By Mike Fleming Jr, Peter White, Anthony D'Alessandro
If there was one thing that the turbulent week at Warner Bros. Discovery displayed, it’s just how quickly conventional wisdom can change from one regime to the next, when each is trying to gin up the stock price for Wall Street.
WBD chief David Zaslav was busy. On the eve of a rumored layoff bloodbath across the company to cut at least $3 billion of debt off the books, there was the abrupt and cruel cancelation of Batgirl and the HBO Max animated feature Scoob! with the latter message delivered while the co-directors were in Morocco as one of them was getting married.
There has also been rampant speculation there may be further trims of the HBO Max development slate of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot after Abrams’ big-ticket series Demimonde was scrapped in one of the new regime’s first moves. It’s clear that current DC Films head Walter Hamada is hanging by a spider web (sorry, wrong superhero franchise) as Zaslav enlisted former Disney chief Alan Horn to try and find a Kevin Feige to replicate the success that the Marvel superhero factory had at that studio.
All this is evidence of just how serious Zaslav is in turning things around. Wall Street was less than impressed, with the stock price dropping 16% after Zas delivered a weak short-term forecast and promised to get under the hood and overhaul.
Here is what’s fascinating to anyone who has watched that studio since the acquisition by AT&T, when John Stankey, Jason Kilar, Ann Sarnoff, Bob Greenblatt, and Toby Emmerich were going to make WarnerMedia a worthy rival to the streaming juggernauts Netflix and Disney by leaning in and creating content for HBO Max. None of those people hold those positions anymore, as AT&T bolted after discovering how incompatible the high cost of content creation was to its high debt load. Today’s grand solution is tomorrow’s misfire that needs to be repaired.
The scrapping of Batgirl and Scoob! was triggered by a “purchase accounting” loophole that created more favorable financials in killing two completed movies Zaslav didn’t really care about or like. The Dish has heard that participants with backend buyout deals will get paid on those eventually. But it is small solace to the creatives including a Scoob! team that invested four years into the movie. It is not a good signal to the creative community, coming after the studio tried currying favor with the money crowd by providing access to corporate thinking to the Wall Street Journal that elicited the admonition that even sacred cows like Clint Eastwood would not get a free pass anymore. Sure, Eastwood is 92 and how many future films can he possibly make, is one shortsighted way to look at it. The other is that Eastwood is beloved on the Warner Bros lot, whose face would be on a WB Mount Rushmore if the studio had one and who, aside from making blockbusters like American Sniper, continues at his advanced age to direct like he’s double parked. And who always finishes on time and on budget.
Zaslav wants to put forth a ‘there’s a new sheriff in town’ vibe, but moves like these send the same signal to filmmakers that Kilar did when, without telling anyone, put the entire 2021 Warner Bros theatrical slate on HBO Max day and date with their pandemic-hobbled theatrical releases. He instructed his creative executives to say nothing and they listened, undercutting their relationships. To many, the Kilar message was: screw talent. Well, that was the message until it was clear a revolt was underway, with the studio patching the sore feelings of stars, directors and their reps by making good on back ends in a damage control move that cost as high as $200 million. But Warner Bros probably permanently lost the patronage of Christopher Nolan, who never had a Warner Bros deal but made The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Dunkirk and Tenet there. Warner Bros was not a serious player for Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer, and we have to assume Nolan will make Universal his new home and won’t leave Donna Langley.
Aside from the fact that Paramount waited to release Top Gun: Maverick until the pandemic passed and was rewarded by a $1.3B global gross while most of the WB slate was quickly forgotten, what is troubling about the Kilar move now is that for all the tub-thumping he did about increasing HBO Max monthly subscription fees, Zaslav just made it clear that original feature content for the streaming service isn’t his priority.
We are in a moment when consumers are reevaluating the need to pay monthly subscription fees to Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, Peacock, Paramount+ and Disney+. Why, after Kilar sacrificed the theatrical slate with all its production costs and neutered theatrical grosses, would it be wise to now let everyone know that HBO Max — or whatever they wind up calling it – will largely be comprised of retreads and Discovery content as originals are given lower priority?
This is sure to be as exciting a ride as the short-lived AT&T chapter, but here are a few suggestions for Zas to not cater to the compulsion to make rash decisions to please the fickle Wall Street crowd. A better option might be to remember that creative greatness comes from risk taking, patience, and staying the course. And those who’ve done those things ought to be empowered.
Ever since HBO axed Abrams’ ambitious sci-fi drama Demimonde, his first solo original creation since Alias, in June, Hollywood has been abuzz about what the merger of Warner Bros. and Discovery means for him and his Bad Robot business at the combined company. Word is that Zaslav wants to trim costs on that rich deal or at least get more output for its money.
