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This story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As DC Entertainment’s president, Diane Nelson occupies a rarefied position in the geek universe. But Nelson is no comic geek, and despite being an eight-time Comic-Con veteran — thanks to her former roles as brand manager of Harry Potter and president of direct-to-home video division Warner Premiere — she has a love-hate relationship with the gathering in San Diego, taking place this year from July 17 to 21.
“Wednesday and Thursday can be nice because you can walk,” she notes. “But the crush of people is just crazy.” Some of them will be attending DC’s 20-some-odd panels, while a lucky few will hit its invite-only party on Friday, July 19. (Warner Bros. won’t confirm that it will announce Man of Steel 2, but with director Zack Snyder and star Henry Cavill slated to attend, anything’s possible.)
When the Syracuse University graduate took over DC in 2009, superhero movies already were big business, but the comics industry was in a free fall. During the early 1990s, a best-selling monthly comic could sell upward of 1 million copies, but in less than 20 years, sales had eroded to the point where even Batman couldn’t move more than 55,000 issues. (Today, Batman sales are about 150,000 an issue.) But DC’s relaunch of its entire comic book universe — overseen by Nelson, 46, and carried out by DC’s co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan Didio — drew big media attention and a spike in sales.
DC is even more valuable as a warehouse of intellectual property, with thousands of characters in its stable. Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy brought in $2.4 billion for Warners, with June’s Man of Steel adding $592 million to date and Arrow getting a second season on The CW. Kevin Tsujihara, the new Warner Bros. CEO, to whom Nelson reports, will look toward the DC library for more Dark Knights and Man of Steels and fewer Green Lanterns and Jonah Hexes.
Sitting down with THR in her Burbank office from which she oversees 2,200 staffers, the Newport, R.I., native — who lives in Brentwood with her husband, children’s author Peter Nelson, and two kids and is active with charities, including DC’s We Can Be Heroes, which has raised more than $2 million for African relief — spilled on how her job will change with the ouster of Warners movie honcho Jeff Robinov, the ways DC’s movie plan differs from Marvel’s and Harry Potter comics.
The Hollywood Reporter: Tsujihara is the new boss, and Robinov is no longer at Warner Bros. How does that affect your job?
Diane Nelson: I can’t comment on Jeff Robinov not being here, but I can say it is the most optimistic time for me professionally, and for the company, DC and Warner Bros., in the 17 years since I’ve been here. I say that for a number of reasons. One is Kevin. He is someone I’ve worked closely with for the whole time I’ve been at the studio. Kevin has known as much about what we’ve done with DC as anyone in the studio, and he’s actively worked to support us. So now that I’m working solely for him, reporting to him, I think it’s just the greatest time ever. DC is one of his biggest priorities. I think you’re going to see the growth potential for the studio being very much rooted in what we do with DC. We have the potential to do an even more aggressive job on the film slate, but not just in relation to the Justice League characters; not just for film but for television.
THR: Why have things been so slow for DC movies? Especially compared to Marvel.
Nelson: I don’t know that they’ve been so slow. I think there’s been a very concerted strategy that was led by Jeff about working with the best filmmakers in the business to execute their vision of the right movies for the right properties. That may mean that we’re a little more focused or particular about which characters come on the screen as opposed to what Marvel’s done so brilliantly. And I do give them tremendous credit with what they’re doing with their slate, but our strategy has been different from that. I think more “precise” is the word. It’s a specific vision from a specific filmmaker rather than a full slate.
THR: Why did Man of Steel work?
Nelson: I think Chris [Nolan] and Zack really did give fans what they felt on some level they didn’t get at least partially in the last Superman film. People wanted to see Superman kicking ass. And he does in this movie. He does a lot of other great things — Henry [Cavill] brings the character to life so beautifully, and the dynamic between Clark and Lois is there, but people wanted to see Superman being Superman.
THR: And how do you contrast that with the disappointing results of Green Lantern?
Nelson: That balance of what matters wasn’t quite right on Green Lantern. I know everyone involved with the project wanted it to work as much as every one involved with Man of Steel wanted it to work. In the debate of art versus science, sometimes the mix isn’t just right. But we will find some other way to bring that character to the screen.
THR: I guess you can’t say anything about plans for Justice League or Man of Steel 2?
Nelson: I know you have to ask. I can’t confirm, sorry. I would love to be able to give you that, but I can’t. I can say the success of Man of Steel has been incredibly great for our company, the studio, Warner Pictures, DC, and it obviously just reinforces the potential of that universe just moving forward.
THR: If it were up to you, what five characters or titles would you like to see on the screen?
Nelson: Sandman is right on top. I think it could be as rich as the Harry Potter universe. Fables. Metal Men. Justice League. And yes, I’m going to say it: Aquaman.
THR: There have been a few attempts at bringing Wonder Woman to the screen — the Joss Whedon feature that was canceled in 2007, David E. Kelley’s 2011 TV pilot — but nothing has stuck.
Nelson: We have to get her right, we have to. She is such an icon for both genders and all ages and for people who love the original TV show and people who read the comics now. I think one of the biggest challenges at the company is getting that right on any size screen. The reasons why are probably pretty subjective: She doesn’t have the single, clear, compelling story that everyone knows and recognizes. There are lots of facets to Wonder Woman, and I think the key is, how do you get the right facet for that right medium? What you do in TV has to be different than what you do in features. She has been, since I started, one of the top three priorities for DC and for Warner Bros. We are still trying right now, but she’s tricky.
THR: You are bringing back, or re-energizing, DC’s creator-owned Vertigo comics line — which gave us Sandman, Preacher and Fables — after a long decline. One reason for the decline was that other publishers offered creators better contracts when it came to media rights. Has that changed?
Nelson: I can’t comment on deals. But I do believe we recognize that we have to take certain steps — that maybe we didn’t in the past — to make sure that Vertigo is a place where creators feel they can bring a property and have a good chance of it getting seen, prioritized, appreciated and hopefully developed into other media. We need to make sure that they are getting access to New Line and Warner Bros. Pictures and Warner TV and Warner Horizon. And that those parts of the studio understand that Vertigo is an incubator of the best talent in our business.
THR: Where do you see DC in 10 years, screenwise?
Nelson: We don’t want to oversaturate with superheroes, and DC is much more than superheroes. If we do our jobs as well as I think we can among our partners within Warner Bros., there is no reason why there wouldn’t be multiple slots across every one of our production businesses that is populated by DC Entertainment properties. We know that within this building, but part of our job is getting consumers to understand that there is more breadth and depth to DC beyond those primary DC characters. Our job has to be, let’s have great success with Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Aquaman but then build on that to expand the universe for the broad populace.
THR: How do you value the fan community’s opinions?
Nelson: I think it’s incredibly important to know it, be in touch with it, respect it. That said, I don’t believe we should take fan feedback into the direct creative process. I am a believer that what Warner Bros. does, what DC Entertainment does, is to be in the business of creating professional storytelling. There’s a craft to it, honed by storytellers across each medium. And we have to trust them and give them freedom and latitude. You can’t do it by committee. And you would be paralyzed if you tried to take in the feedback we get every day from fans that care desperately. On one hand it matters, and I’m always conscious of it, but you have to consciously turn it off because it will cripple the creative process.
THR: Three words: Harry Potter comics?
Nelson: (Laughs.) I. Don’t. Think. So. How many words is that? J.K. Rowling controls the publishing rights, and I’ve not heard her express a desire to do it. If she ever wants to, we’re here for her.
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