say Legendary and Warners shared the decision to put Hangover III against Fast & Furious, but Legendary’s Thomas Tull has made it known that he feels disrespected and may move (mostly likely to Universal) when the company’s deal expires at the end of the year. (Some of his chagrin may have originated when Warners declined to sweeten Legendary’s deal on the third Batman, though such a decision would have been made above Robinov's level. While it was a 50-50 partner on the first two films, Legendary got only 25 percent on the third. Meanwhile, Warners has 25 percent of the risky Legendary project Pacific Rim, set for release July 12.)

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Another factor in this equation: rumors about Robinov’s prickly behavior in the wake of Tsujihara’s appointment. Many suspect -- fairly or not -- that those are part of a strategy to portray Robinov as unfit for the Warners culture. And there may be other subtle signs that Robinov’s prerogatives are being sapped. In Tsujihara’s recent restructuring following Rosenblum’s departure, DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson went from being a direct report to Robinov to being a direct report to both Robinov and Tsujihara. And despite Robinov’s previous opposition, Warners is in talks to change its position on the Producers Guild of America’s certification program.

The Producers Mark is a designation that appears in credits to designate those producers who are deemed to have done the work to earn the title. Before Tsujihara’s promotion, Warners’ position had been that participating might open the door to problems and possibly even expense as those who had negotiated a title lobbied to be included in additional aspects of production so they could meet the guild’s criteria.

Industry observers read such shifts represent as a signal that Robinov's future at the studio is in question, though perhaps they could also be seen as an assertion of the new CEO's prerogatives. If it turns out to be the former and Robinov is pushed, some speculate that the reorganization in television, which added two new direct reports to Tsujihara and created a committee of leadership consisting of executives Peter Roth, Craig Hunegs and Jeff Schlesinger, might be the model for the film side. In that scenario, Warners might spread power among such players as marketing head Sue Kroll and Robinov underlings Greg Silverman and/or Toby Emmerich of New Line.

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But many in the industry feel that Robinov has performed strongly and that such an arrangement would be fraught with risk for Hollywood's most prolific film studio. (A change would be particularly jarring if Man of Steel is a major hit, bringing to mind the 1994 ouster of Jeffrey Katzenberg from the Walt Disney Co. shortly after the release of the animated blockbuster The Lion King.)

Given the stakes, an old Warners hand says it is clear that Tsujhara would only act in close concert with Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes. Clearly, the old-school Time Warner culture that left strong division heads to run their businesses largely as fiefdoms is no more.

“It’s not about interference from Kevin but interference from Jeff,” this person says. “Is Bewkes going to put so many restrictions on Jeff through Kevin that it isn’t going to work? You have to look up the chain to see where the problem would be.”

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