After setbacks, studio revs up tentpoles

With a worldwide gross of $700 million (and still counting), “The Dark Knight” is exactly the kind of film Warner Bros. likes to make.

It’s a tentpole whose supersized budget for top talent, lavish action sequences and special effects can pay off big time by selling a helluva lot of tickets — and raking in the dough for other divisions, including TV, homevid, merchandise and vidgames.

If Warners got its way, it would have at least four of those blockbusters a year. Yet the studio is light on tentpoles next summer. Make that most of 2009.

Thanks to the addition of New Line and the shuttering of Warner Independent and Picturehouse, the studio has a glut of films to release — but not necessarily the kinds of films WB is used to distributing.

It will still release 25 films annually, as normal. But a majority of the films on the slate next year are made up of comedies and genre fare — less expensive projects it was able to turn around quickly because of the writers strike. It looked like traditional superheroes and fantasy epics would be no-shows, until Warners late last week decided to move “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” from November to July 17. That was apparently a surprise to Entertainment Weekly, which this week features Daniel Radcliffe on the cover of its Fall movie preview. The final pic in the Harry Potter series is being split into two films that will unspool in 2010 and 2011.

The writers strike affected every studios’ slate. But WB, with its focus on tentpoles, was particularly hard hit, in part because such large-scale projects involve a lot of divisions within the conglomerate to pull the trigger on tie-ins all at once.

And Warners had to cope with other distractions as well.

Since March, shortly after the end of the strike, the studio has been busy dealing with parent Time Warner’s decision to fold New Line Cinema into Warner Bros., which thrust 20 movies and 640 staffers onto studio toppers Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov.

Execs spent the first several months integrating New Line’s pics with Warners’ slate — pics that had already been skedded.

In doing so, it had to quickly come up with the marketing efforts for some of those initial rollouts. Pics like “Sex and the City” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” didn’t have marketing materials ready, for example.

“Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” only had a one-sheet five weeks before the pic opened; it had no TV spots or trailers for “Sex and the City.”

“This was a period of tremendous turmoil and people just stopped,” Horn says. “Everything came to a sudden hockey stop over there.”

Months later, stacked boxes of New Line documents still line the walls of WB’s executive building on the lot.

New Line’s takeover occurred as Warners was just getting used to an inhouse reshuffling of its executive ranks, with Robinov late last year adding marketing and distribution stripes to his title as prexy of Warner Bros. Pictures Group. And Sue Kroll was tapped in January to head all the studio’s marketing efforts after having overseen its international promo pushes.

Just as staffers are getting comfortable with those changes, WB execs may have another big issue to deal with.

A looming question mark is how Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes’ future moves will affect the studio. There’s talk that Bewkes is kicking the tires of NBC Universal and may buy the company in order to gain much-needed cable and broadcast TV webs to pair up with pay-cabler HBO. But such a purchase would give the conglom another studio, as well.

It’s a situation execs aren’t looking forward to dealing with anytime soon as the studio is ramping up production after being hit hard by the writers strike.

The three-month walkout kept the studio from developing its bigger properties.

“We were impacted, there’s no denying that,” Horn says. “We really needed screenplays and we were just dead in the water. It hurt (tentpoles) the worst.”

The studio had considered rushing several projects with scripts it felt were still rough, but “you had no idea what the movie’s really going to cost,” Robinov says. The decision not to make the movies were “dictated as much by trying to mitigate the risk as anything else.”

As for a potential actors strike, the studio is hopeful an agreement will come soon. But WB won’t be stopping production on future pics as both sides negotiate.

“No one on either side wants a strike and we really hope there isn’t one, but we have no choice but to proceed,” Horn says. “We can’t be in a position where we don’t have any movies. So we are proceeding and we’re doing what we need to do.”

Going forward, New Line will produce six pics per year and retain worldwide rights, versus putting 12 through its pipeline and selling off foreign territories, a decision that was made by Bewkes from New York.

With Toby Emmerich still at the helm, the company won’t just be making genre pics like a “Friday the 13th” redo but big-budgeters like “The Hobbit” and “Gears of War” as well.

Warners aims to release roughly 25 movies a year. But with New Line in the mix, the studio found it had too many movies to schedule.

Horn and Robinov say that was one of their motives to shutter indie outfits Picturehouse (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Warner Independent (“March of the Penguins”) in May. The move also was attributed to cost-cutting at a time when the specialty arms were struggling to attract enough auds to their pics to make them financially viable.

It was especially difficult to justify their presence at a major conglom like Time Warner, focused on the bottom line.

“We hope to derive box office for the year and profitability for the year that makes sense for us and the guys in New York,” Horn says. “They don’t care what the labels are.”

Warner Bros. is looking for DC Comics to produce more movies.

The Time Warner comic-book arm is sitting on a stable of well-known superhero properties like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League, but has been slow to develop the bigscreen adventures.

Getting the movies made would involve many of Warner Bros.’ other divisions — including TV, homevid, consumer products, online and vidgames — that would create tie-in projects for release around the films.

“They need a lot of lead time and it all needs to be choreographed,” Robinov says.

Yet with the dearth of tentpoles next year, those same divisions will have little to work with and will have to focus on more classic product like Looney Tunes.

The situation also forced longtime financing partner Village Roadshow to look elsewhere for big movies to back. It decided to put money behind Paramount’s franchise-hopeful “G.I. Joe” that bows next summer.

Yet even with such spectacular pics on the docket, there are no guarantees on what will catch fire. The studio is enjoying the “Dark Knight” bonanza, but it stalled badly at the B.O. early this summer with “Speed Racer,” which the Wachowski brothers directed and Joel Silver produced. Another installment isn’t likely after the pic brought in a mere $86 million worldwide.

“We have not always been successful,” Horn says. “We have had our misfires but they have in no way caused us to feel that we should abandon our strategy. There’s absolutely no change in the philosophy of the company. We are as committed as ever to having tentpoles.”

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