Warner Brothers Has Taken Exactly the Wrong Message From the Box Office Disappointment of ‘Batman v Superman’

It’s the kind of bass-ackwards logic that could only come from a Hollywood board room.

A little over a year ago, we told you about a distressing phenomenon within mainstream moviemaking – a paradigm shift best summarized by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who explained, “Something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million.” Studios in pursuit of the mighty tentpole blockbuster extravaganza (and the hundreds of millions of dollars it promises) have all but abandoned the mid-budget movie for adults, relegating non-franchise films to the micro-budget indie sector. And I’m not one to quote myself, but go with me here; as part of that shift, “Studios began to make fewer films, betting big on would-be blockbusters, operating under the assumption that large investments equal large returns.” So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Warner Brothers, looking at a failure of that principle in the form of disappointing box office for Batman v Superman, has decided to make fewer movies… Wait, what?

The news comes to us via The Hollywood Reporter, whose Kim Masters writes,

Warners long has been known for its commitment to filmmaker- and star-driven projects, but sources see signs of a change in culture, though the studio denies there is one. Several executives and agents say Warners seems to be greenlighting fewer homegrown movies as it focuses on silos that echo those that generate so many hits for Disney (Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar and Disney Animation). In Warners’ case, the silos are DC Comics, Lego and a planned franchise spun off from the Harry Potter series. [CEO Kevin] Tsujihara has touted that trio as the linchpin of his film strategy, and now, much like Disney, has eschewed all but a few original live-action films.

It’s the kind of bass-ackwards logic that could only come from a Hollywood board room. But it’s also upsetting because for decades – all the way back to the fruitful New Hollywood era of the 1970s, when John Calley presided over the studio and oversaw the release of films like Dog Day Afternoon, Night Moves, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, All The President’s Men, Mean Streets, and Badlands – Warner Brothers has cultivated a reputation for mid-budget, adult-oriented filmmaking. And it’s a strategy that’s continued to reap rewards; their recent hits have included Magic Mike ($167 million worldwide box office on a $7 million budget), Magic Mike XXL ($122 million on $14.8 million), Argo ($232 million on $44.5 million), 42 ($95 million on $40 million), Her ($47 million on $23 million), American Sniper ($547 million on $58.8 million), The Intern ($194 million on $35 million), and Creed ($137 million on $35 million).

I’m no accountant, but I can do subtraction and division, and that looks to me like a winning formula. It doesn’t always pay out; see losses like Inherent Vice ($14.7 million worldwide on a $20 million budget) or The 33 ($24.9 million on a $26 million budget). But those aren’t the kind of losses that hurt a studio. You know what does? Jack the Giant Slayer. Pan. In the Heart of the Sea. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Jupiter Ascending. Giant, overpriced, would-be franchise starters that either lose money, or whose tiny profits are wiped out by the studio’s huge marketing spends. And yet these failures are frequently classified by studio types (and even entertainment reporters) as yet another hit for “original films” – even though the pictures in that list of flops are, respectively, two fairy tale “origins,” a riff on one of the best-known novels of all time, a television adaptation, and an attempt to create another Matrix series.

And somehow, even though Batman v Superman has grossed ridiculous amounts of money ($783 million worldwide, as of this writing), it could either take a loss or barely eke out a profit, because Warner Brothers spent such a jaw-dropping amount of money making and marketing it: reportedly $250 million for the former and another $150 million for the latter. That’s a half-billion-dollar movie, and it has to at least double that worldwide to show a profit (thanks to the portion of those grosses kept by theaters). Thanks to BvS’s free-falling week-to-week numbers – it dropped out of the top slot last weekend, smarting from bad reviews and toxic word-of-mouth – some box office experts are predicting it won’t even clear that hurdle.

So for the powers-that-be at this once-mighty studio to look at this big gamble and decide to double down is illogical to the point of cognitive dissonance. Warners has promising grown-up movies on the horizon: Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, Clint Eastwood’s Sully, Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant, Thea Sharrock’s Me Before You. But the bulk of their forthcoming slate is, as THR notes, easily diced into LEGO movies, J.K. Rowling movies, and their bet-the-house investment in the DC Extended Universe, now 11 titles deep – well, “titles” is a bit of a misnomer, since two films in that slate don’t have titles yet. But rest assured, they’ll be about superheroes!

In an article posted the same day as the report on the studio’s decreased output, THR’s Rebecca Ford noted they’ve also shuffled their slate a bit, delaying a Jungle Book adaptation – yes, another one – to 2018 and moving up Wonder Woman’s summer 2017 release by three weeks. Oh, and there was one other addition: “An untitled WB event film is slated for Oct. 6, 2017.” And that, dear reader, is studio filmmaking circa 2016 – there will be a movie released in a year and a half, and we can’t tell you the most basic information about it. But we do know this: It will be an event.