For the first time, Warner Bros.' Toby Emmerich, Paramount's Jim Gianopulos, Disney's Alan Horn, Universal's Donna Langley, Sony's Tom Rothman, Amazon's Jennifer Salke and Netflix's Scott Stuber gather to debate streaming service ratings, movie star value, China censorship, onscreen violence and the future of a fraught movie business.
By most accounts, the traditional film business is under siege. Netflix and its competitors have commodified the moviegoing experience, placing an increasing premium on the "theatricality" of studio product — meaning films that people will actually pay money to see in theaters. That, in turn, has created a Dickensian economy of the haves (pre-branded gotta-see blockbusters, dominated by Disney) and the have-nots (with exceptions, the rest of studio slates, which fight for audience scraps every weekend). By some estimates, the "Big Six" studios, which shrank to five this year with Disney's absorption of 20th Century Fox, will atrophy even further in the next five years, replaced by Netflix, Amazon and other nascent streaming services — including those from Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal that will compete with, and be seeded by, their studio siblings, perhaps giving new life to traditional studios not as theatrical distributors but as verdant farms for streaming content. Where does that leave the people who actually make the films? At this fraught moment, The Hollywood Reporter gathered for the first time the seven executives who now run the "majors": the Big Five plus Amazon and Netflix, which releases many more films per year than its traditional rivals. What's notable is how intertwined these executives are. Alan Horn, 76, chief creative officer and co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios, formerly ran Warner Bros., where the studio's current film chairman, Toby Emmerich, 56, led sister label New Line Cinema. New Line is where current Universal filmed entertainment group chairman Donna Langley, 51, got her start, and for years at Universal she worked alongside Scott Stuber, 50, who now heads film for Netflix. Paramount chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos, 67, once ran the Fox studio alongside Tom Rothman, 64, who now serves as chairman of Sony's Motion Picture Group. They joined Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke, 55, for a candid conversation Oct. 14 that delved into everything from Netflix viewership transparency (or lack thereof) to China censorship to on-screen violence and the changing economics of a business in transition. The discussion has been edited here for length and clarity.
Where do most bad movies go wrong these days?
ALAN HORN It's the screenplay. As they say, if it's not on the page it's not on the stage. We have found issues with screenplays where we were forced to move on the film because of availability of stars.
JIM GIANOPULOS Or a [release] date.
HORN This is past blaming marketing, right?
TOBY EMMERICH But of course there are good movies that don't work. And bad movies that are hits.
Fewer now, though. Unlike for most of Hollywood history, it's really hard to release a bad movie and have it be successful. Do you agree?
DONNA LANGLEY Absolutely.
GIANOPULOS By Thursday evening, you know the verdict. And so does everyone else. Social media lights up. It becomes an audience consensus. Right or wrong.
LANGLEY Five or 10 years ago, if it was a visual effects movie and it had a certain amount of spectacle, then it was anticipated it would do really well in certain parts of the world. That bar is now really high. Comedy could be, "We'll just slap it together, production values don't have to be that high." And I just don't think that's the case anymore.
TOM ROTHMAN Nowadays, good movies aren't good enough. I am not sure you ever really got away with a movie that genuinely was a significant disappointment. But it certainly used to be that if you made a good movie, it was OK [financially]. And I don't think those of us still in the theatrical business can settle for good anymore.
EMMERICH Also the floor has dropped. If you have a big movie with big stars, you can miss now and open to single digits.
HORN There is a finite amount of leisure time. So when the number of films available increases very dramatically … Scott —
SCOTT STUBER (Laughs.)
EMMERICH Jen …
JENNIFER SALKE Also … Scott …
STUBER And Alan soon …
HORN … That amount of leisure time impacts choices.
GIANOPULOS You are also working without a net. It used to be that you had this ancillary business, particularly in the heyday of [home] video, where you were filling a pipeline. There was always some amount of money that you could look to. And that's not the same anymore.
ROTHMAN I wouldn't even say that the floor is low. I would say there is no floor. On the other hand, the ceiling is higher than it's ever been. Big hits are bigger. And big misses are bigger.
People look at the Disney strategy as what's working: releasing a smaller number of pre-branded, franchise movies. But Disney has had a lot of success remaking the library catalog. Alan, at what point does that end? Or are we going to see the Rescuers Down Under live-action remake?
