July 15, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY’s State of the Studio: Warner Bros.


We’re continuing our midsummer look at how Hollywood’s studios are faring in 2013.  Yesterday we scrutinized Disney, and today our gaze is fixed on Warner Bros.

It’s been a tumultuous summer at Warners, much of the turmoil going on behind the scenes.  Jeff Robinov, President of the Warner Bros Picture Group since 2007, left after losing an ugly, very public power struggle to become the new Warners CEO.  He’s been replaced by a trio including Sue Kroll (marketing/distribution), Greg Silverman (creative development/worldwide production) and Toby Emmerich (New Line), but it’ll be more than a year before their leadership is really felt at multiplexes.  Until then, the films we’ll be seeing will be those developed under Robinov’s regime.  Also, the studio lost longtime financing partner Legendary Entertainment to Universal (reportedly being replaced, at least in part, by Dune Entertainment and Brett Ratner’s RatPac).

The most succinct way to summarize how the studio has been doing this summer after a weak spring (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Beautiful Creatures, etc, with 42 as the exception) is “coulda been worse.”  There haven’t been any breakout hits since May, but the only (likely) disaster is the one that carries the most limited risk, and Warners successfully dodged a pair of potential bullets.

GRADE:  B-minus



Estimated Cost (including Worldwide Marketing):  $275M

US Box Office Thru 7/14:  $143M

Overseas Box Office Thru 7/14:  $184M

Box Office Total Thru 7/14:  $327,000,000

There’ll be little in the way of profit for Baz Luhrmann’s giant-sized literary adaptation, but breakeven amounts to a triumph for what easily could have been a colossal flop.  Luhrmann’s fever-dream vision, with little critical support (49% on Rotten Tomatoes), was successfully turned into an “event”–especially for women–by the Warners Marketing team, with everything from the 3D to the hip-hop song score put into the mix.  Luhrmann owes everyone at Warners a big thank-you (and maybe a less pricey, less risky follow-up).


Estimated Cost (inc Worldwide Marketing):  $250M

US Box Office Thru 7/14:  $112M

Overseas Box Office Thru 7/14:  $235M

Box Office Total Thru 7/14:  $347,000,000

This was a huge comedown from the $587M earned by Hangover II, but there probably wasn’t much the studio could have done about it.  Director Todd Phillips had all the power here, with both preceding hits under his belt, and the fact that the second movie was in fact awful doesn’t seem to have registered on him at all.  Audience interest in a third stanza was much less than it was the last time around, and Phillips couldn’t be bothered to make the trilogy finale any better, which is the only thing that might have made ticketbuyers more attentive.  Luckily for Bradley Cooper, he had Silver Linings Playbook in the interim to separate him from the Hangover stench, but Zach Galifianakis’s moment for solo stardom may have passed.  And luckily for Warners, foreign audiences are so loyal to brand names that even though the series declined, it didn’t outright collapse.


Estimated Cost (inc Worldwide Marketing):  $400M

US Box Office Thru 7/14:  $281M

Overseas Box Office Thru 7/14:  $338M

Box Office Total Thru 7/14:  $619,000,000

Well, it didn’t flop.  Man of Steel has exceeded the marks of Superman Returns and Batman Begins by around $250M, and an upcoming opening in Japan may push it up by another $50M.  Warners Marketing, again, did a great job of transforming the buzz from just-another-superhero-origin-story to a project with epic weight and gravitas, and Distribution picked exactly the right opening date, a month after Iron Man 3 but before audiences decided they’d seen enough superheroes pounding into buildings.  But… at this level of budget, a $650M result is just a modest success, and the studio’s new council of rulers has to decide what to do next with the franchise.  Do they give a vote of confidence to director Zack Snyder to continue full steam ahead?  (See Phillips, Todd above.)  Do they try to leap directly into a Justice League mega-sequel?  (Gigantically risky.)  There’s not much chance of paring down the budget in a meaningful way, because massive special effects are what these movies are about.  The outcome of this decision will mark the new Warners regime, for better or for worse.


Estimated Cost (inc worldwide marketing):  $350M

US Box Office Thru 7/14:  $37M

Overseas Box Office Thru 7/14:  $53M

Box Office Total Thru 7/14:  $90,000,000

Pacific Rim has just started its run, and while it seems to be three-quarters dead already in the US, there’s still the chance that foreign (particularly Asian) results will turn things around–at least to an extent.  But here’s the good news for Warners:  it’s only on the hook for $50M of the production cost, with dearly departed Legendary paying for the rest.  (It’s not clear how responsibility for marketing costs works under their deal.)  So although no one likes to see their name on a flop, Warners is in far better shape on the giant robots vs. giant monsters extravaganza than Disney is on The Lone Ranger.  As far as the release strategy, Marketing wasn’t able to successfully sell the movie to anyone but the core genre fan crowd–but in fairness, the entire movie is pitched to that crowd and that crowd alone, so options were limited.  An earlier opening date may well have helped, though–by last weekend, CG fatigue had arrived in a big way.


More than any other current studio, Warners believes (or at least it did believe under Robinov) in keeping a continuing stream of movies flowing through the pipes, and although the studio is done with major releases this summer, it has several mid budgeted pieces of product on the way.  These include the horror movie THE CONJURING (Friday), the Jennifer Aniston/Jason Sudeikis comedy WE’RE THE MILLERS (8/7) and the Ethan Hawke action thriller GETAWAY (8/30).  All of these have some potential to break out modestly–The Conjuring has gotten unusually strong advance reviews for its genre, with an 89% Rotten Tomatoes score–but since Warners seems incapable of selling movies other than with full-bore, massively expensive TV campaigns, even relatively low-budget efforts quickly become costly, and profits may be hard to find.


The flow of product continues, with the thriller PRISONERS (9/20) starring Hugh Jackman without his claws, and the Sylvester Stallone/Robert DeNiro sports comedy GRUDGE MATCH (12/25), which already sounds a little sad.  There are 2 A-level openings:

GRAVITY (10/4):  Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in the audacious Alfonso Cuaron’s latest sci-fi adventure, a showcase both for Cuaron’s 3D camerawork and Bullock’s performance.  This isn’t a sure thing at the box office, and it wasn’t cheap to produce, but it’s a very different kind of special effects movie than the ones we’ve been getting all summer, and has a chance of catching on.

THE HOBBIT:  THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (12/13): This is a sure thing.  Whatever one may have thought of Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit, it made over $1B worldwide, and even with less than unanimous audience and critical praise (65% on Rotten Tomatoes), vast numbers of ticketbuyers will come back to see the story continue.  Of course, after this there’s only one more left (please God and Peter Jackson), and with event movies taking at least 2 years to develop, produce and market, the pressure will be on the Warner trio to figure out what’s next–and fast.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."