Warner Bros Superheroes properties
Luke Brookes for Variety

Call it the Tsujihara Doctrine.

Soon after Kevin Tsujihara took over as Warner Bros. chairman-CEO, he made the decision to break with protocol from the previous regime — a change that would have a profound effect on the studio. At an early strategy session, senior execs recall him issuing a new edict: DC Entertainment is open for business across the lot.

Tsujihara made it clear that the vast archive of comic-book characters in the DC vault would no longer be under the tight control of Warner Bros.’ film division. WB’s television and interactive units would have new flexibility to develop projects derived from the properties, even if they were concurrently being eyed for movie projects.

He established the studio’s equivalent of the Justice League. Every two weeks, top execs including DC Entertainment’s Diane Nelson and Geoff Johns, Warner Bros. Pictures’ Sue Kroll and Greg Silverman and Warner Bros. TV’s Peter Roth gather with Tsujihara to talk about all things DC, and coordinate strategies.

The group aims to be respectful of one another’s goals, and mindful of the danger of flooding the market with too much product. But TV, video games and consumer products no longer take a back seat to film. Prolific producer Greg Berlanti is approaching superhero status himself on the WB lot for his success in steering the DC-derived series — “The Flash” and “Arrow” (plus another on tap for midseason, “Legends of Tomorrow”) — that have turned around the fortunes of the CW, which Warner Bros. jointly owns with CBS Corp.

STRONG ENTRANCE: “Supergirl,” starring Melissa Benoist, debuted Oct. 26 to fall’s largest audience for a series premiere (nearly 13 million), and has held up pretty well since.
Supergirl (CBS) 11.8m Season avg.

Source: Nielsen (live +3 through Nov. 17)

“If there are any issues or sensitivities, we hash it out in the room,” says Nelson, president of DC Entertainment. “It no longer feels like a hierarchical situation where film will trump television.” Nelson is one of Tsujihara’s closest lieutenants, and she also serves as president of Warner Bros. Consumer Products and president and chief creative officer of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. “It’s a basic example of communication,” she adds. “You have to have the CEO of the company actively involved to make it work effectively.”

The company-wide inclusiveness regarding DC reflects a broader shift in operations under Tsujihara, WB veterans say. Communication and collaboration among key divisions are not just encouraged, they’re mandated for senior management. Studio insiders say Tsujihara has stressed that the silo mentality of the past won’t do. The same tear-down-this-wall ethos has been applied to Warner Bros. and its Time Warner sibling units, HBO and Turner Broadcasting, as Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes has frequently emphasized to Wall Street.

“It’s a high priority for us,” Tsujihara says of cross-Time Warner collaboration efforts. “We are all facing different challenges, creating a real urgency for us to work together. … I think the cultures of each of the businesses are changing, and the culture of Time Warner is changing.”

Tsujihara moved into his job in March 2013, a few months after Richard Plepler was elevated to chairman-CEO at HBO. Former Time Warner chief financial officer John Martin took over as CEO of Turner Broadcasting in January 2014. The leadership change at Time Warner’s three pillars also took effect as Bewkes completed the spinoff of publishing arm Time Inc. in June 2014. These were the final touches on his mission to streamline the conglomerate into a film, TV and digital content-focused enterprise. With newly installed CEOs running the profit centers of a smaller company overall, it was natural for Tsujihara, Plepler and Martin to put their heads together in tackling myriad issues.

The results have paid dividends both big and small. Twenty-five years after Warner Bros. TV and HBO were united under the Time Warner umbrella, WBTV last year produced its first series for the premium cabler — drama “The Leftovers,” now in its second season. Early next year, HBO will add a second show, the J.J. Abrams-Jonathan Nolan drama “Westworld,” based on the camp ’70s sci-fi movie. And Warner Bros. Animation is producing more series for Turner’s Cartoon Network than ever before, and collaborating on consumer products initiatives.

“If there are any issues or sensitivities, we hash it out in the room. It’s a basic example of communication; you have to have the CEO of the company actively involved to make it work effectively.”
Diane Nelson, DC Entertainment

The studio has moved into other new arenas, such as producing original series for Netflix — an animated take on “Green Eggs and Ham” from Ellen DeGeneres’ WBTV-based production banner. It took some doing to sort out the business terms on that deal, but it’s seen as an investment in the future of premium content.