HORN There is no question that we, at some point, are going to run out of the kinds of films like Aladdin or Lion King. We have taken a step past that now, so Maleficent is a step away from Sleeping Beauty, and Cruella (2021) is a step away from 101 Dalmatians. But there is no question it's a finite universe.
ROTHMAN Thank God for small favors.
Scott, you are the elephant in the room, so to speak.
STUBER Thank you for that. Glad I have been working out recently.
You recently said that if Netflix spends $60 million on a movie, to be successful it should be watched by 30 million accounts. That's the first time I have heard you talk about the success metric for a Netflix film. Does that formula apply across the board?
STUBER No. Each film, like for all of us, the P&Ls are different. Having been on both sides — the theatrical business and now streaming — there is so much out there for the consumer that we are fighting for time. The assumption is that it's easier [at Netflix] because I don't [have box office pressure]. But we have our own tracking. We have our own anxiety. We have our own opening weekend. That was a rough estimate, but different things take different marketing aspects.
So what do you look at on Monday morning after a big film debuts on the service?
STUBER We value over a month, basically. We look at 28 days and because we can see where things are opportunistic, we can market toward it. We can market in the second and third weeks as well. We greenlight off of X money and how much we are going to spend. And we hope that this many people watch in that 28 days. And that's our success rate metric.
Take a film like The Irishman. That's been gestating for a long time, it was at several different studios, and you took it on for about $150 million. It's three and a half hours long. What is the success metric for that film?
STUBER There are a lot of variables. When I took the job [in 2017], I was building a new studio. We have no IP, we have no library, we can't remake things. We don't have the great cache that Alan has over there. So you have to say, what is your opportunity? And your opportunity is filmmakers. For us to get Marty [Scorsese] at Netflix was a big thing. It was a big win. So that was one thing. And then the economics. We have enough subscribers that we think the movie can deliver on. Thankfully he over-delivered.
Jim, you are smiling. You gave that film up.
GIANOPULOS Yeah. Well, before my time, but nevertheless. It was very ambitious for a studio to take on a project like that. There is a different perception of the economics. For us, at that level, for a period drama — or for anyone, I would submit — it was ambitious. And it was perhaps too ambitious.
EMMERICH That's where the consumer wins. I don't think any of the studios could make that movie at that cost at that length and come out alive.
EMMERICH But it works for Netflix for the reason that Scott said.
As people who have spent your careers in the theatrical movie business, doesn't it bum you out that you can't make The Irishman?
LANGLEY You know, it actually doesn't. It would bum me out if no one made the movie.
HORN That's right.
LANGLEY That's what's really exciting about our entire ecosystem right now, even though it is giving us the headaches and sleepless nights. It's never been a better time for filmmakers and storytelling and for things to find their way into the world that were getting squeezed over the last five or six years or even longer.
EMMERICH The only difference for us, and maybe for the average consumer — I'll bet everyone at this table wants to see The Irishman in a theater.
EMMERICH And it will be available, to some extent. Or we'll get invited to Scott's house.
STUBER You're all invited. (Laughs.)
Jen, when Amazon Studios got into movies, filmmakers would be given a three-month theatrical window. Now you're moving away from that. Where do you see the strategy going in the next couple of years?
SALKE There was not a lot of customer focus, which is what the company's North Star is all about: Prime subscribers. So how do we evolve our movie business to be more focused on Prime subscribers? When we release something, when a new series drops, we see what's happening in various countries all over the world. We know our customers love movies. We're just trying to shift — it's not closing the door on theatrical release. We will continue to [make] and acquire movies that will embrace that strategy. But it really is trying to get these movies to our Prime subscribers as soon as possible. Look at a movie like Late Night, for example, that I know the industry made an example of as a failure from Amazon. The truth is, we bought that movie [for $13 million at Sundance] because I believe the movie is commercial and that our global customer would love the movie. And in fact they do. So it went through the contractually obligated theatrical release that we were happy to support for Mindy [Kaling] and Nisha [Ganatra] and everybody. But then it gets this horrible report card. The truth is, the movie has been watched. We only have U.S. rights, but it's been watched in the U.S. more than any other movie in the short time it's been on. Manchester [by the Sea] and that movie are neck-and-neck. [Editor's Note: Amazon does not release specific viewership numbers.] These movies are watched by tens of millions of people. So you begin to rationalize making those purchases and paying for an expensive marketing campaign for a theatrical release for Late Night, which did accrue a lot of interest for people who were waiting to watch it on Prime. But would you rather push toward the Prime premiere? It's a case-by-case situation for us right now.
