Can Kevin Tsujihara help Warner Bros. overcome its fear of superheroes?

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Lots of news emerged from Warner Bros. yesterday besides getting a new CEO.

On the most germane to our continuing investigations, Amazon, the Wonder Woman pilot being scripted by Allan Heinberg, has been put on hold for a while. It hasn’t been killed, but it “needs more time.” On the plus side, an off-season pilot may be ordered so it can go in as a midseason replacement. On the non-plussed side, it’s yet ANOTHER superhero project that WB has put on hold or dithered over or fretted about.

Getting another DC drama on the air has been important for the CW, especially in light of the success of Arrow this season, so Amazon remains a high priority at the network, sources say.



Meanwhile, over at film, an analysis piece on the fate of studio head Jeff Robinov after being passed over for CEO, suggests that the Justice League mega-movie is also on hold, at least until MAN OF STEEL comes out and is judged good.

Further out, the studio’s planning a “Justice League” tentpole — encompassing DC Comics mainstays Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and the Green Lantern — on the order of Marvel’s “The Avengers.” Will Beall is scripting but no director has been attached yet. Stakes are high for “Man of Steel.” Other than Nolan’s Batpics, Warners has not been able to effectively exploit the DC library. Its 2011 “Green Lantern” underperformed, and a “Justice League” film wouldn’t likely be in theaters before 2015, as Warner’s top brass has indicated that they are awaiting the results of “Man of Steel,” which opens June 14, before moving further ahead.


Once again, the Justice League movie has a script, by Will Beall, but no director, no stars…nothing but a burning desire to answer the Avengers with an even more massive gang of superheroes.

This is pretty much business as usual at the WB, where superhero projects fall into two camps:

• Massively successful movies by Christopher Nolan

• Everything else.

MAN OF STEEL, with Nolan producing and comic book expert Zack Snyder directing, seems to be the surest thing they could do, but even that isn’t very sure given the SUPERMAN RETURNS disaster. Even that hasn’t stopped Bryan Singer from stepping in on X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST with little or no fan outcry.

Of course, you can’t blame them for being a little skittish. 300 was a massive success, but WATCHMEN was baffling. And then comes a series of movies that no one would like to take credit for:

JONAH HEX
GREEN LANTERN
CATWOMAN
SUPERMAN RETURNS

and under the “okay but they didn’t set the world on fire” list:

CONSTANTINE
V FOR VENDETTA
THE LOSERS

One of the few DC properties to achieve a level of film success—a sequel—is RED, based on the Warren Ellis/Cully Hamner WildStorm book, and ironically, that movie wasn’t even made by WB. Somehow the rights slipped away to Summit, and a well received vehicle for aging stars was born.

I’m not going to go down the whole list, but there’s also an endless stream of stop/start WB superhero projects, including a previous Justice League that had a cast and a director and still got the plug pulled; all the weird ass Superman reboots, from Wolfgang Peterson to Tim Burton; the Woman Woman McBeal pilot by David E. Kelley, the legendary Wonder Woman script by Joss Whedon…and so on.

The situation is much better on TV where Arrow—like Smallville before it—has proven you CAN do a superhero on TV. And of course there’s the successful and ongoing Cartoon Network slate of shows. More on that later.

But at some point you just have to do SOMETHING. Especially when Disney/Marvel is just barreling down the highway, singing the Doctor Strange theme song. So what does this all have to do with Kevin Tsujihara, the new WB CEO? As head of home entertainment, at least they did SOMETHING, including making well-received animated movies based on obscure (to the general public) comics storylines, like Batman Year One, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern: Emerald Knight, The New Frontier…on and on. The whole line of movies has been produced by people who tend to know what they are doing, like Michael Uslan, Bruce Timm, and Sam Register.

They may be small earners aimed at a niche audience, but given the state of some other WB superheroes, the fact that these movies even exist is somewhat notable.

As CEO Tsujihara will be far above the level of dealing with DC Comics—and he’s never been known as a talent-handler. But if he has an idea that moving forward with a project with the right people can be done…well, maybe we’ll see that Ben Affleck-directed superhero movie yet. (May I suggest Boston Brand?)

Warner Bros remains a place with a very specific corporate culture though:

More than any of the other majors, sources say, WB is run as a series of fiefdoms — a mentality that predates Meyer's 14-year tenure as CEO. The news of Tsujihara's appointment on Monday came as a shock to most execs in the TV and film units, in part because he's such an unknown commodity to most of them. The film, homevid and TV divisions have few crossover activities, and historically, there's never been much high-level brainstorming or information sharing among senior management. There's also little cheerleading for individual accomplishments, but rather an emphasis on respecting the studio's collective muscle around the world and the storied legacy that goes all the way back to the five Warner brothers who got their start in the nickelodeon biz a century ago. "They leave you alone to run your business," said a top WB exec. "As long as you run it well, they let you do your own thing."


So…it’s never going to be a cakewalk.

Comments

  1. Still baffled by the Superman Returns hate. In blanket studio terms, that movie made its money back carrying a hefty amount of development fees from failed projects, right? Seems if Warners stuck to their guns on it, it’d have a rep similar to the Marvel Incredible Hulk picture. Instead it’s strangely seen as the flop of the century by some.

  2. You say at some point they just have to do something, but do they?

    As long as WB as a whole is doing well they don’t have to do superhero movies. They are in the movie making business(and the TV business and the digital business, etc) not the superhero movie making business.

  3. blacaucasian says:

    “WB is run as a series of fiefdoms”

    This is the major problem. If this is the management mindset for the company, it’s likely going to be very difficult for anyone to get anything done. There’s a synergy between Disney and ABC for instance, that doesn’t seem to exist at Warner Brothers. As long as this exists, it doesn’t seem like they are ever going to be able to get out of their own way.

