Studios' 2017 Forecast: Big Bets, Franchise Fears and Executive Intrigue

6:30 AM 1/5/2017

by Kim Masters

A Sony shake-up? It could happen this year as Warners braces for AT&T's $85 billion Time Warner takeover, Universal hopes Tom Cruise's 'The Mummy' hits and Disney downplays outsized expectations.

Hollywood Slot Machines Illo - THR - H 2017
Illustration by: Paul Hoppe

It’s a tumultuous time in the movie business. Consolidation is underway, scale is the watchword. The record box-office tally of 2016 makes for good headlines but masks weakness and the studios (except for Disney) are dead serious about collapsing theatrical windows and getting a premium price for home viewing of movies that might still be playing in theaters. And who knows what will happen with China in a Trump administration? What seems clear for 2017 is that strength will continue to lie in well-executed franchises.

The industry now is split into the four studios that have the relative security of being part of a multifaceted media powerhouse — Disney, Universal, Warner Bros. and Fox — and two studios — Paramount and Sony — that don’t. Still, even for the big players, the crystal ball is cloudy.

Here’s what to watch in 2017.

  • Warner Bros.

    Among the top studios, Warners faces the greatest uncertainty with the planned AT&T acquisition of parent Time Warner. Most observers don't see the $85 billion deal being blocked in a Trump administration, though the mercurial president-elect did suggest it might be in October. Assuming the purchase goes through (and months will pass before the review is concluded), the question is what influence Peter Chernin will wield. Rupert Murdoch's former No. 2 has business dealings with AT&T and industry insiders find it hard to imagine that CEO Randall Stephenson won't seek guidance from one of the industry's most seasoned and courted executives. All the more reason for the Warners film team to try to impress with a strong performance in 2017.

    The new year sees a new order with Toby Emmerich promoted in December. "We have the right leadership in place, with Toby taking on Warner Bros. Pictures in addition to New Line and partnering with Sue [Kroll], who will continue to run the best marketing and distribution teams in the business," Warner Bros. chairman Kevin Tsujihara, 52, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

    The challenge for Emmerich, 53, will be to get the franchise house in order while managing a far larger slate than ever before in his career. But with the year's movies already packing the pipeline, he won't necessarily get much credit or blame for the 2017 lineup.

    He has inherited a likely early winner with The Lego Batman Movie in February and will have another animated offering with The Lego Ninjago Movie in September. In live action, the studio will want Kong: Skull Island to work in March as it is the first in a trilogy with Legendary that is supposed to culminate with the giant ape facing off with Godzilla. But the money question is whether the studio can get those DC Comics movies to fire on all cylinders. If Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman works with audiences and critics in June, that would be a fine thing for Tsujihara. The next test will come with Justice League in November, when audiences will see whether director Zack Snyder really got the memo on what many saw as the overly dark tone of Batman v. Superman.

    Warners has some potential trouble in Guy Ritchie's long-delayed and very costly King Arthur on May 12. Another big summer play is Christopher Nolan's World War II battle movie Dunkirk, not the usual popcorn-season fare, but few executives would bet against Nolan. On Oct. 20, the studio faces another expensive question mark with producer Dean Devlin's directorial debut, Geostorm. THR has reported on costly reshoots on the environmental disaster film and its release has been pushed twice. But in October, Warners also has Blade Runner 2049 with Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) directing Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.

    Emmerich is known as one of the town's more astute corporate players, so insiders will watch him manage an environment that has bred a series of power struggles for some years now. A source with longtime ties to the studio anticipates possible tension with Kroll, who had been part of the triumvirate in charge of the film studio along with Emmerich and the now-departed Greg Silverman. Emmerich's promotion gives him shared greenlight authority with Tsujihara.

    Tsujihara is said to have gotten deeply immersed in picking movies, but also look for him (as well as Universal's Jeff Shell and the Murdochs at Fox) to focus on the windows issue. "We'll continue to innovate to deliver the great content audiences want, when and where they want it, including by working with our exhibitor partners to provide greater access to new releases," he says. "It's an exciting time in our industry, despite the challenges, and I know we'll continue to deliver great results."

  • Universal

    "We have a big year," says Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Jeff Shell, 51. "Maintaining franchises is job number one — Fifty Shades, Fast & Furious, Despicable Me. Obviously, The Mummy is important. I'm excited about Boss Baby from DreamWorks Animation. We're climbing that animation mountain. If we can create that machine, not only do we have profit, but we lessen our volatility in the movie business."

