Warner Bros. Builds Next Movie Slate Under Cloud of Uncertainty

Toby Emmerich - Photo Illustration - One Time Use Only - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images (Emmerich); Istock (Tie); Courtesy of Warner Bros (It, Godzilla, Wonder, Lego)

As parent Time Warner waits to see if it will be allowed to merge with AT&T, studio chief Toby Emmerich fills out the 2019 schedule with Mark Wahlberg's 'Six Billion Dollar Man,' Edward Norton's passion project 'Motherless Brooklyn,' a Clint Eastwood movie and the superhero pic 'Shazam.'

If all had gone as planned, Warner Bros. Pictures president and chief content officer Toby Emmerich was expecting to ring in the new year by celebrating two key developments at the film studio: a box-office recovery in 2017 and AT&T's $85.4 billion acquisition of parent company Time Warner.

Instead, on Nov. 20, executives across all divisions of the empire were jolted when the Trump administration sued to block the merger on anti-trust grounds. Now, with the cloud of uncertainty over the studio's future, Emmerich, who is approaching his one-year anniversary in the job, is aggressively filling out its 2019 slate — 2018 releases are already set — with the aim of releasing 17 to 20 movies.

To reach that goal, Warners will take over The Six Billion Dollar Man, starring Mark Wahlberg, from The Weinstein Co., and it has also recently acquired Edward Norton's passion project, Motherless Brooklyn, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's detective novel that Norton will direct, write and star in, according to sources. There will also be a Clint Eastwood movie, the superhero pic Shazam and Lights Out 2. And Warners is a fronrtunner in the race to distribute the next James Bond film internationally in November 2019.

"A month ago, nobody at Time Warner or WB expected this to be delayed," says BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield. "I'm sure it is causing consternation at the studio, but is it actually impacting what movies are being greenlighted? I haven't heard of any slate chaos."

Currently, the studio has 11 titles officially dated for 2019, on par with Disney, Paramount and Sony. But that number shoots up with the latest additions to its production schedule. Films that were already set for 2019 include The Lego Movie 2 (Feb. 8), Isn't It Romantic (Feb. 14), Godzilla 2 (March 22), Wonder Woman 2 (Nov. 1) and the Melissa McCarthy comedy Margie Claus (Nov. 15). The studio also has set a Sept. 6 date for New Line's It: Chapter 2, the follow-up to this year's horror hit, which grossed $694 million worldwide on a $34 million budget. The sequel's challenge is to keep the new budget from ballooning as the studio goes about casting older actors who'll play adult versions of the kids in the original.

On Nov. 29, Emmerich's team also announced that Shaft, a reboot starring Jessie T. Usher and Samuel L. Jackson, will bow June 14, 2019, and The Goldfinch, an adaptation of the best-selling novel, on Oct. 11. All but Lego and Godzilla are among the dozen movies that Emmerich has greenlighted along with Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Kevin Tsujihara since stepping into the top job.

Uncharacteristically for big-spending Warners, Emmerich is also focusing on smaller titles like Just Mercy, a legal drama starring Michael B. Jordan that will be released in 2019.

Among event films, The Six Billion Dollar Man could prove a key addition to Emmerich's slate. Argentinean filmmaker Damian Szifron (Wild Things) is directing the adaptation of the classic 1970s television show. Wahlberg has long been keen to star as Steve Austin, who suffers a horrible accident only to be saved by cutting-edge technology that makes him half machine. (Last month, Warners struck a deal with TWC to buy North American rights to Paddington 2, which hits theaters in early 2018).

Emmerich, who formerly ran New Line, was named to his current job in December 2016, not long after the AT&T-Time Warner merger was first announced. Thanks in large part to It, which Emmerich made when running New Line, the studio has made a notable comeback at the box office this year. On Dec. 6, Warners announced that its 2017 movies have rung up $5 billion in global ticket sales for only the second time since 2013. The studio is now guaranteed of a record year.

"It's never good to be in limbo," says MKM analyst Eric Handler of the merger hitch. "But there's nothing they can do about that, and [Time Warner chief Jeff] Bewkes still has to operate the business divisions as if the deal might fall apart."

Borys Kit contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.