Is there is any movie star that is as important as strong IP?
ROTHMAN Yeah, I think there are lots of movie stars. It's one of the great myths propagated out there that movie stars don't matter. I would say movie stars in the right role with the right property matter more than ever before.
So you would trade the Spider-Man property for every Leo DiCaprio movie for the rest of his career?
ROTHMAN I'd love to have both.
EMMERICH Who is he negotiating with?
ROTHMAN Well, I can tell you this. The event nature of having Leo and Brad [Pitt] and Margot [Robbie] in [Sony's] Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was essential. You had to make a great movie … but that movie was not based on any IP at all. That is a pure original. Came out of the imagination and the headspace of one individual. Because even Disney will run out of animated movies to remake. And we have to be careful not to narrow our audience, not to think that there isn't room for originality. I think there is. In the pursuit of that, movie stars are tremendously valuable.
EMMERICH The thing that we all sit around talking about is "theatricality." IP and movie stars are two huge ingredients. You have to have one or the other. It's even better if you have both.
Alan and Tom, you recently had a little dispute over Spider-Man. What was the one thing above all else that resolved that standoff over Marvel producing the next Sony installment?
HORN The fan base, which is important to all of us, seemed to really respond to what Tom and his folks have done before with our people. They like the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Kevin Feige were involved [in the two Spider-Man films]. We heard feedback out there that suggested that joining forces once again was probably really a good idea.
Will this partnership continue after the trilogy? Tom, you've shown you can do Spider-Man without Marvel on the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
ROTHMAN Yes, we have. But I agree with my distinguished colleague. This was a classic win-win-win. A win for Sony, a win for Disney, a win for the fans. The only thing I would say is that news cycles and the rhythm of negotiations do not necessarily overlap. And this is, in the words of Shakespeare, a consummation devoutly to be wished. We would have gotten there, and the news got ahead of some things.
HORN I agree with that.
Netflix says it does everything to best serve the customer. But one thing that customers like is to know which movies are hits and which movies aren't. And Netflix has been adamant about not releasing comprehensive viewership numbers. Scott, why will Netflix not do that if it better serves the customer?
STUBER We tell all the filmmakers, so the filmmakers have —
But that's not the same thing —
STUBER I understand. Let me finish. I also think part of it is just the aspirational way that Ted [Sarandos] and Cindy [Holland] built the TV side, which Jen understands, coming from network TV. It was for television creators to get out of ratings and Standards and Practices and actually free up their narrative form so that they could tell stories that weren't [influenced] night after night by those numbers. So the methodology was right. And now, as we have grown … we are used to it.
STUBER We are definitely, as a company, moving more … and you will see more [viewership transparency]. We do it in some of our earnings reports, and we are going to be doing it more and more because that filmmaker and that actor and that actress want to know that their movie got out there globally in a big way.
For the rest of you, why is it important to release box office numbers?
LANGLEY There are a number of reasons why it's helpful. It is helpful as an industry measure. It's helpful to keep us all honest. It's helpful for the creative talent for that narrative to be out there.
ROTHMAN I can't stand it.
LANGLEY I don't love it either.
GIANOPULOS By the way, it's not our choice.
ROTHMAN If you [in the media] would like to stop reporting on it, I would be very happy to stop reading about it. It reinforces [the perception] that popularity and quality go hand in hand. We are guilty too because we feed it when it suits us.
SALKE It takes you back to network television [and] the overnight ratings. When viewing habits had changed and these shows were being watched globally and were hugely popular, they were being given a report card every morning that they were DOA. Which then creates perception, and it sent a lot of shows to an early graveyard.
ROTHMAN When we dated the Quentin [Tarantino] movie, I knew a year in advance, because it was the second week of Lion King, that absolutely positively that movie would not [open at] No. 1. And the conversation we had with the filmmakers was "Even if we get your biggest opening ever, I promise you will not be No. 1. But I also promise you it's a great day for the movie. And we need to ignore that and put the movie on what's a good date for it."