    Universal had a shaky 2016 in live-action movies, but that was more than offset by animation hits from Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment. Meledandri's consistent success is more proof that creative executives are not fungible, but for 2017, Illumination has only Despicable Me 3 in June. Still, DWA's Boss Baby, set for March 31, was considered one of that label's promising bets even in the company's darkest hours before it was sold to NBCUniversal.

    Still a question: What role will Meledandri play at DWA? Uni had hoped he might sit astride both labels as Lasseter does with Pixar and Disney Animation, but he has been unwilling. Film studio chief Donna Langley, 48, will continue to oversee DWA, but Uni is banking on Meledandri to have input.

    In live-action, Universal should be able to cash in on its franchises, but they are not as young as they used to be. The Fate of the Furious should do very well when it opens in April. Still, it's the first without Paul Walker and the emotion over the star's death — plus curiosity about how the studio would handle his passing in the film — no doubt propelled Furious 7 to a stunning $1.5 billion worldwide in 2015. Fast & Furious 6 did $789 million, for comparison.

    Universal will have to suffer through another likely problem movie from its partner Legendary Pictures when The Great Wall opens in February. But clearly the studio's biggest live-action gamble is The Mummy (June 9), relying on the star power of Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe. Universal could use some fresh live-action franchise blood and hopes this film can launch a monsters universe. If it doesn't work, those plans are likely to be tabled and the quest for new material will become more urgent.

  • Fox

    Ever since the unexpected ouster of studio chairman Jim Gianopulos and the promotion of Stacey Snider, 55, to chairman in June, the town has speculated about the possible departure of production president Emma Watts, who became very much a Gianopulos protegee, and Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler. But there have been signs of detente, and as more than one industry observer sees it, Snider is wise to keep Watts on the job — as long as the movies are working, of course. Insiders say Watts has the support of Lachlan and James Murdoch as well as James Cameron, who is working on four Avatar sequels that will roll into theaters — someday.

    Fox's 2017 lineup — greenlighted under the previous regime — seems strong enough to keep the peace for the year, though Snider is sure to continue to build out her executive team. It starts with Logan, Hugh Jackman's last outing as Wolverine, on March 3. (The film will be the first R-rated entry in the series, which could affect grosses, but an R rating certainly didn't hurt last winter's Deadpool.) May 12 brings Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn in the mother-daughter comedy Snatched, and then a trifecta of sequels, all seemingly based on strong franchises: Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant on May 19; War for the Planet of the Apes on July 14; and Kingsman: The Golden Circle on Oct. 6. Fox will roll the dice for the holidays with a musical biopic about P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman. The cast includes Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson and Zendaya.

    While the year ahead has a lot of potential, Fox needs to bolster its franchises. Deadpool breathed life into the X-Men universe, though the sequel planned for 2018 may be haunted by the departure of the original's director, Tim Miller. Still stuck in development is Gambit, which was supposed to be a fast-tracked vehicle for Channing Tatum (he made a surprise appearance on an X-Men panel at Comic-Con in 2015). Fox also needs to rebuild in animation. It takes a swing on Dec. 22 with Ferdinand, the story of the famed sitting bull.

    Overall, Snider says she wants the studio to become a magnet for talent. "The thing I've appreciated is the support up and down the company to take big creative swings," she says. "We have to incorporate that mantra every single day — creative risk-taking is encouraged — to attract the best talent in the world, to create an environment where the best storytellers want to make their movies."

  • Paramount

    Surprise! The collapse of the merger talks between Viacom and CBS means Paramount's Brad Grey gets a new lease on life. (Sources say if CBS chief Les Moonves had taken the reins, Gianopulos was headed there.) The big question is whether the merger is truly dead or whether Viacom regroups and tries again.

    If not — or meanwhile — Grey, 59, has his work cut out for him. "Our slate is strong," he tells THR. "Our films have some of the world's biggest stars and fan favorites like Vin Diesel, Scarlett Johansson, Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Matt Damon, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Lawrence — and some of the most celebrated filmmakers — Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, Alexander Payne, Darren Aronofsky, Alex Garland and George Clooney. We anticipate a great year."

    It seems possible that xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, starring Diesel and Jackson and set to bow Jan. 20, might be a sequel that audiences did not exactly demand, but Paramount is not deep in franchises and this installment is packed with Asian stars to lure the overseas audience. March 31 brings Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, based on an anime property, while Johnson and Efron appear in Baywatch on May 26.

    Paramount rolls out a big gun with the fifth in its Transformers series, The Last Knight, on June 23. The previous installment was filmed in China with actress Li Bingbing and grossed $320 million there, compared with $245 million in the U.S. (Overall the picture pulled in $859 million of its $1.1 billion worldwide gross from international.) The question is whether this version, lacking those Chinese elements, can do nearly as well.

