Warner Bros. Is Contemplating Some Interesting Moves, But Are They the Right Ones?

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Warner Bros LotPBS

As previously mentioned in this space and elsewhere, Toby Emmerich has moved from the head of New Line to the head of Warner Bros. Pictures, and with his move has come the thinking that maybe Warner should change the way it does business, and I’m torn.

Some of the change seems good, some less so, and that’s where my consternation arises. On the one hand, he’s interested in slimming budgets and perhaps returning to some of the mid-range films that the studios have, for the most part, stopped making. That means a potential return of romantic comedies, conventional thrillers and dramas, even possibly Westerns. It also means relief from the Tent Pole Fatigue that is slowly but surely strangling the very industry that has become addicted to it.

On the other hand, because it wants to continue to hold creative control over its films, it is going to mostly avoid working with “auteur directors” who might come with final cut privileges. There would be notable exceptions to this rule, of course — longtime Warner stalwarts Clint Eastwood and Christopher Nolan, to name two — but generally speaking, the ability for a director to come into Warner and call his or her shots won’t be there.

Further confusing this mix is the knowledge that, these days, the list of directors who come with final cut as part of the package is an extremely short one, so the question can reasonably asked, “Why is this a big deal? Or, for that matter, any deal at all?”

For one thing, Emmerich believes that the studio can still attract A-list filmmakers despite this new mandate, which may or may not be wishful thinking, as it probably depends on the filmmaker and the project. Emmerich just green lit his first film since taking over, an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s award-winning novel, The Goldfinch, to be directed by Brooklyn helmer John Crowley. That has both prestige and awards potential written all over it and is the kind of picture that Warner used to make back in the days before Major Franchises and Comic Book Movies. Movies like Casablanca, and Bonnie and Clyde, and The Exorcist, and Goodfellas, and Unforgiven, not to mention Stanley Kubrick’s final five films (A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut), all of which were released under the Warner logo.

CasablancaWarner Bros. Pictures

That’s just scratching the surface. I could fill a whole column with just a fraction of the great movies to come out of that studio, from just a few of the greatest filmmakers of the medium, and it would make even the most skeptical observer take a step back and say, as Keanu Reeves’ Neo would, “Whoa.”

(From The Matrix, which is another Warner Bros. film, made by a pair of visionary filmmakers in The Wachowskis who, incidentally, also had final cut.)

I like Emmerich quite a bit, and I think he understands the legacy to which he is now somewhat beholden. It would appear that the interest in moving back into certain genres — and moving forward with films like the one about Michael Brown’s murder and the resulting unrest in Ferguson, Missouri — that had recently been abandoned is a nod to that. In a Hollywood Reporter story about Emmerich’s mission moving forward, an executive with ties to the studios is quoted as saying, “They’re not going to make a movie like The Judge with Robert Downey Jr. for $60 million. For $35 million — maybe.”

See, I’m okay with that, because it’s sort of what I’ve been talking about for a long time, now. Why spend more money than you have to on a movie that might not have the same financial upside as one with superheroes in it? This, mind you, while still committing to make that same movie without the superheroes, so as to appeal to a different audience who might not care for the spandex set? You can still make money off these smaller movies, and if you’re spending less on them, the point at which the film enters the black happens much sooner.

If we’re using The Judge has an example, I have to concur that I have no idea how anyone could have spent $60 million on that film. It could have come in for a third of that, easily, and when you consider that it made $84 million worldwide, that lower number would have meant profitability. A solid single. Mix enough of those in with a few doubles, and a couple of those big, Tent Pole home runs, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a year, especially when you add in the fact that Warner regularly releases the most movies of any studio, in the range of 18 to 22 per year.

Jupiter AscendingWarner Bros. Pictures

Box office grosses and market share are important, yes, but actually turning a profit is infinitely more so. As obvious as that fact may seem, it is often lost on those running the film divisions of these major corporations that are increasingly taking over all of our entertainment options.

But let’s return to this whole idea of avoiding most final cut directors, because that’s sort of how we got here in the first place. The idea is kind of preposterous, isn’t it? A bit of a “cut off your nose to spite your face” thing? Again, the list is already a short one, and there are those who have had the privilege and lost it (see, once more, The Wachowskis and their Jupiter Ascending fiasco), but if you’re good enough — and successful enough — to be on the list in the first place, wouldn’t that, by definition, make you attractive to a studio? Wouldn’t there be a fair amount of upside to taking on said director’s project with, one would think, a variety of reasons to do so?

And it’s not like one of these filmmakers would be writing their own ticket. A studio can put all kinds of limits on a film, especially when it comes to the budget. That certainly might scare some directors, but would only be an enticement to others, and Emmerich, in his position running one of the biggest studios in the world, still would hold a fair amount of power in any such scenario.

There is, of course, a wild card here, in that said director could game the system and hold up postproduction because of his or her final cut privileges, essentially holding the studio hostage because, contractually, it’s sort of stuck. But even with that possibility — something I like to think is a rarity among professionals on this level, and even if one of them does it, one would think said studio would not offer them the privilege again — the decision sort of has me befuddled.

Any studio these days needs anything it can get, in regard to both profit and prestige. Maybe I’m missing something, but making this kind of decision — a decision that feels very much like it was conceived in a vacuum — seems like it could seriously detract from both.


Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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