Warner rides pricey pic tide

Prod'n chief has uneasy task of keeping weighty film slate rolling

For the shooting of Wolfgang Petersen’s “Poseidon,” giant soundstages on the Warners lot have been turned into two massive water tanks. Inside one, the doomed ocean liner is right side up. In the other, the S.S. Poseidon is upside down.

It’s a fitting metaphor for Warners production chief Jeff Robinov’s worldview.

Three years on the job, Robinov is enjoying a hot streak at the box office. Hollywood’s largest studio has already recorded $1 billion at the U.S. box offices. Grosses are up 9% this year so far, while the movie biz overall is down 7%.

But the former ICM agent takes little comfort from the studio’s success. Robinov labors under the pressure of having to oversee and control two of the costliest movies of all time — “Superman Returns” and “Poseidon” — a task which cannot but be daunting. He’s all too conscious that the studio’s good fortune could end with a single bad weekend.

The press-wary Robinov, who is alternately described as soft-spoken or cold, could just be the antidote to the swaggering, Harvard-educated Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, who repeatedly clashed with Warner Bros. Entertainment prexy-COO Alan Horn.

“Lorenzo tried to build up a cult of personality around him. Jeff has no desire whatsoever to do that,” one Warners-based producer says.

Robinov projects the demeanor not of a production mogul in the style of, say, Jack Warner, but of a corporate apparatchik, perfectly in sync with the understated managerial system put in place by Horn and his boss, Warner Bros. Entertainment chair-CEO Barry Meyer.

Robinov is a shrewd studio lieutenant who carefully follows Horn’s general orders, even as he aggressively develops a more filmmaker-driven slate and pursues pics not traditionally thought of as “Warner” material.

He’s tried to create a corporate climate in which a filmmaker’s vision can flourish. “Ultimately, someone has to make the picture. Sometimes the producers are more influential and sometimes the director is more influential. Sometimes it is the studio, and that’s the position I really wanted to stay out of,” he says.

Still, Horn alone has the authority to greenlight a pic, while Robinov keeps the development and production machine humming.

“Alan gives us the general parameters of what he wants, let’s say, two tentpoles, and three or four event pictures,” Robinov says. “Then he says, ‘I’d really like you to give us a balanced, diverse slate. And how you do it is up to you and your team fundamentally.'”

But when it comes to the weighty decisions, Horn is never far away. He was in the room with Robinov when Christopher Nolan pitched “Batman Begins,” while Horn flew with Robinov to London to meet with Tim Burton about directing “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” (Inking both directors was initially Robinov’s idea.)

Observers note that Robinov shares with Horn an affinity for eclectic projects and arguably more interesting directors. But Horn, who in his earlier career as a producer, enjoyed profit participation in some of the most successful shows on TV, governs the studio with an understated self-assurance that sets him apart from Robinov.

“Jeff and I work very well together,” Horn says. “Our tastes aren’t identical — I might want a romantic comedy or two, and he might want a young male action movie, but together we create a varied slate. We share certain values in how we view the world and business.”

Whatever their differences, the Horn-Robinov honeymoon has segued into a happy early marriage. Then again, it’s easier to get along when life is prosperous and the release formula devised by Horn and Meyer is paying off — i.e., release 20-22 pics a year, many of them co-financed, with three or four swing-for-the-fences event films.

Warners Bros. Pictures already is enjoying a record year domestically, and has spent eight weeks at No. 1, more than any other studio and its best showing in at least several years.

For the first time ever at Warners, two films — “Batman” and “Charlie” — have crossed the $200 million mark domestically. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which bows in November, could make three.

“No one has ever had three,” Warners distribution chief Dan Fellman says. “We are going to have the biggest year in our history.”

Studio has suffered its share of duds and so-so performers. “Alexander” only grossed $34.3 million in the U.S., while “House of Wax” topped out at $32 million. “Must Love Dog” took in under $40 million. Warners remains strong internationally — already crossing the $1.2 billion mark this year — with overseas grosses for some pics like “Alexander” making up for shortfalls stateside.

“To Jeff’s credit, he’s made a lot of good calls and choices,” one Warners exec says. “The bad news is that he sometimes comes across as aloof, cold and arbitrary.”

One agent remembers repping a director who said some “stupid stuff” while in a meeting with Robinov. “Jeff didn’t mince words. He essentially said, ‘your guy is basically dead at this studio.'”

