Warner Bros. Faces 'Tarzan' Trouble as Director Is Double-Booked

Tarzan Comp - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest; AP Images; Newscom

Tarzan Comp - H 2015

Still reeling from the epic flop 'Pan,' the studio faces issues with helmer David Yates also focusing on J.K. Rowling's 'Fantastic Beasts' even as the $180 million ape-man saga remains unfinished.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Still tallying its staggering loss on Pan, Warner Bros. is said to be facing an unusual challenge on its next mega-budgeted fantasy reboot: Tarzan. With the film still needing considerable work before its July 1 release date, director David Yates has started shooting his next Warners project, J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Warners sources say the move from Tarzan to Beasts always was planned. "While it's somewhat unusual, we are extremely comfortable with the production timelines, which were set in advance, and have total confidence in the skill of David Yates — who is a four-time Harry Potter director — to deliver both of these pictures," says a Warners executive (Yates declined to comment).

But one source involved with the project is concerned that Tarzan, with a budget of around $180 million and packed with visual effects, isn't getting the attention it needs. "The schedule of the J.K. Rowling movie got in the way of an appropriate postproduction schedule on Tarzan," says this person. "Why would you ever crowd a director into starting a movie before his other movie is properly finished?"

Sources say early test screenings of Tarzan, an adventure starring Alexander Skarsgard of HBO's True Blood as the vine-swinger and Margot Robbie as Jane, did not go well. But studio sources say the film is not finished and it's routine for movies to be revised and improved. And a Warners insider notes that both Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood have gone into preproduction on projects before their previous film is finished, though none has been as expensive, complicated or challenged as Tarzan appears to be.

Yates began shooting Beasts, starring Eddie Redmayne and a large ensemble cast, in August, and a studio source says he is focused on that film during the week while reviewing edits of Tarzan on weekends. Sources say if that process proves too cumbersome to get the movie ready in time, Warners could push the film off its summer release date. Warners has Guy Ritchie's Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur on July 22 and the DC Comics team-up Suicide Squad on Aug. 5, so its schedule is crowded, and the studio has bumped a July release each of the past two summers, Jupiter Ascending and Pan.

The studio, long the gold standard in Hollywood, is in the midst of a protracted bad run; pricey flops this year include Jupiter, which was relocated to February, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which was released in August. Pan, which cost $150 to make and opened to just $15.3 million domestic, could lead to a loss of $130 million to $150 million, say analysts. In that context, especially, the Tarzan situation has raised eyebrows. Veteran producers and executives not involved with the project say they can't remember a studio pulling a director off one unfinished big-budget live-action movie to start another. But Beasts — at least as expensive as Tarzan and probably more so — has to make its own release date in November 2016.

Yates, 51, has been an extremely valuable asset to Warners as the director of four Harry Potter movies that collectively grossed more than $4 billion worldwide. Securing author Rowling's commitment for Beasts was a coup for Warners CEO Kevin Tsujihara in September 2013, just a few months after the executive — who lacked experience in film or television — took over the studio. A trilogy based on the textbook mentioned in the Harry Potter series is dated for 2016, 2018 and 2020.

"Notwithstanding that Tarzan isn't a cheap movie, the [Beasts] series is clearly one of Kevin's three planks in his platform," along with Lego and DC Comics, says a source close to the studio. "At Warner Bros. right now, anything pales in comparison to those three silos."

One insider notes that Tarzan also has suffered the loss of producer Jerry Weintraub, who died unexpectedly July 6: "If there was a strong independent producer on the movie, this could have been managed better." And a high-level executive at another studio expresses doubt about the viability of the Tarzan property and casting a relative unknown, Skarsgard, as the lead, saying, "You shouldn't make that movie without an actor you're dying to see in the part."

Wall Street analyst Harold Vogel says he wouldn't judge any film before its release but has concerns about the Warners slate in general. "The whole strategy over the last two years has been to emulate Disney and Marvel," he says. "It shows a possible exhaustion of ideas." He points to the studio's attempt to invigorate DC, which begins in earnest with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (March 25), as well as making such fantasy fare as Pan, Tarzan, King Arthur and a live-action Jungle Book set for 2017, more than a year after Disney's Jon Favreau-directed version of the Rudyard Kipling novel opens. Still, Vogel says he doesn't expect the studio's issues to affect Time Warner's stock price at this point.

Richard Greenfield of BTIG also says the critical question for Warners is the execution when it comes to DC. "They have laid out a multiyear strategy pinned to DC Comics spanning movies, TV, video games and [merchandise]," he says. "In turn, the success of Batman v. Superman and [the CBS series] Supergirl are of paramount importance."

Clearly, Warners insiders are hopeful that Batman v. Superman and Beasts will be major triumphs in the months ahead. "When things aren't working, everybody seems stupid," says a studio insider. "And when it works, they all seem like geniuses."