EMMERICH We all work for public companies. Our slates will be judged on a quarterly and an annual basis. But the short-term focus on [box office] can often not give your movie a chance. The platform release has kind of gone away, which was another way to give films a chance.
GIANOPULOS One of the things we have to manage is expectations. The press says it's going to open to $50 million. And you open to $43 million and it's a disappointment. We never said it was going to open to 50!
Alan, I remember when American Idol was No. 1 for many years in a row and its audience was 30 million viewers a night. The president of NBC at the time, I believe it was Jeff Zucker, said, "Someday it will not be cool to watch American Idol." Do you think about when that day comes for the Marvel movies?
HORN The answer is no. If the film has a compelling storyline, if it has heart and humor, two things that I insist on, and it's terrifically well executed, I think there is an audience. But who knows?
Twenty-three hits in a row is an unprecedented streak.
HORN It is long. But Kevin Feige is working away. He will be making three or four a year. And they are very different from one another, so we'll see.
GIANOPULOS We started to notice with Avengers it was running out of steam.
EMMERICH Especially the second one.
STUBER What people don't give comic books credit for, is that for a giant group of us, they are literature. They are like To Kill a Mockingbird.
ROTHMAN They are not To Kill a Mockingbird. I am sorry.
ROTHMAN As a former English teacher … I promised I wouldn't say anything, but I have to say something now.
STUBER I have confused the [Fox] Searchlight Tom with the Sony Tom. And Kevin, who I have known for a long time, takes them deeply seriously and understands the fan base and the nuance of those characters.
Toby, in Toronto at the premiere of Joker, one thing you mentioned stuck with me. You said, "We wanted to do something that we knew Marvel and Disney could never do." Is that how you approach the DC library?
EMMERICH The impetus behind making Joker really came from Todd [Phillips]. But one of the advantages of being Warner Bros. and having DC is that we don't feel that all the movies have to be — not that Disney's films are — but we don't feel our films have to be of the same tone or in a connected universe. We thought making an R-rated supervillain origin story was a cool idea. We didn't see [the success] coming at this level when we greenlit the film.
There was criticism of the realistic violence in Joker, especially in the wake of so many mass shootings, and a Universal release, The Hunt, was actually scrapped this summer over similar violence concerns. What made The Hunt unreleasable and Joker a $900 million hit?
LANGLEY We took The Hunt from the release calendar out of sensitivity for the mass shootings that happened over the course of that weekend and we were in a window where we were heavily marketing. It later got conflated with it being about the movie's subject matter. But remember, nobody has seen this movie outside of the studio.
EMMERICH There were a lot of misunderstandings around the history of the tragic shooting in Aurora, [Colorado, in 2012,] which happened at a Batman film. And we were certainly supersensitive to it [and the tragedy for the victims and their loved ones]. But that film and that shooting had no connection in any way to the Joker character. So we had to judge our film on its own merits. A lot of the social media comments around the film were by people who hadn't seen the film and didn't know what it was. We looked at the film really closely and did feel that it was a great film. That it was a piece of art. And we didn't think it would inspire violence. We took it to Venice, where it won the Golden Lion. And we felt comfortable releasing the film.
Jim and Tom, you were at Fox 20 years ago when Fight Club came out. There was criticism of the violence in that movie. I wonder what would have happened if it had been released in the social media age?
ROTHMAN There has always been a lot of talk about pop culture impact from films. The mere fact that everybody is on Facebook now doesn't really change that that much. To do our jobs, you've got to be a strong First Amendment advocate.
ROTHMAN But you do make moral judgments. I certainly have.
GIANOPULOS To Donna's point, given the extent of gun violence in our society, there is a heightened sensitivity. There is a certain responsibility and a line. We have to define that line for our companies and for our filmmakers.
ROTHMAN But you can't abdicate responsibility either.
As an industry, we're at a stalemate where traditional studios are releasing films in theaters and three months later they go to home video. Netflix and, increasingly, Amazon, is direct to home video, at times with a theatrical component, but the major theater chains refuse to play those movies. When is the stalemate going to end?
