'Alice,' 'X-Men' Messes: Studio Execs Prepare to Sweat a Stressful Summer

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

After a Memorial Day massacre, chiefs of the big six go under the microscope with huge gambles (Sony's 'Ghostbusters,' Warners' 'Tarzan'), potential pink slips and Xanax-necessitating political intrigue (hello, Paramount) on the way.

Just a few months ago, everything looked so promising. Warner Bros. chairman Kevin Tsujihara was bragging this would be the year that put the sheen back on his film machine; Sony was boasting that its new chief, Tom Rothman, would shift the company away from the era of hacked emails and horrendous box office; and Paramount's Brad Grey was hoping for a performance to make us forget Sumner Redstone's private travails. How quickly things change. Entering the crucial summer months, when majors typically earn some 40 percent of their annual theatrical revenue, half of Hollywood is hoping just to hang in there. The town appears to be split among three clear winners (with strong franchises and the means to exploit them) and everyone else. Don't call any of them losers yet, but don't bet your house on them either.


The studio (or at least a stake in it) is for sale. Its frail owner, Redstone, is publicly feuding with the CEO of parent company Viacom, Philippe Dauman. Meanwhile, Paramount CEO Grey and vice chair Rob Moore have several big-budget bets on the summer schedule. Industry observers were shocked when the studio failed to show footage from one of them, Star Trek Beyond (July 22), at April's CinemaCon. (Producer J.J. Abrams attributed it to ongoing work on the picture, which instead was previewed in May at a carefully choreographed fan event.) Now the uncertainty has migrated to the sword-and-sandals remake Ben-Hur (Aug. 19), from Russian helmer Timur Bekmambetov, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (June 3), a joint venture with MGM. "Paramount has a lot riding on Turtles and Star Trek Beyond," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock. "They would ideally like to pump infinite sequels out of these properties. And then there's Ben-Hur. God help them." And God help Dauman, too. If by some miracle he still is running the company on Labor Day, he'll hope to use summer film success as ammunition in his battle with Sumner's daughter, Shari Redstone. With so much turmoil, morale at Paramount is low, and Dauman's May 24 all-hands email attempting to calm nerves had the opposite effect on many. Employees know that the corporate drama will impact whether the studio is sold or gets an outside investor, possibly from China. And if the summer movies flop, says one studio insider, "Look for everyone to get whacked."


Greg Silverman had better have a thick hide. The studio's president of creative development and worldwide production has been in the crosshairs for the past year, with endless speculation about his status, as the once-vaunted studio goes through one of the rockiest phases in its recent history. That speculation likely will intensify unless things pick up this summer. Few insiders view The Legend of Tarzan (July 1) as a surefire hit, though New Line's The Conjuring 2 (June 10) and the DC villain team-up Suicide Squad (Aug. 5) seem hopeful, despite extensive reshoots performed on the latter. "Suicide Squad looks like it's going to do very, very well," argues media analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. "The problem is, Warners has to deal with Tarzan first. I don't know anybody who's excited about [that]." As for the talked-about Dwayne Johnson-Kevin Hart comedy Central Intelligence (June 17), "New Line's Toby Emmerich gets credit for that," says one source. The WB triumverate of Silverman, Emmerich and marketing and distribution chief Sue Kroll seem like they have been under the microscope since assuming their current roles in 2013, with the most pressing matter being the future of Warners' DC Comics movies. Producer Charles Roven — having worked on each DC movie since 2005's Batman Begins — is being transitioned into a different role after the relative disappointment of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice; Ben Affleck is taking on more responsibility for the Batman movies; and Jon Berg and Geoff Johns have been promoted to run a new unit called DC Films. But what about Zack Snyder, who actually directed and produced BvS and is now at work on two Justice League movies? Will he ultimately be edged aside? In addition, Warners CEO Tsujihara is preparing for his biggest bet of all: that November's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them can extend the Harry Potter franchise with a story not based on the beloved books. For Warners, Beasts has to work.


