Warner Bros. Goes All In on Disney

Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav. Photo: Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
June 2, 2022

So, Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav wants Warner Bros. to become Disney, and he thinks incoming film chiefs Mike De Luca and Pam Abdy can do for the Warners and New Line labels what Sean Bailey has done for the live-action Disney unit. That seems to be the takeaway from yesterday’s long-predicted exit of Warners head Toby Emmerich for a producing deal, and the announcement—also long-telegraphed—that Warners will be split into separate silos: live-action films from WB and New Line (De Luca/Abdy), family animation (T.B.D.), and DC superhero stuff (very T.B.D.), all with leaders reporting to Zaslav himself.   

Few would argue with imitating a company that, in a few short years, morphed from the home of pricey write-offs like Prince of Persia and John Carter, into a risk-averse hit factory that released seven billion-dollar grossers in 2019 on the way to a record $13 billion in global box office. As I reported a couple weeks ago, Zaslav even has Alan Horn, the overseer of that Disney film strategy, in line to consult on the Warners makeover, and Zaz has been seen lately in deep conversations at the Polo Lounge with Mr. Mouseketeer himself, former C.E.O. Bob Iger.  

But as any moviegoer can tell you, Disney is very different than Warner Bros., and it’s not just that Disney is a brand unto itself—a fact Warners used to highlight, not run from. The success of the Disney silo strategy was dependent on a few very different (and arguably un-replicable) building blocks. I’m not saying this strategy won’t work for Warners; I’m just saying you can hire the same architects, and even draw the same schematics, but if the core materials aren’t there, the whole thing collapses under the weight of good intentions. Consider the evidence:   

1. The Marvel Miracle

This one’s obvious: Disney has Marvel! “DZ has decreed DC is Marvel, so it is!” one producer texted me. It’s kinda laughable. Sure, Marvel wasn’t always Marvel, and, until this unprecedented 15 year run, the DC characters were actually considered more commercial than the Marvel library. Marvel president Kevin Feige, with dozens of profitable movies in a row and an “always on” assembly line in theaters and on streaming, isn’t exactly cloneable, and we know this because Warners has tried already at DC. 

Remember when Geoff Johns was designated the “Feige of DC”? Yeah… Zaslav could make another run at Feige, who, I’m told, talked pretty seriously with Warners a few years ago when he was angling to escape the oversight of Marvel’s then-madman C.E.O. Ike Perlmutter. (Iger and Horn ended up siding with Feige, smartly.) And Warners has in the past reached out to Louis D’Esposito and other key Feige deputies, with no luck. But Zaslav probably will need to either stick with DC’s current chief, Walter Hamada, which few expect him to do, or take a chance on yet another leader for the unit. Zaz has been looking, but given Feige’s stature in town and the inevitable comparisons between Marvel and DC, this is among the most thankless high-profile gigs in entertainment.   

Question, though: If there were no Marvel, would we even be saying DC needs help? At least on the film side, the unit seems to have recovered from the Zack Snyder “Snyderverse” garbage, with crowd-pleasing hits like The Batman, Aquaman, Joker and Wonder Woman—some of them with darker themes that Disney wouldn’t touch. The upcoming Black Adam movie has The Rock; and The Flash, with a multiverse and several Batmans, is testing super high (if star Ezra Miller can keep himself off TMZ). Plus, I’m told, Todd Philips is getting pretty close on a Joker sequel. (Zaz also wants Phillips involved on the movie strategy too, Kim Masters reported.) Perhaps DC can be better integrated into the rest of the company, like with the HBO Max spinoff shows such as The Peacemaker and the upcoming Penguin. Making it a standalone “silo” could help that process, but it’s already kinda replicating Marvel in its own way, and given what’s in motion, any major changes wouldn’t take effect for a couple years anyway.

2. Disney Remakes the Hits

No disrespect to Disney and Bailey; it’s really hard to make a good movie. But a big chunk of the success of the live-action studio can be attributed to the risk-minimizing strategy of remaking beloved Disney I.P. like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Cruella, The Lion King, and next year’s The Little Mermaid. Warners and New Line also have great libraries, of course, and I’m sure De Luca and Abdy’s first task is to comb through the archives, plus figure out a way to jump-start Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. But remember, Warners has already scraped that I.P. barrel. (Hence Space Jam 2. Yes, that happened, it wasn’t a pandemic fever dream.) Every studio has scraped, it’s just that Disney’s library is better.

So it’s still a big question: what kind of movies will De Luca and Abdy make at Warners and New Line, and what will the split of theatrical vs. streaming be? (Ex-Paramount exec Emma Watts, who interviewed for the job with Zaslav, is said to have asked for bigger greenlight authority than De Luca and Abdy got.) It’s no secret that their MGM movies mostly lost money, and I doubt Zaslav wants Licorice Pizza, with its $40 million budget, anyway. 

But Mike has always been super likable and has great talent relationships. I made some cracks about his MGM spending last fall, and when I saw him at the company’s awards season holiday party, he was friendly and ready to debate it with me, which is more than I can say for most thin-skinned movie executives. He’s a survivor, who made some truly excellent and commercial movies as a producer and executive, like Boogie Nights, Austin Powers, and The Social Network. (We’ll forget about The Kitchen, the most recent film he produced for Warners.) 

Plus, he’s got a major protector in C.A.A., which has fed him projects and helped him land jobs over the years. In many ways, the ascendancy of De Luca and Abdy at Warner Bros. can be seen as the ultimate revenge by C.A.A.’s Bryan Lourd, who was incensed by former WarnerMedia C.E.O Jason Kilar and Emmerich for failing to inform him in advance of the decision to go day-and-date for all 2021 movies. Now Kilar and Emmerich are out, and Lourd has his guy in the chair.       

3. Disney Means Animation

Zaslav is probably right that Warner Bros. isn’t as big a player in animation as it should be. But creating a silo isn’t exactly flipping a switch on a hit machine. Disney, going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is synonymous with feature animation, and even Disney had to go buy Pixar and its executive talent to remain competitive. Universal became a major player with its Illumination and DreamWorks Animation deals, not because it created a “silo.” Warner Bros. Animation has hits, but it’s not on the level of Disney or Universal because its owner hasn’t invested as greatly. Pretty simple. Maybe a major hire from Disney could jump-start that rebuild, akin to David Ellison’s Skydance hiring Pixar co-founder John Lasseter.

4. Who’s the Grown Up in the Room?

Probably the most challenging aspect of the Disney-fication of Warner Bros. is that there’s no proven leader overseeing it all. Horn played that role masterfully at Disney, and now Alan Bergman has taken over. With the Fox assets and Lucasfilm, that’s seven silos reporting to Bergman, but Warners isn’t far behind with four. Who’s the train conductor and quality control? Zaslav, who has never made a movie, and whose experience at Discovery networks is largely with content like My Feet Are Killing Me (a real show) and Ladies of Liposuction (I made that one up)? He’s making a big bet on managing all these film executives himself. The org structure is lean and mean, but seems like it’s missing a key person.

None of this matters, of course, unless the investment is there to compete. And that’s the big question mark in the New Warners. Zaslav’s $3 billion in promised “synergies” at W.B.D. will soon lead to major layoffs, with many of the lower-paid Discovery people taking over for higher-paid Warners veterans. Under AT&T, Warners suffered a major brain drain in television, but its film studio was less impacted. A loss on the movie side would hurt badly, no matter how the company is organized.