I’ve been wondering about something for a while. I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing that normally passes through your brain, but then, you probably don’t immerse yourself in how show business operates like I do. Either way, it’s been on my mind, so I thought I’d share.
Does Warner Bros. really need to keep New Line around anymore? Does it even need to exist at all?
Warner has had a rough go of it lately, and even though they have been pumping out a huge amount of content, the only ones that have made any money are the intellectual properties like LEGO Batman, Kong: Skull Island, and that J.K. Rowling Fantastic Beasts thing. All the others, like Fist Fight, CHiPs, Going in Style, Ben Affleck’s passion piece Live By Night, have lost or will lose money, same as this newest release, Unforgettable, aka Someone’s Attempt to Rehabilitate Katherine Heigl’s Comatose Career. In short, the stuff they’re putting out ain’t really working, which means a change has to occur.
Toby Emmerich ran New Line since it came under the full auspices of Warner and stopped being its own studio, about a decade back. Under his stewardship, it specialized in comedy and horror, but had plenty of non-genre fare mixed in. It saw successes like the Hobbit franchise, and failures like the Rock of Ages adaptation, but for the most part, there was a consistency in the content, and because of that, the division churned out surprise hits like We’re the Millers and the Conjuring franchise.
The thing is, Emmerich’s talent was clear to those higher on the masthead, and so New Line was given special attention to keep him happy. But now that he’s in the Big Office, running Warner’s film division under CEO Kevin Tsujihara, the boutique division on the other side of the lot is rudderless and without direction. The specialness it had while being run by Emmerich is no longer there. Thus, the genuine question is begged about what comes next for both the bigger studio and its little sibling who no one seems to currently want.
On the one hand, there’s the idea that Warner should just chuck the idea of making anything other than tent poles and IP, much in the way Disney has. Disney’s big moves over the last few years — buying Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm — have turned it into an even bigger behemoth than ever, and when you mix in the new trend of remaking its animated fare into live action entertainment, it’s going to keep breaking box office records.
The thing is, though, that used to be Warner’s gig. Not so long ago, when Jeff Robinov was running things, records were being broken left and right, the money was rolling in, great filmmakers were setting up shop on the lot, and everyone was singing Kumbaya. Those days seem far away now, even quaint, with the turmoil roiling around over there and the general feeling of panic and stress running rampant in the executive suites.
If Warner makes that kind of move, to a purely tent pole-driven strategy, it’s a fairly big raised middle finger to the kinds of medium-sized and important movies the company used to make so well, but it also leaves New Line sort of betwixt and between, which is why there are genuine conversations happening inside the company about what to do with it.
Do you sell it? Do you fold it? Do you keep doing what you’re doing with it, which is essentially making movies and sending them out into theaters with mediocre marketing campaigns because the Warner people are too busy with the bigger films?
Solid questions, all, but I have a better idea, which is actually something I’ve mentioned previously in this space and am, in fact, delighted that I get to revisit it now.
Back around Thanksgiving, I wrote a piece extolling the virtues of Sony Screen Gems and Clint Culpepper, the man who runs it. It’s the one profitable sector of the Sony film division, focusing on high concept genre fare for a specific cost, basically in the $5 million to $25 million range, and just about every movie that comes out of there makes money.
At the time, I wrote that every studio in town should have a Screen Gems under their umbrella, although of course they would need someone of Culpepper’s caliber to run it, which is awfully tough to do. Still, the concept is sound, and the fact that not everyone else does this is a strike against them. Any time you’re leaving money on the table because you’re thinking bigger and eschewing the more certain, smaller profits for riskier but potentially larger ones, you’re doing bad business. Each and every studio in town, including poor, sad Paramount, would benefit from such a division, and there’s nothing you can say or do that would convince me otherwise.
Which is what brings us back to New Line. It seems to me that Warner Bros. has an opportunity here to utilize this boutique enterprise as a separate division, one focused on specifically budgeted genre fare with its own infrastructure — marketing, publicity, distribution, and so on — that, while answering to Emmerich and Tsujihara, is actually still something of an autonomous entity that will be able to put its movies on screens without getting repeatedly lost in the Warner Bros. shuffle.
This would not only improve profits, it would also allow the company to work with talented filmmakers who might not be the right fit for the bigger, tent pole fare the Big Company is so set on releasing. Additionally, it’s worth noting that both Fist Fight and Going in Style are New Line movies, and would undoubtedly have done better had they not been shunted aside by a Warner marketing department focused on other stuff.
It would be hard not to acknowledge that the movie industry is in some trouble, with the gulf between the top heavy big movies and the smaller, more interesting stuff growing ever wider, but there are continued chances arising for those in charge to stem this trend and actually create some quality content for the masses. They can do this while also, one would think, put a few coins in their corporate pockets at the same time, and doing something like this, taking a foundering, misused division and turning it into a productive one is a good first step.
Add in the fact that Warner needs a big win right now, and it sort of makes sense.
When you need to turn things around, sometimes it’s better to start small. Toby Emmerich is a smart guy. He’s being offered a unique opportunity here. He should take it.