Warner Bros. Discovery has a new strategy: focus on franchises and intellectual property (IP). We admit that hearing that vision said aloud by Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who spoke yesterday to shareholders during a Q3 earnings call, reads a bit like an Onion headline. What have Hollywood studios, including Warners, been doing over the past decade if not emphasizing “a real focus on franchises,” as Zaslav says?
A little over a 10 years ago, Disney’s live-action division was considered to be in trouble due to its inability to launch a new popular IP like they had with Pirates of the Caribbean at the beginning of the 2000s. So then-Disney CEO Bob Iger pursued the purchases of Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm, in much the same vein that Disney solidified its animation dominance at the beginning of the millennium by buying Pixar Animation Studios (another Iger decision). Problem solved.
In the wake of the wild success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every studio to varying levels of success tried to copy the shared universe formula, including most visibly Warner Bros. when the studio rushed into the DC Extended Universe with the one-two punch of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017). The reception for those left Warners’ superhero strategy—and its overall franchise vision going forward—a bit disorganized from the outside perspective. But the studio still made more DC-inspired superhero movies, more films set in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and even was only a few years removed from turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s slender children’s novel, The Hobbit, into a bloated nine-hour retread of Lord of the Rings nostalgia.
However, what’s interesting about Zaslav’s latest comments is he seemed to suggest WB spent the 2010s not playing it safe enough.
“We haven’t had a Superman movie in 13 years,” Zaslav said. “We haven’t had a Harry Potter movie in 15 years. House of the Dragon is a big example of that; Game of Thrones; taking advantage of Sex and the City; Lord of the Rings—we still have the right to do Lord of the Rings movies.”
At a glance, it could be easy for some observers to excuse this as media executive bluster—a listing of valuable IP that remains in the studio’s vault or at least licensed control. Social media had no end of amusement today as users noted it’s been nine years (and not 13) since the last solo Superman movie (and only six since the character appeared in the title of a film). Similarly, it’s only been 11 years since the mainline Harry Potter franchise ended via Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part II. And, pfft, does he not count Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?!
But what’s interesting is the new WBD CEO apparently does not. The head of Warners is implicitly admonishing previous administrations for not making more Harry Potter movies… even after they ran out of source material novels 11 years ago.
And before Wizarding World enthusiasts quickly point out that J.K. Rowling authorized an official sequel to her seven Potter books via the two-volume play The Cursed Child, we must stress it does not appear as if Zaslav is speaking strictly of adapting Broadway theater.
Which brings us back to Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson’s original three-film adaptation of Tolkien’s magnum opus remains one of the high watermarks of genre filmmaking to this day. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, released between 2001 and 2003, is still the only major franchise outside of The Godfather in which all of its main films were nominated for Best Picture, as well as the only fantasy film to win a Best Picture Oscar (plus Best Director and a string of others). Twenty years later, those movies are so revered as classics that Amazon spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the television rights to Lord of the Rings—making an estate-approved prequel series that attempts to adhere to Tolkien’s appendices and general outline for events in Middle-earth’s “the Second Age,” if not Tolkien’s details.
Warners played this game a decade ago, too, when it turned the aforementioned Hobbit novel (barely bigger than a short story) into a meandering and ultimately disappointing trilogy. It was teh first attempt to remake Lord of the Rings’ success while at least nominally honoring Tolkien’s source material. After all, Tolkien ended his actual Lord of the Rings story for good and all when the Fourth Age began in The Return of the King, and the last of the elves and ring-bearers departed these shores.
Somehow… the emphasis on the lack of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movies suggests to this writer that the finality of those stories’ endings do not matter to new management; what matters is Warner Bros. retains the rights to popular IP with a proven track record to the tune of billions of dollars—and the studio isn’t exploiting them any better than Superman. (No word as yet on original, director-driven films which until very recently were considered to be one of WB’s hallmarks.)
If we are to take the Warner Bros. Discovery CEO at his word, it would seem the paradigm is changing again. Previously, the quest for ever new popular IP still operated within the confines of adapting stories to their ultimate conclusions: the ring is destroyed; Gandalf and Frodo leave Middle-earth; and Harry Potter lives long enough to see middle-age and his kids going to school at Hogwarts. Unlike superhero comic books, there are emphatic, final punctuation marks on these tales.
WBD might just be preparing to change that approach with even nerd cultures’ most sacred texts. And honestly, I suspect most fans would be fine with more content. Game of Thrones was the most popular show on TV before it ended, and as Zaslav alludes to by citing House of the Dragon, it appears that as long as there is more story left to tell, everyone acts a lot happier. Save perhaps the talent who want to create news stories for a theatrical audience.