How many of the multitude of projects that he has in development at HBO Max will see the light of day? Will he take any of his androids elsewhere? Following the Demimonde decision, there has been a lot of chatter that some portions of Abrams’ HBO Max development slate are vulnerable.
The Bad Robot/HBO Max rumors have been refuted by sources close to both Bad Robot and Warner Bros. Discovery, but it’s clear the relationship with the studio that Abrams has been with, on the TV side at least, since 2006, is increasingly coming under the microscope.
WBD bosses are understood to believe that the multi-million-dollar megadeal that Abrams signed in 2019 has been mismanaged and there is frustration that the Lost co-creator hasn’t delivered anything significant on either the TV side or film side since signing that pact.
WBD President and CEO David Zaslav spent time with Abrams before the close of the merger earlier this year and is a fan. The issue is that not enough of his creations have been realized. Part of this is down to timing, some of it is down to money. On the feature side, Abrams is coming off a major deal at Paramount, where he launched Cloverfield, Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. The rub: he is still involved in these franchises, particularly with another Cloverfield movie in the works and a Star Trek sequel poised to start production later this year.
Abrams does have a number of feature films in the works at WBD: they include a Superman film that Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing, supernatural revenge-western The Pinkerton, a project based on Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, a DC movie based around Zatanna that Emerald Fennell writing and a live-action Hot Wheels live-action movie. But Warner Bros. Pictures is facing some of the same issues that Paramount faced when Abrams was directing Star Wars films for Disney.
As for Abrams’ television slate, the decision on Demimonde came down to budget. Bad Robot wanted to stay firm on the Danielle Deadwyler-fronted series’ budget of around $240M while Warner Bros. Television and HBO were looking to rein in costs. This wasn’t the first Abrams’ series to be canned at the company. HBO Max opted not to proceed with The Shining spinoff Overlook, which was part of the inaugural Bad Robot slate at the streamer, last August.
There are now question marks over other Bad Robot projects at the streamer.
Projects in development include a series based on DC Comics’ Madame X with Angela Robinson and a television adaptation of Glennon Doyle’s best-selling memoir Untamed. Thriller Subject To Change, created by Abrams with Jennifer Yale set as showrunner, which was handed a series order by HBO Max in February 2021, has gone somewhat quiet.
One HBO Max project that sources point to as being on solid ground and moving along is Constantine, a darker reboot of the DC Comics character from British writer Guy Bolton. The project is set around a diverse lead, rather than the one played by Matt Ryan in the 2014 NBC series and The CW’s Arrowverse, or the 2005 Keanu Reeves feature film.
Duster, which is co-written by Abrams and LaToya Morgan and follows a getaway driver in the 1970s Southwest, also has a series order and is believed to be active.
Elsewhere, Abrams and Bad Robot has a number of projects, all produced in association with Warner Bros. Television, set up at other networks and streamers. A series based on Scott Turow’s book Presumed Innocent, with David E. Kelley, which was previously turned into a feature film with Harrison Ford, received a series order at Apple TV+ in February, and a live-action series based on Speed Racer was also handed an order earlier this spring by the tech giant. At Netflix, the producer has a biopic series about Irish rocker U2 in development. All of these projects are understood to be active.
Also in the Warner Bros. family, Abrams and Bad Robot scored a pilot script order for a series adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, written by Sonya Winton-Odamtten and Jonathan I. Kidd, at HBO last July.
The point is, there is plenty percolating that should have WBD as excited as when the AT&T-led studio bested the competition on the Bad Robot deal just a few years ago. Since then, Channing Dungey took over from Peter Roth and Bad Robot head of television Ben Stephenson left to set up his own ITV-backed production company and was replaced by former Fox exec Rachel Rusch Rich.
Zaslav, speaking on WBD’s earnings call on Thursday, said “quality is what matters” and in relation to HBO Max, said its strategy is to “embrace and support and then drive [its] incredible success.”
If you look back at the studio’s archive, from Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Gravity and The Matrix, if you want quality, sometimes there is no greater virtue than patience.
Hamada became president of DC Films back in 2018, following the disappointing failure of 2017’s Justice League, another dark and dour Zack Snyder-directed superhero installment that grossed $658M worldwide on a budget reported to be $370 million. One of the rumored reasons Zaslav brought in Horn as consigliere is to find the next Kevin Feige to consolidate DC into one giant silo for film/TV and other things. Here’s the problem: Feige might be the most successful producer/executive in Hollywood history, but there is only one of him. Aside from wish list suggestions of filmmakers like Todd Phillips and Greg Berlanti, the only suggestion that has made sense was Mike De Luca, because of his comic book acumen, but he’s running the whole thing.
