Warner Bros and the Big Studio Movie Problem

Warner Bros is set to be the latest studio to gamble on fewer blockbuster movies. But there's a big silver lining, Simon argues...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Last week, the news landed that Warner Bros was considering reducing its output of films, focusing its slate primarily on DC, LEGO, and Harry Potter movies.

The argument runs that after a bumpy few years, with expensive films such as Pan, Jupiter Ascending, and In The Heart Of The Sea leaving the office copy of Excel looking decidedly red and distressed. The box office tail off of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is said not to have helped, either. It actually looks like we’re officially in the era where a movie will end up making just under $1 billion and end up being called a commercial disappointment.

If and when Warner Bros follows such an approach – and it’s not confirmed that it will, it should be noted – then it will follow the lead that’s already been set by Paramount, Disney, and Sony. Fox too, to an extent, although its Searchlight arm continues to throw up some pleasant surprises.

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Each of those majors has reduced its output notably in recent years, increasingly backing a few big blockbusters, rather than scattering their bets. Of the major studios, it’s only Universal – partly through relationships with companies such as Working Title, Focus, Universal UK and EuropaCorp – that’s kept its slate broad and not heavily franchise-driven. Even Universal, though, will make sure that it has some sequels, and a few good value R-rated comedies each summer.

The Disney Model

Disney, of course, has the model that every major studio is looking to follow right now. The risks are (relatively) low, the investment high, the returns have been astronomical. Disney is the company that can spend $4 billion on another firm, and make it look a bargain, after all.

Even before a calendar year begins, it’s now known that Disney will have two to three Marvel movies, one Pixar film at least, one Walt Disney Animation Studios production, and a live action fairytale. Throw in a Star Wars film as well, and Disney has at least six of its big movies mapped out (possibly more), all covered – outside of animation – in franchise clothing.

With its few outside bets such as The Finest Hours struggling to catch on too, chances are that the studio will take fewer and fewer gambles on standalone movies in the future (maybe only if a prestigious filmmaker comes along, or there’s a decent shout at an Oscar run). If there aren’t Roman numerals, or tie-in toys, or the lure of a boxset somewhere along the line, then you can bet it’s going to be a tough pitch meeting at Disney towers though.

The Warner Problem

The disappointment in the case of Warner Bros following such a path is palpable, though. In my lifetime at least, it’s always been a studio that values its filmmaker relationships. Not for nothing in the ’90s did the likes of Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Richard Donner, Mel Gibson, Joel Schumacher (back when he was churning out hits, remember) et al call it home. Long-term director and star relationships were always important to the studio, which prided itself on them.

In recent years, of course, movie star power has changed, but directors still hold sway. Thus, going forward, you can’t imagine that Warner Bros won’t want to keep a few of those relationships going – Christopher Nolan, Ben Affleck, Zack Snyder, and Clint Eastwood spring to mind – but there’s still a sense that something is changing here. That the major studios will (Universal aside), more than ever, reduce their output to under ten movies a year. And those movies will be big, expensive, and part of those aforementioned box sets.

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It’s a sad consequence of how blockbuster cinema has changed with safer bets, playing to as global an audience as possible, superseding edge. Sure, good and occasionally great films are still being made, as interesting filmmakers get their hands on some of these franchises (just look what Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves have done with Planet Of The Apes, for instance). But the system seems content with decent to good movies.

The Silver Lining

Yet before we hit the uproar button, there’s something of a paradox that’s worth considering. That whilst studios have been winding down their output, more films than ever over the past few years have been released into UK cinemas. That that major studios are making fewer movies, yet more films are making their way to the big screen.

An inevitable caveat: lots of those smaller productions are only getting a few screens, or a quick debut (possibly contractual) ahead of a video on demand release. But nonetheless, just because Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros et al are making fewer films, it doesn’t mean that there are fewer films. Far from it, in fact. And with big companies taking fewer, bigger steps, they’re leaving lots of gaps for others to exploit.

Lionsgate is an interesting example at the moment. Just as New Line did before it, it built its house on foundations of a big horror franchise (Saw for Lionsgate, A Nightmare On Elm Street for New Line). But unlike New Line, it wasn’t swallowed by a studio (Warner Bros), and has instead gambled handsomely on its own projects. There’s an argument that it’s lost a little touch with its horror roots, but conversely, it also bet big on The Hunger Games, and was rewarded by, for now, becoming the closest we’ve got to a new major studio.

Thus, with the established major studios reducing their output, that surely opens up an opportunity for the likes of Lionsgate, Entertainment One, Focus Features, and A24, the kind of companies not necessarily scared of mid-budget productions, but also willing to take a punt on material without a Roman numeral in it.

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Note in the UK that Eddie The Eagle was released by Lionsgate here (Fox quietly backed it in the US), just a few days after Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. The fear was that Eddie would be swamped by Warner Bros’ and Zack Snyder’s juggernaut. But that didn’t happen: instead, Lionsgate positioned and sold the film well, and Eddie found a niche. It’s been a good, solid hit in Britain, that is currently outgrossing Universal’s expensive Snow White And The Huntsman sequel/prequel.

Smaller companies have previously relied on awards season to get their output noted, but just looking at the UK schedules for June – high blockbuster season – and it’s clear that small distributors are willing to both counter-programme, and also gamble on less traditional release slots for their films. June in the UK gets us Jesse Owens biopic Race from Altitude, EFD’s release of low-budget horror The Bye Bye Man, Vertigo’s release of Learning To Drive, Michael Moore’s Where To Invade Next from Dogwoof, Emma Watson-headlined Colonia from Signature, Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There from StudioCanal, thriller The Whole Truth from Entertainment One, and civil war drama The Keeping Room from Lionsgate.

And that’s such a small flavour of the June films in the UK competing with Independence Day: Resurgence, The Secret Life Of Pets, The Conjuring 2, Warcraft: The Beginning and The Boss.

Go back not too long, and a couple of smaller art films would be programmed against blockbusters. Now, the schedules are awash with interesting, lower profile projects, and every week for the next few months, there’s something off the beaten track heading into UK cinemas, waiting to be discovered.

It’s still imperfect, of course. My local multiplex gave over more than half of its screen space to Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice at the end of last month, and that squeezed many movies out of getting wider exposure. There’s still some way to go here, although clever use of video on demand releases has helped offset that. The idea of using a theatrical release as a three day publicity blitz for the disc or VOD release the following week, or even day and date, is growing.

The bottom line, though, is that just because studios are committing to fewer films, that doesn’t reduce the number of filmmakers with stories to tell. Sure, it limits in some cases the access to the funds they can get, but I’d argue it also opens up more and more slots for companies such as StudioCanal, Lionsgate, Altitude, Signature, Vertigo et al to get themselves and the movies they distribute notice.

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As disappointing as it is to see blockbusters being shepherded into pens a little, I can’t help thinking that the silver lining here may be really quite pronounced. Fingers crossed…