Five Awkward Questions for the New DC Studios

James Gunn
Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav tapped director James Gunn (pictured) and Peter Safran to run DC Studios. Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Matthew Belloni
October 30, 2022

Did Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav pull off an executive coup? Or were our expectations for DC just so low, especially after his first pick, producer Dan Lin, didn’t work out? I can’t decide, but the industry and the fans seem to like James Gunn and Peter Safran running DC Studios. In Gunn, Zaz gets a filmmaker (Guardians of the Galaxy) with comic book bona fides, and he takes Gunn off the table for Marvel gigs (though WBD consultant Alan Horn must have chuckled at hiring the guy he once fired from Guardians 2 for bad tweets). And Safran, a producer who presents as the buttoned-down adult in the room, will likely be held accountable for the business, anyway. Still… the move raises a few questions:

1. What will the DC brand, and sensibility, become?

Zaslav is pretty transparent about his intentions here. “When you compare DC to Marvel, Marvel is 7, 8, 9 times bigger, but we have Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman,” he said on an investor podcast this week. 

But if Zaz really wants Marvel—meaning a superhero universe connected across all media and tied together with one coherent sensibility—that is not the current iteration of DC. Warners has always maintained that the strength of the DC brand is that it can house hard-R psychological thrillers (Joker) and kid-friendly escapism (Shazam!) under one roof. So figuring out what New DC stands for—and if it still stands for many different styles—will be Job One on the film side.

It’s even harder because DC is not starting from scratch here; it’s got the burden of all that’s come before—including the fact that DC’s biggest heroes were created around World War II and are inherently less accessible than Marvel’s more fun and emotional characters. Remember, DC only recently escaped Zack Snyder’s dreary sensibility, which turned the movies into a morose parade of humorless quasi-gods. And it’s especially tricky because Gunn’s own movies are wacky and often violent (I went to the premiere of The Suicide Squad and had to avert my eyes toward my complimentary popcorn). I’m sure Zaz would prefer DC films to be mainstream, fun but not too edgy, and rated PG-13.

On the TV side, the big challenge is coherence. Before, there was nothing that DC head Walter Hamada could do to prevent WBTV’s Channing Dungey and HBO’s Casey Bloys from making, say, a Watchmen show, even if it took the characters in a direction that didn’t fit what Hamada had planned for film. Now it’s all under one brand manager in Gunn and Safran, who have to figure out how to best share the I.P. to create maximum value across different and at times competing platforms. Not easy.   

2. Will filmmakers take notes from a peer?

Already, I’m told Todd Phillips has made it clear that his Joker sequel, which starts shooting Nov. 28, will stay under Warners Proper, not DC. And I can’t imagine Batman franchise writer-director Matt Reeves would be thrilled about a story or character veto from his former peer. But this seems like a small issue—and Gunn could actually serve as a mentor figure for less experienced filmmakers. Plus, I’m told that DC is keeping film executives Galen Vaisman and Chantal Nong for continuity.

3. How will Warners execs play in the DC sandbox?

The WBD announcement was careful to note in the first paragraph that Gunn and Safran will “work closely” with Warners film leaders Mike De Luca and Pam Abdy, despite reporting to Zaslav, and a gushing quote from the duo was helpfully provided to the media. The other WBD division heads that the DC guys will “work collaboratively with” were relegated to the second graph, and with no quotes. That’s partly because DC shares resources and a P&L with Warners’ film group, and Hamada previously reported to De Luca.

But it’s also no secret that De Luca and Abdy enjoyed their DC oversight, and De Luca has been positioning himself lately as a comic book expert, so it’ll be interesting when the first difference of opinion on a DC film project comes up. (That’s true, to a certain extent, with all the division heads, but the non-film projects don’t cost $200 million to make and market.) Still, bringing in Safran—who’s already in the WB family on the Aquaman, Blue Beetle, and Shazam! movies—was apparently De Luca’s idea, so he’s incentivized to make this work.   

4. What will the “big investment” in DC look like?

On that podcast, Zaslav explained his view that WBD spends too much on content that doesn’t matter to audiences and not enough on content that does matter. “There’s areas like DC,” he said, “where we think there could be big investment and big return, and it’s not happening.” That begs the question: What is DC not doing that Zaz thinks it should be doing? (Besides making more money.) DC already produces about two big-budget movies a year, plus animation, plus all the HBO Max and CW shows based on DC properties, plus games. So how much more DC does Zaz want? 

5. Will any of this actually matter?

At least on the movie side, projects from new executives take two to three years to hit theaters. Gunn and Safran could have a new boss by then, or at least a new company name on their paychecks. Zaslav told Warners staffers at a recent town hall that the company is “absolutely not for sale.” But few on Wall Street believe that sentiment, and the financial reality is that if the company’s stock price doesn’t improve soon—it closed Friday under $13, about half the price when the company debuted in April—Zaz won’t have much of a choice but to sell or merge the whole thing. Under the rules of the Reverse Morris Trust, WBD can’t sell itself for two years, but the remaining time since that hour glass turned over is in line with how long it would take to consummate a combination of a company its size. Zaz has been complaining loudly that WBD is undervalued, and given the power of the brands and the content, he’s likely correct. But as he also said on the podcast this week, “the market is always right. Eventually.”