Sony reps are eager to spread the word that studio chairman Rothman's slate of films doesn't appear until the fall, with such releases as Passengers (starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt), The Magnificent Seven and The Dark Tower. Meanwhile, reports abound that the atmosphere at the studio is bleak amid rumors that its Japanese owners might want to unload it. (Hello, Wanda?) The upbeat debut of the $70 million Angry Birds (financed by game-maker Rovio) may help relieve some of that tension, but there's still speculation about further executive changes, with some questioning whether well-liked movie group president Doug Belgrad is a good fit with Rothman. Outsiders will be looking to the $150 million-budget Ghostbusters (July 15) to see if Sony — and marketing/distribution chief Josh Greenstein, who'll have a challenge getting men to see the female-fronted reboot — has its act together enough to knock the picture out of the park. "Not only does Sony need Ghostbusters to be an otherworldly hit, they need the property to spawn a trilogy, if not become a full-on phenomenon," says Bock. "Otherwise, it's back to square one."


Remember all that talk about production chief Emma Watts being on the way out after Stacey Snider was brought in as co-chairman in 2014? Fuggedaboutit. Watts scored a huge hit with this spring's Deadpool. The $58 million movie she pushed when others had doubts has grossed $763.2 million worldwide, and she has studio chairman Jim Gianopulos' ear. With a promising summer, staff changes look unlikely, though it's unclear, moving forward, what Snider's portfolio will be. "Independence Day: Resurgence [in theaters June 24] is going to work," predicts one insider. "X-Men: Apocalypse [which grossed $65.3 million for the three-day weekend, putting its four-day holiday gross at an estimated $80 million] is going to be slightly softer than they might like, but it should be fine. And they have a raunchy comedy, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates [starring Zac Efron, out July 8], that looks like a sleeper." That optimistic forecast comes too late to save the hundreds of staffers who recently were laid off across Fox's film and TV units.


Universal may look weak this year compared to last, but after its record-breaking 2015 performance, what else could anyone expect? The studio looks likely to get a mega-lift with its animated The Secret Life of Pets (July 8), from Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment, and the latest in the Jason Bourne franchise (July 29), which sees Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass return. Behind the scenes, studio chairman Donna Langley and her boss, Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment, will have to figure out how to handle a complicated merger of their animation assets, now that parent NBCUniversal has bought DreamWorks Animation and will entrust it to Meledandri; and they'll also have to sort out how to smooth their rocky deal with Legendary Entertainment, whose $160 million Warcraft (June 10) "could be problematic in much of the world," says Handler.


Last year, a Disney executive was ruminating about what made his bosses different. "They're not looking for a movie that earns $100 million or even $200 million," he said. "They're looking at $1 billion each time." With a record $4 billion at the global box office so far this year, his bosses might just get their wish. Captain America: Civil War has already raced past the $1 billion mark globally, the first 2016 release to hit that milestone, while Zootopia ($984.2 million) and The Jungle Book ($863.2 million) are smash successes. "Think about it — what other studio is looking to go five for five this summer?" said Bock, speaking somewhat prematurely before the weekend box-office results. "That's all-star-level ability." Alice Through the Looking Glass' disastrous U.S. debut (the movie grossed $27 million over the three-day weekend for an estimated $34.2 million four-day debut) will spoil that streak, but Pixar's Finding Dory (June 17), Steven Spielberg's The BFG (July 1) and a live-action Pete's Dragon (Aug. 12) likely will be solid hits. All that looked promising enough for Disney CEO Bob Iger to complain to analysts in a May 10 earnings call that they ignored his film success and focused too much on problems at ESPN. "I am actually kind of surprised that, after almost 45 minutes of questioning, we didn't get one question about our studio," he said. Credit Alan Horn, whose deft management of Marvel (under Kevin Feige), Pixar/Disney (John Lasseter) and Lucasfilm (Kathleen Kennedy) is vindication after he was dumped by Warner Bros. Now, after talk that Horn would retire with his boss Iger in 2018, nobody wants him to leave, and his team looks as safe as any in the business. "They're bulletproof," says one producer. "Alan doesn't want to go anywhere, and he and Iger have a nice dynamic. You're not going to destabilize that when you're trying to solve the bigger issue of who's going to replace the man at the top."

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.