I think it’s safe to say that you know things aren’t going your way when you release a film that does $872 million worldwide and it’s considered a major disappointment, but that not only describes the fortunes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it also pretty much captures Warner Bros.’ year in a nutshell.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that no other movie in history has grossed so much and yet done so poorly. BvS:DoJ is the highest grossing movie in Warner Bros. history that didn’t include hobbits, child wizards, or Christopher Nolan’s ever shifting vision of Gotham City, and yet it has the folks in the executive suites on Warner Boulevard in such a tizzy about the future of its DC Comics Cinematic Universe that it has rejiggered the order of things. Reassigned is Charles Roven, promoted are Geoff Johns and Jon Berg, and elevated to executive producer on the two-part, half a billion dollar Justice League epic (which now might only be a single, $250 million film) is Ben Affleck, who is thusly entrusted to make sure Zack Snyder doesn’t muck things up any worse than he already has with his first two DCCU outings.
Warner is so nervous about it, in fact, that it conducted a rare, bizarre, vaguely creepy “everything’s just fine over here, so no need to be concerned” press tour of the in-production flick. Snyder and his wife/producing partner Deborah both talked about the poor reaction to BvS:DoJ, what they learned from it, and how they’ve changed Justice League in that film’s wake.
It was a particularly unusual step the studio took, but it’s been that kind of year. Halfway through it, in fact, and Warner is on pace to have its worst year in a decade.
But do not yet abandon hope, all ye who enter. The calendar still holds some possibility that 2016 won’t be a total disaster.
Let’s back up a second. Through the first six months of the year, the studio has released nine movies, with only BvS:DoJ clearing the $100 million mark (though The Conjuring 2 almost certainly will in the next couple weeks), for a grand total of $725 million at the domestic box office, and around $2 billion global. Unlike some other studios, the carryovers from 2015 are mostly negligible, as in under $30 million, so that number is pretty solid.
Among those nine movies are several disappointments, including Midnight Special, Keanu, and The Nice Guys, while Me Before You, How To Be Single and, most recently, Central Intelligence have all been pleasant surprises, and the studio’s two sequels, Barbershop: The Next Cut and that second Conjuring flick, have both performed about as well as hoped. That’s not a great winning percentage, but then again, in the current Hollywood status quo, you only need a couple of really big hits to make your whole year.
With that in mind, take one look at the studio’s slate for the rest of 2016 and of the nine total films scheduled for release before Christmas, there are at least a couple of brilliant lights on the horizon, as well as a couple of potential clunkers.
Good stuff first: whatever the studio did wrong with BvS:DoJ, it’s doing right with Suicide Squad, which looks like A) a huge amount of fun (as opposed to the depressing morbidity of the earlier film) and, B) a movie that could very well be that late summer smash that has become an annual event lately. Recent examples include Straight Outta Compton, Guardians of the Galaxy and We’re the Millers, and there is not one single good reason why the next DC Cinematic Universe movie shouldn’t be the enormous hit that Warner was expecting BvS:DoJ to be.
Then, flash forward three months, and you have Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, and if J.K. Rowling’s latest opus doesn’t completely slay everyone and everything at the box office, then up is down, day is night, and Warner is in some serious trouble.
Which is a solid segue into the bad stuff. For one thing, two of the other three summer films — The Legend of Tarzan and War Dogs — are not tracking all that well, while the third, Lights Out, is a small horror movie that should make back its $5 million budget opening weekend, but not much more.
That leaves four other movies, and one of those is the animated Storks, the second film from the new Warner Animation Group, hitting theaters at the end of September in a slot that has been very successful for animated films of late. Hotel Transylvania 2, The Boxtrolls, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 all opened on that weekend over the past three years and all ended up doing solid business.
The last three are the kinds of movies that the studio has always put out, but you don’t see nearly as much of anymore. There’s the Clint Eastwood-directed, Tom Hanks-starring Sully the week after Labor Day, the Affleck-led thriller The Accountant in October, and then the Will Smith-led New Line drama Collateral Beauty the week before Christmas. True, that last one is opening against Rogue One, but counter programming worked rather well on that date for Sisters last year, thank you very much, so there’s reason for hope there, as well.
If, at the very least, Suicide Squad and Fantastic Beasts end up being the superstar performers the studio is hoping for, that’s a potential $600-700 million domestic and upwards of $2B global from just a pair of films, and that goes a long way toward salvaging a company’s year. (And don’t laugh, because if you think those numbers aren’t realistic, I’ll point you to Disney and the combination of Captain America: Civil War and Zootopia, which put up exactly those totals.)
Right now, the battle for year end honors is for second place, because Disney has pretty much lapped the field. Thanks to Deadpool and the carryover numbers from The Revenant, 20th Century Fox has a head start on the WB, but a lot can happen in six months. Warner isn’t going to break its own record of $2.1B, set in 2009 and an all-time record until Universal shattered it last year, but it could clear $1.6B or $1.7B and make a serious run to overtake Fox.
Next year is a bit more curious. A couple weeks ago, Warner announced that it was moving Live By Night, Affleck’s next directorial effort, nine months forward, from October and prime awards season, to the second week of January. Moving anything to January is never a good thing, and Warner’s relationship with Affleck is critical, so it’s doubly perplexing. Although, having said that, I suppose there’s a chance it could slip the movie into a late-December qualifying run for awards season, not to mention the fact that Universal does have the Tom Cruise-led Mena coming out around the same time, so maybe the conventional thinking has changed and no one bothered to tell me. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Beyond that, there is a LEGO Batman movie (although, the highly anticipated sequel to the first film has now been pushed back to 2019, yet another dark mark on the ledger), two DCCU films, at least three high profile sequels, a couple of remakes, a new potential franchise-starter in Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur, and the Nolan-directed WWII epic, Dunkirk, all set for 2017. It will put out its usual quota of 18-22 films and expect to contend for the top spot, as it does every year. But here’s the thing.
The last time Warner Bros. finished atop the year-end scoreboard was 2013, the same year Kevin Tsujihara took over as CEO and Jeffrey Robinov departed as the head of the film division. The company did $1.863B domestic that year, with a 16.2 percent market share, but that was for a slate that Robinov put together. Now, Robinov is gone, busily getting his Studio 8 off the ground, while Tsujihara oversees a studio struggling to attain those numbers, something it hasn’t done since his promotion. In fact, it has finished in third place each of the last two years, the same position it currently holds, midway through 2016.
Which means, if he’s not on the clock now, he probably will be soon.
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Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN Insider.