    More significantly, after Transformers the studio has only three relatively small films dated for the second half of the year: a Friday the 13th installment on Oct. 13, a Cloverfield movie from J.J. Abrams on Oct. 27 and Alexander Payne's Downsizing with Matt Damon on Dec. 22. A handful of other films are planned but not dated, including a still-untitled Aronofsky movie with Lawrence and the Clooney-directed Suburbicon (also with Damon), written by Joel and Ethan Coen.

    The Paramount pipeline needs some serious restocking, and the job won't be easy given the uncertainty about the studio's future. Grey also needs to replace former vice chairman Rob Moore. If Viacom management can send a signal that it has the means and the will to invest in Paramount, which had been operating under tight constraints, that could help, but for now, skepticism in the industry runs high.

  • Sony

    There's no way to sugarcoat it: Sony Pictures has had a tough run that has many in the industry anticipating big changes in the months ahead.

    The Tokyo headquarters has issued a statement calling the talk of Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton's exit "nothing but baseless rumor and speculation." (Certainly there is speculation that Lynton, 57, might take a role at Snapchat, where he was an early investor.) As for studio chairman Tom Rothman, 62, the consensus is that he is exceptionally smart and hardworking but hobbled by his notorious penchant for micromanaging.

    In November, after a highly unusual revolt by a group of senior executives chafing under Rothman's leadership, Sony Corp. CEO Kaz Hirai told THR that the studio chief had his full support. But many in Hollywood are doubtful. Sony "gave a very long leash" to predecessor Amy Pascal, says one veteran producer, but "everyone loved her — stars, directors. She was a talent magnet. Tom doesn't have that goodwill."

    Sony's biggest play for 2017 is Spiderman: Homecoming, which it is making in partnership with Marvel Studios for a July 7 release. The studio is questing for more franchise material, laying a big bet on The Dark Tower with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, based on the Stephen King fantasy sci-fi novels. That will open July 28, followed on Aug. 4 by the animated The Emoji Movie. Sony's animation unit will also have a Smurfs follow-up on April 7, and a big play for the faith audience from the Affirm Films label with The Star, a telling of the nativity story from the perspective of the animals, on Nov. 10. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are among those voicing the film. On Dec. 22, Sony will try a reimagining of Jumanji, with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart.

    While no Sony executive would speak on the record, a studio spokesperson offered this statement: "We are excited about this year’s slate, which reflects the ongoing global reorientation of our business. It includes highly anticipated iconic properties like Blade Runner 2049 [Sony has international], Spider-Man: Homecoming, Resident Evil and The Dark Tower; strong family brands like the first all-animated Smurfs and Jumanji with Dwayne Johnson; and a host of cool, targeted films like those that worked so well for us in 2016, with next year’s crop led by Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting 2, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, the Broad City team’s Rock That Body with Scarlett Johansson and the long-awaited reunion of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Holmes and Watson.”

  • Disney

    It's hard to say which emotion Disney evokes more strongly in its competitors: envy or fear. They can draw some solace from the fact that 2017 is not likely to match the record-breaking performance of 2016. When asked about the year ahead, studio chief Alan Horn chose to lower expectations. "Obviously, the comparison is a little tough with huge films from all five of our major brands in 2016 versus fewer films and no Disney Animation release in 2017 — although we have two from Pixar," he says. (In 2016, Disney Animation scored with Zootopia and Moana.) "We think our upcoming slate is pretty impressive nonetheless, and our main focus continues to be making the very best films possible that stand out and compel audiences to go to the theater."

    No studio is richer in vibrant franchises than Disney, and most important, the studio has formidable executive talent overseeing them in Kevin Feige at Marvel, Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm and John Lasseter at Pixar and Disney Animation.

    Beauty and the Beast, from Disney's live-action division, looks to be the first breakout hit of the year in March, and Marvel follows in May with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. May and June bring somewhat riskier propositions with Johnny Depp reprising Jack Sparrow for the fifth time in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (which Disney hopes fares better than Depp's recent flop for the studio, Alice Through the Looking Glass), followed by Pixar's Cars 3. Within the animation community, there is a sense that Pixar is being outshone by Disney Animation and Cars 3 isn't likely to, um, drive a resurgence. Pixar will try to launch a new franchise in November with Coco, an adventure set in Mexico on the Dia de los Muertos. Marvel returns in November with Thor: Ragnarok and then, of course, December brings a little something called Star Wars: Episode VIII.

    The big-picture issues looming for the Disney film studio are whether chairman and CEO Bob Iger really will retire as scheduled in 2018 or will postpone again, and whether Horn, 73, would leave if Iger goes. (Horn declined to address those questions.)