Robinov confesses that his people skills can be a double-edged sword: “On one side, people generally know where you stand on things, and people will take what you say at face value. On the other hand, people don’t always want to hear the truth.”

The next year and a half will prove a particular test for Robinov’s agenda, considering the studio’s release sked is replete with somewhat edgier titles directed by less obvious choices.

This fall, studio will release Steve Gaghan’s “Syriana” starring George Clooney, a multi-layered political story in the vein of “Traffic” but based on the oil industry instead of drugs; Shane Black’s high-octane directorial debut, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and Jennifer Aniston starrer “Rumor Has It,” an offbeat comedy that started out as the directorial debut of Ted Griffin, but was taken over by Rob Reiner when Griffin was booted off the project.

Warners’ slate also is replete with indie or foreign directors, many of whom were wooed by Robinov: Oliver Hirschbiegel (“Downfall”) is directing “The Visiting” with Nicole Kidman; Andrew Dominik (“Chopper”) is directing “The Assassination of Jesse James” with Brad Pitt and Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream”) is directing “The Fountain.”

In addition to family pics “The Ant Bully” and “Happy Feet,” next year’s release sked includes Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water,” Curtis Hanson’s “Lucky You” and “V for Vendetta” from the Wachowski brothers, whom Robinov repped when at ICM.

Studio also is developing Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German.” It’s a risky project: a historical murder mystery to be shot in black and white.

Nolan, who directed “Memento” and “Insomnia,” might have seemed an odd choice for “Batman Begins,” but the bet paid off. It’s become the highest grossing pic in the franchise.

Burton has done his share of studio work — including directing the 1989 “Batman” for Warners — but Robinov argues he’s hardly mainstream.

“I think both are unique films, and I think that’s a large part of their success. They sort of crept through the ‘sameness’ quality out there in the market,” says Robinov.

Likewise, he says British director Mike Newell is bringing a new look and tone to “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Same goes for Bryan Singer, who is directing “Superman.”

According to Robinov, a stable of top-flight filmmakers has made it easier to attract top actors. Charlize Theron eagerly signed up to star in “North Country,” which was directed by Niki Caro in her studio directorial debut. Robinov chased after the Kiwi helmer after seeing “Whale Rider.”

Some industry observers point out that Robinov is hardly the first or only production prexy to pair down-the-middle material with big-name directors. And it’s a strategy that can lead to formidable marketing challenges. Smaller movies like “North Country,” which isn’t tracking strongly, but is being eyed for its Oscar potential, have been known to fall through the cracks at Warners.

Presently, Horn and Robinov are plotting their tentpole sked for 2007, 2008 and 2009. They’re banking on the sixth “Harry Potter” film for 2007, and a “Batman Begins” sequel in 2008.

“Superman” and “Poseidon” — both of which cost some $200 million to make — have had their share of troubles, with various rewrites of “Poseidon” costing many millions and “Superman” running over schedule. “Poseidon” is apparently following the “Day After Tomorrow Model,” i.e., forego A-list stars in favor of intense scenery and special effects.

Robinov also is intent on developing more comedies, and recently engineered a first-look deal with Broken Lizard, the team behind “Super Troopers.”

Recently arrived Warners-based producer Donald De Line is expected to help Warners build up its comedic profile, an area in which it was lacking.

De Line’s producing pact, along with the recent first-look deal signed with Graham King’s Initial Entertainment Group, have taken the edge off the departure of Plan B — the high-profile production shingle founded by Brad Pitt and Aniston — for Par.

Robinov doesn’t seem jittery over Clooney’s repeated insistence that Section 8, the Warners-based shingle set up by Soderbergh and him, will disband when its contract is up at the end of 2007.

By most accounts, morale is good among Robinov’s production team, which includes exec VPs Kevin McCormick, Courtenay Valenti and Lynn Harris; senior VPS Jessica Goodman, Greg Silverman, Lionel Wigram and Polly Cohen; and VPs Jeff Clifford and Dan Lin.

“We just had a retreat last week and the general sense is that it’s been a good year for us,” one exec says. “Jeff is less a hands-on manager than a ruler by consensus. He wants to hear what the group thinks. If he doesn’t like something, but the whole group does, he’ll say, ‘OK, bring it to Alan.’ ”

Robinov isn’t necessarily fatalistic, but he’s well aware of the perils of the position he holds.

“You go on the line with these films. I’m selfishly glad we are doing well,” Robinov says. “It could have played out a different way, and we’d be having a different conversation. And you’d be talking to someone else.”

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