    (This doesn’t even seem to tackle WB making movies out of their properties based on good creative material instead of making them to match Marvel studios in some sort of stupid ego matching race as to who is putting out the best movies.)

    There seemed to be a lot of talk that the unrest in the movie department was due to the CEO position being so up in the air. Now that it is taken care of, it would seem smart for them to allow Geoff Johns to attack his position much in the way Kevin Feige has for Marvel.

    Mostly though, it seems like a case of too many chefs as far as Warner’s is concerned. And as long as that exists, we’re still going to be getting the same results from them.

  4. Steely Dan says:

    I second Kiel Phegley’s comment about “Superman Returns.” I personally love the film (melancholy, elegiac, and sublimely beautiful). But even more importantly (to the bean counters at WB anyway), it did well at the box office. Its combined domestic and worldwide gross was higher than “Batman Begins” (which was seen as a success by those same bean counters).

    Superman Returns: $391 million
    Batman Begins: $375 million

    (The films were released one year apart so the effect of inflation on the Superman gross was negligible at best)

    It also got solidly good (B to B+ range) reviews from most critics.

    There has been some serious revisionist history going on with that movie over the past six years amongst fanboys and Hollywood execs.

  5. I do agree that the term “flop” gets thrown around rather loosely in Hollywood, especially in relation to Superman Returns. However, I should also point out that Batman Begins had an estimated budget of $150 million, so it made more than twice it’s budget back. Superman Returns, however, had an estimated budget of $270 million, so it’s gross didn’t even come close to the 2x mark.

  6. Johnny Memeonic says:

    Superman Returns was not well-received by the public, that’s why WB didn’t do a follow-up. It only made money because it was the first big screen live action Superman film in 20 years.

    And no one liked it because it was a high budget Donnor fan film, put out decades past the time for something like that. Hard to have nostalgia for those old films when a good chunk of the audience wasn’t even born when they originally came out.

  7. blacaucasian says:

    I didn’t like it because it had Superman acting like a creepy stalker half of the movie, which was way out of character.

  8. The Beat says:

    Kiel and all re Superman Returns: take one beat for beat remake of the first Superman movie and add Superman deadbeat dad/stalker and you have a troubling film. If only it had included Hulk Hounds, I think the consensus would be kinder.

  9. DeAndre Jordan says:

    You have to remember Marvel had its fair share of stinkers, mostly on the Sony side, before Iron Man TEH Avengers broke through. Elektra, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Punisher, Punisher War Zone. I know some were very mild hits but its not like we will ever see Elektra 2 starring Jennifer Garner anytime soon. And lets not forget all the godawful 80’s and other attempts that predated these. The Captain America 1979 and 90 movies in particular.

    You have to make shit before you can make shit into gold.

  10. OP-ED: SR is the gutsiest in-continuity Superman story ever told. You can come back from death, but not from unhappy parenthood. It had to be rebooted because it couldn’t be retconned. What it needed was to keep that opening Krypton scene that got cut — check it out on youtube. I think it at least deserved a sequel. It’s like that rookie QB who only gets one season behind a weak OL. But yeah, lots of Donner fan service, too.

    I agree with DeAndre, but Marvel learned from their mistakes. They have PHASES now. What does WB have? Same thing they always did: good cartoons.

  11. No yeah, I get why people don’t like it as a film, though I did like it. I just think the rap it gets in terms of its box office “failure” is kinda weak. Then again, movies is movies…it’s all pretty mystifying to me.

  12. re. SR box office: $200 000 US gross; $270 000 production
    Batman Begins $200 000 US gross; $150 000 production
    Simple equation !

  13. MJ Returns says:

    To those of you defending “Superman Returns” due to it being such a huge homage to the Donner/Reeve films, you guys do realize that if you showed the original Superman films to a modern teenager, their reaction would probably be:

    “Oh my god, this s*it looks so stupid, yo!”

  14. RE Kiel: “it’s all pretty mystifying to me.”
    What I find mystifying is the apparent lack of understanding of STORY in most WB comics movies. The costumes, and rubber suits are NOT the stories, as displayed by the massive dogs that the studio has not only green-lit, but actually had the nerve to RELEASE.

    In any other movie studio these dogs wouldn’t be released for fear of tainting the studios rep. The only saving grace has been the creation of DC Creative Affairs to flight-check some of the crappola that WB has accepted as scripts in the last 15 years. I’ve worked with Mike Carlin, and he knows what makes a good story, as versus words trying to find a reason to exist.

    Both Green Lantern, and Superman Returns needed massive edits to solidify the core stories. They were not horrible stories, just badly executed attempts at serious fare. The Space Cop elements to Green Lantern would have been better served with simple edits. It’s those edits that made the film fall flat.

    It’s not the actors, the budgets, even the promotions…
    It’s about the core stories. Fix that and they have a goldmine.

  15. Torsten Adair says:

    Here’s a radical idea:
    Warner Brothers produces animated movies of their superhero properties.

    You market them as PG-13, using well-known directors and writers, in a style of animation that is unique. A style which is easy to animate, but which is more realistic, so that the visual style is instantly equated with “grown-up” by the viewer.

    Costs are cheaper, production is easier, and there is extra profit, as the home video market already is lucrative.

  16. george says:

    I enjoyed “Superman Returns” and “Green Lantern,” but I didn’t go expecting “Citizen Kane” or “The Godfather,” just an entertaining superhero movie. That’s what I got in each case. I even liked the much-reviled “Daredevil.”

    Low expectations can help with some movies … actually, with a lot of movies.

  17. george says:

    Warner opened a movie based on a graphic novel this weekend: “Bullet to the Head,” with Sylvester Stallone. It opened in sixth place, which is not considered impressive.

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