STUBER We all have to get to a place where there is opportunity and choice and more movies. It's not always one size fits all. We have to be cognizant of everyone's businesses and protect them.
Alan, Donna and Toby, your parent companies are all launching streaming services. Do you anticipate that changing the company position on film windows?
LANGLEY I can't speak to that. But we all know that it's a nonstarter for the companies to have the conversation with exhibition. Our agendas are not aligned at all. And ultimately, it might be the consumer, the audience that speaks. Particularly as more services come online. The business model may just shift to such a degree that it winds up becoming so obvious that something has to change.
HORN We re-evaluate everything all the time, but we are committed to the theatrical window and that model has worked for us. I agree that one size doesn't fit all. I agree also that consumers would like every film available on every medium immediately.
In five or 10 years, will I be able to pay $100 and watch Avengers 10 on my Disney+ the weekend it's in theaters?
HORN Right now, no. I can't predict five or 10 years from now.
Jim, you are now making movies specifically for Netflix —
GIANOPULOS Every chance we get. (Laughs.)
But when you're figuring out what is a Paramount release and what is for Netflix, how does it not turn into an "A"- and "B"-level movie determination?
GIANOPULOS It's a choice you make as you develop. We develop 10 or 12 properties for every movie we make. There are lots of properties where you get to a point where you talk about theatricality and you say, "Well, this movie may work. But am I going to spend $30 [million] or $40 [million] or $50 million [marketing] that to people?"
GIANOPULOS Whereas if Scott wants it and both of us benefit from it, it's no different really than studios have been making [movies of the week] for the TV networks for 50 or 60 years.
HORN I don't see it as an A or B movie thing. It's financial.
Toby, have you thought about what a Warner Bros. movie for HBO Max looks like?
EMMERICH We are starting to talk about it.
STUBER Come on, tell me!
STUBER With Jim, we made this [teen rom-com] To All the Boys I've Loved Before, which is a terrific film. There have been genres that we have lost in the theatrical business. What everyone will find in a great way [with streaming] is you open the funnel. Even Roma, right? Which on paper is a black-and-white foreign-language film, but the audience was there for it.
HORN We still have Fox Searchlight, which both of these gentlemen [Rothman and Gianopulos] know a lot about. They have won four out of the last 10 [best picture] Academy Awards. And we are backing them 100 percent because they make terrific movies with very renowned filmmakers with great casts.
But not all of the Searchlight movies will get theatrical releases, right?
HORN Oh, I think they will, yeah.
Let's talk about China because we have seen flare-ups in this battle between free speech and appeasing the Chinese government. What is the censorship limit for Hollywood? Alan, the star of your upcoming Mulan picture voiced support for Hong Kong police, which sparked a #BoycottMulan movement.
HORN First of all, if Mulan doesn't work in China, we have a problem. But my feeling is that free speech is an important component of our society, and folks ought to be able to say what they want to say. And I can't speak for what Yifei Liu says in China, and we didn't know what she was going to say. We try to be nonpolitical. There is always an issue somewhere in the world, and China happens to be a very, very big market, but it's not the only market where there have been issues. The only thing I have said to the folks that work with me is to keep in mind that when you speak, [the media will quote you]. And that carries with it a certain responsibility. Be sensible and think before you speak. Especially on social media.
Does it bother you that your movies can't offend China?
HORN No. We are making movies that are designed to be seen by an appreciative audience [everywhere]. We don't wish to be political. And to get dragged into a political discussion, I would argue, is sort of inherently unfair. We are not politicians.
GIANOPULOS I think there is also a difference between pandering and cultural sensitivity. You know, there is a big spotlight on China because of its growing global dominance and because of the limitations on press and freedoms in the country. But Malaysia, other parts of the world, India, we have been censoring movies for years [there] just to address the concerns of individual markets. When you do it in China it becomes pandering.
Donna, Fast & Furious is so big there, I'm guessing there won't be a Chinese villain in a future Fast movie.
LANGLEY We run a business. We have to be sensitive to important markets.
You've all done this a long time. What's the one movie that you are particularly proud that you got made? Jim and Tom, you can't say Titanic or Avatar.
GIANOPULOS Why not?
LANGLEY Yeah, why not?