Hamada might be the next best thing. He took the DC reins after shepherding a string of horror hits at New Line that included The Conjuring, Friday the 13th, The Final Destination, a resuscitation of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the first installment of Stephen King’s It that grossed over $700M on a $35M budget. He was re-upped by DC with a contract that runs through next year. Under his watch, DC’s results have been mixed but often spectacular and much better than they had been.
Under his tenure, DC got its first two movies that grossed over $1 billion — James Wan’s Aquaman ($1.1 billion) and Todd Phillips The Joker, which doubled as the highest grossing R-rated movie ever at $1.07 billion. Hamada also launched Shazam ($366M WW) which already has a big sequel this Christmas in Shazam: Fury of the Gods. With Matt Reeves directing and Robert Pattinson stepping into the costume, Hamada also launched Warner Bros.’ Batman into another iteration that grossed $770.8M (Batman also marked Warner Bros.’ return to theatrical window releases after its 2021 pandemic day-and-date experiment on HBO Max). Wonder Woman 1984 and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad were box office disappointments — respectively grossing $169.6M WW and $168.6M WW — but that was in large part due to the pandemic and Jason Kilar’s day-and-date HBO Max plan. Wonder Woman 1984 was released at a time when a majority of cinemas were closed in Christmas 2020. While many had opened a year ago when Suicide Squad debuted, many fanboys watched the R-rated sequel at home.
While Warner Bros Discovery CEO David Zaslav has called for an overall architect to execute a DC plan similar to Marvel’s universe between films and Disney+ series, Hamada already has shown he can do the latter. The HBO Max Suicide Squad spinoff series The Peacemaker starring John Cena was one of the streamer’s most watched series, with a second series starring Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller character also coming.
Hamada is also extending Reeves’ Batman universe with a standalone Penguin HBO Max series starring Colin Farrell, which is looking at a February production start.
The Dish has heard that new Warner Bros Motion Pictures Chiefs Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy are impressed with Hamada and his track record, and spoke with him about staying on in the wake of Zaslav’s killing of Batgirl, a move that greatly upset the DC executive.
Hamada will devote his attention to finishing up Black Adam in post for its Oct. 21 release date, Shazam: Fury of the Gods on Dec. 21, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom on March 17, 2023, and The Flash on June 23, 2023. The latter is generating great buzz in its testing, despite the tail of scandal involving star Ezra Miller that will have the studio second guessing the wisdom of sending the troubled young man on a press tour. Warner Bros. recently dated Todd Phillips’ sequel Joker: Folie à Deux with Joaquin Phoenix and Lady Gaga, planned for a December start and an Oct. 4, 2024 release date.
Even though Hamada took shrapnel on the “Snyder Cut” of Justice League by way of social media barbs from Cyborg character Ray Fisher, the truth is Zaslav never would have wasted $70M making a new cut of a faulty film, as evidenced by cancelling Batgirl after a single so-so test screening. Though he is understated compared to Feige, Hamada’s side of the DC ledger is impressive enough. It replicates his genre track record at New Line, another unit by the way which for years has quietly overperformed compared to Warner Bros in a budget-profit ratio. Zas, Hamada is an executive to empower and build around, not throw out to pander to Wall Street optics.
Installing Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy should have the same impact that MGM got when Kevin Ulrich brought them in and let them compete against streamers for material, before selling at a ridiculous multiple to Amazon. The latter is still trying to figure out what to do with that studio, as The Dish hears that Emma Watts is still in the mix, but only will come if Jennifer Salke cedes the turf that alpha executive will need to build MGM into something formidable. Now that Zas has De Luca and Abdy, their success will again be based upon patience. They’ve already now got to explain the scrapping of two movies for a tax break, not easy for filmmaker friendly execs. What would Zas’s reaction have been had they made the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed Licorice Pizza, an arthouse film about life in the Valley that got three Oscar noms including Best Picture but only grossed $33M WW?
De Luca thrived on relationships and by empowering filmmakers like Anderson – they made Boogie Nights and Magnolia at New Line – but some of the films he and Abdy make won’t rise to blockbuster level. Back when, under De Luca, New Line made the David Fincher classic Se7en, initial test scores were about the lowest the studio ever got. Instead of cutting losses, they went back days later to those who participated in the test, and learned that this crowd could not stop thinking about the movie, so much so that they would recommend it highly. It is a seminal New Line film. From a franchise vantage point, De Luca’s track record includes Fifty Shades of Grey, Austin Powers, Rush Hour, Blade and others. Abdy’s got films on her track record that include Birdman, Gone Girl and The Revenant. Zas might have to swallow hard on some of their choices, but he should. They had been in the mix for all of the top production job vacancies, and they chose Warner Bros. Time to turn them loose and give them a real chance, Zas.
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