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This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
With Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, has Warner Bros. finally turned a corner?
After an abysmal run of expensive underperformers including Jupiter Ascending, Pan and In the Heart of the Sea, the studio launched its effort at a Marvel-style film universe with the DC Comics movie that had been touted as proof the regime installed in 2013 and headed by chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara was getting on track. But a dizzying 69 percent plunge that followed its March-record $166.1 million domestic opening ($422.5 million worldwide) means Batman is not a clear win.
Some competitors say the film may turn a profit but hardly will be the money gusher studios hope for when they pour massive resources into making a giant tentpole with a big star — with a budget in this case said to be in excess of $300 million, and Ben Affleck. “The biggest problem,” says the head of a rival studio, “is that it is not turning [DC] into Marvel. The audience has communicated, as have the critics.” One agent notes BvS likely won’t get to $1 billion despite launching the universe with “two of the most iconic characters in history.” Pointing out that Jurassic World pulled in $1.67 billion globally, he continues, “you can’t tell me Batman v. Superman is so much less valuable.”
Several sources say Warner Bros. executives were convinced they had the goods with BvS and were shocked when negative reviews began pouring in. Now, with DC movies dated through 2020, the outcome has led to a flurry of rumors that the studio will make adjustments — maybe add a new producer? — rather than allow BvS director Zack Snyder to proceed with the two-part Justice League. But sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation say the studio has no such plans. One says the filmmakers naturally will evaluate what went wrong with BvS, but when it comes to Justice League, “we’re not going to take a movie that’s supposed to be one thing and turn it into a copycat of something else.”
Many top industry executives believe the troubles with BvS are the latest sign of the instability created when Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes ousted Alan Horn as president in 2011. That set the stage for the infamous executive bake-off and the exit of Jeff Robinov, then head of the successful film group.
Ultimately, Bewkes promoted Tsujihara to the top Warners job and created a committee to run the film studio that includes president Greg Silverman and marketing and distribution chief Sue Kroll. It’s fair to say things haven’t gone so well since. (Warners’ loss was Disney’s gain, with Horn presiding over that studio as it has become dominant.)
In an era of turmoil and transformation, even competitors aren’t eager to see a legacy studio like Warner Bros. struggle. Warners long has been known for its commitment to filmmaker- and star-driven projects, but sources see signs of a change in culture, though the studio denies there is one. Several executives and agents say Warners seems to be greenlighting fewer homegrown movies as it focuses on silos that echo those that generate so many hits for Disney (Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar and Disney Animation). In Warners’ case, the silos are DC Comics, Lego and a planned franchise spun off from the Harry Potter series. Tsujihara has touted that trio as the linchpin of his film strategy, and now, much like Disney, has eschewed all but a few original live-action films. Overall, sources say there is an understanding Warners is aiming to release fewer homegrown films than the industry-leading 21 it did in 2015. The studio still will make some movies from “family” directors including Affleck, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan and Todd Phillips. But the emphasis is elsewhere. One insider says the studio will remain a dominant distributor, but “when you get to almost a movie every other weekend or a period where there’s a movie three weeks in a row, that’s too much.”
Warners maintains there has been no change in policy. “Warner Bros. has historically had the biggest, most diverse slate in the motion picture industry,” says a rep in a statement. “We did last year, we will this year, and we will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.” (The studio says it will release 18 movies this year and is projected to release 19 in 2017.)
But a person who does extensive business at Warners says it has entered a phase that’s not only about the number of releases. “It’s not dramatic, but it is uncharted territory for them,” he says. “They were always filmmaker-driven — that might now not be the case as much. They had a bad 18 months. How could there not be some kind of reaction to that?” Says another executive with business at the studio: “It’s a strange path to a greenlight now. It takes longer.”
Warners could have some bright spots this year. Suicide Squad (Aug. 5) might be the fan hit the DC universe needs. The studio will have a potential draw for adults with Eastwood’s hero pilot pic Sully (Sept. 9). And on Nov. 18, Warners will launch what seems its surest four-quadrant bet, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But, notes analyst Steve Birenberg of Northlake Capital Management, “Time Warner has some work ahead, and it would be helpful if the next movie in the DC relaunch were more widely praised.”
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