Because that's what I would think you would say.
STUBER Pair of aces right there.
LANGLEY Yeah, those weren't easy greenlights.
GIANOPULOS I would say commercially Deadpool, and creatively Slumdog Millionaire, which [Tom and I] did together.
ROTHMAN The one I am most proud of is actually a movie called Master and Commander (2003). Peter Weir said no to me three different times. And I chased that movie for 14 years.
ROTHMAN And I had to become the head of a studio with this gentleman to my right to be able to do it. Also, just last week I went to see Moulin Rouge! on Broadway. And I was sitting there looking at the aesthetic of it and seeing the audience response to it. And my daughter was next to me; she was just in her teens.
GIANOPULOS It's funny you say that because I showed [my kids] when they were younger, and they didn't get it. Now they do.
ROTHMAN It was insane to do that at the time.
LANGLEY I just rewatched it. It's bonkers.
ROTHMAN And I remember standing on the set in Sydney begging Baz [Luhrmann] to roll film. "Let's go, roll it!"
GIANOPULOS "You have to finish!" (Laughs.)
LANGLEY It's such a good movie. A movie that I am proud of — Scott was around for it — is United 93, Paul Greengrass' movie. The first movie I advocated to greenlight as president of production. It was a movie we knew not many people would go and see. And we had a screening of it at the Ziegfeld Theater with all of the [victims'] families. It was so powerful and so cathartic. On the complete other end of the spectrum, the other movie I am really proud of from a commercial standpoint was Mamma Mia! There were a lot of people [at the studio] who didn't love Abba as much as I did.
STUBER I was around. She did love Abba. That was all Donna.
EMMERICH We're about to start shooting the Elvis Presley movie with Baz in Australia. And just listening to Tom's story I envision myself in Australia saying, "Baz, roll! Please roll!"
LANGLEY Just put him on the phone with Tom.
EMMERICH For me the one that comes to mind just because it's happening right now, and I think Donna might have even been around when this movie started — we started developing in 1998 — was Motherless Brooklyn.
LANGLEY Yes. Yes. Yes.
EMMERICH Ed Norton persevered and we just had the premiere in New York at the New York Film Festival closing night. Just to say, "Wow, we worked on this for 20 years and we actually did it," is very satisfying.
Jen, you're relatively new to film, but what about a meaningful show?
SALKE Having This Is Us come through the door and the connection to my story — my dad had died a few months before — Dan [Fogelman] came in and he talked about the story about his dad. We just had a real meeting of the minds. And the show has been one that I love deeply. I watch every episode and it still is very meaningful to me.
HORN In my long career, I look back with great affection at Rob Reiner's first film, Spinal Tap. I look back at When Harry Met Sally and The Shawshank Redemption when we had Castle Rock together. I loved my time at Warner Bros. Trying to get Harry Potter right and making sure it was really, really good. And at Disney we are all very proud of Black Panther and Captain Marvel because they ventured into areas that were not ventured into before.
EMMERICH I am now feeling like a real underachiever. (Laughs.)
STUBER Two that stick out. I would have never dreamed what Donna and these guys have done with Fast & Furious, but when we [first] did it I was a young executive and Kevin Misher bought an article and said go do it. What was fun about it was watching all of that talent have their first hit together. On the flip side, what was great for me with The Irishman last weekend at the New York Film Festival was being with those icons and seeing Bob and Al and Joe and Marty. Just being around it I felt like a little kid.
HORN So great.
Is there one that got away? Something you regret passing on?
GIANOPULOS The 300 that [Warner Bros.] made. We had a narrow window to [make it]. And that was like a story my grandmother used to tell me as a little kid. She always told me Greek myth stories.
HORN It's so interesting you'd say 300.
GIANOPULOS I was so close to it that I thought we should do it for real. And I saw this comic book, the [Frank] Miller book, and I thought, "Oh come on, you can't do it like that." I thought Ridley Scott should do it like Gladiator.
HORN When Zack Snyder came in, I said, "Are there swords in this movie?" Yes. "Are there sandals? Arrows?" Yes. "Shields?" Yes. I said, "Come on, we just did Troy 20 minutes ago. How are we going to do that?"
LANGLEY It wasn't obvious until it was obvious.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.