“The mandate is to produce quality shows. If we do that, we will be able to monetize them,” says Peter Roth, president and chief content officer of Warner Bros. TV Group. “Our job is to be in business with the best creative talent, and deliver shows with the kind of quality that will have a long lifespan. It’s been exciting for our (WBTV exec) team and for our talent to move into new areas of the business.”

The sense of urgency at Warners to make a change in the way things had been done with DC is fueled by the runaway success Marvel is enjoying as part of Disney.

Warner Bros. has been the home of DC ever since Steve Ross’ Kinney Corp. took over the studio in 1969 (Kinney acquired what was then National Periodical Publications in 1967). But successful film and TV adaptations have come in fits and starts. Warners mined gold from DC Comics in the late 1970s and early ’80s with Christopher Reeve’s “Superman” series; in the 1980s and early 1990s with Michael Keaton’s “Batman” and its successors; and more recently with the long-running WB/CW series “Smallville” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” film trilogy.

But Marvel’s run at the box office with franchises including “Spider-Man” (through Sony), “X-Men” (through Fox), and in-house properties like “Captain America,” “Iron Man” and most recently “The Avengers,” put the spotlight on how effectively comic-book properties can be managed on a timetable to provide steady — and predictable — returns.

In 2009, Warner Bros. restructured DC Comics to create DC Entertainment — in a comic-book-worthy twist of fate, the same week Disney announced its stealth $4 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment. The goal was to turn DC, now led by Nelson, a respected studio marketing vet who made her mark shepherding the “Harry Potter” film franchise, into a “feeder” of source material for all WB divisions, while maintaining a big presence in comic-book publishing. In practice, however, because Nelson reported to then Warner Bros. Pictures chief Jeff Robinov, the focus remained highly film-centric.

That pecking order had been set a decade earlier, in 1999, sources say, when the WB Network (now the CW) was hot on a “Batman” prequel script from writer Tim McCanlies that revolved around the youthful adventures of Bruce Wayne. The project was shut down before it got to the pilot production stage after WB Pictures execs got wind of it, and worried that it would muck up their plans to revive “Batman” on the big screen. The WB Network was allowed to pursue a similar concept for Superman, which yielded the 10-year success of “Smallville,” but the earlier sting lingered.

Left: Gotham (Fox) 6.3m Season avg; right: The Flash (CW) 5.1m Season avg.
Source: Nielsen (live +3 through Nov. 17)

After Tsujihara became CEO, Nelson shifted to a dual reporting structure — to Tsujihara and Robinov — as she also took over home entertainment and video games. By the time Robinov left the studio in July that year, Tsujihara had laid down his DC manifesto, and Nelson has since reported directly to him. The two have worked closely together throughout their respective two decades-plus tenures at Warner Bros.

With DC’s vault opened wide, Nelson and Johns, DC Entertainment’s chief creative officer, are working with the film team to plot an ambitious schedule of 10 films to be released over the next five years. At the same time, the WBTV team has put numerous projects into development, including “The Flash” for the CW. That would never have happened in the past, because “Flash” is also on the docket for a feature film in 2018.

Inside of two years, Warner Bros. TV now has seven (and counting) primetime series derived from the comic-book imprints of DC and its subsidiary, Vertigo. Last year, the TV studio finally got its “Batman” prequel in the form of Fox’s “Gotham,” although the focus shifted from Bruce Wayne to Commissioner Gordon and Gotham City’s villains. Sources described that creative fillip as a sign of compromise between WB divisions as the film side tees up “Batman v Superman” next year.

DC also has been the source of a short-form original series for TheWB.com digital channel, “Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles.”

Comic-book IP is prized by the studio because the shows tend to travel well overseas, and are sought after in syndication by SVOD players. Netflix pounced on “Gotham” even before the series premiered on Fox, striking a precedent-setting deal for rerun rights to the tune of $1.75 million an episode.

Left: Arrow (CW) 3.5m Season avg.; Center: Teen Titans Go (Cartoon Network) 1.8m Season avg.; right: iZombie (CW) 1.9m Season avg.

Source: Nielsen (live +3 through Nov. 17)

Perhaps the biggest impact of the DC properties has been on the CW. “The Flash” and “Arrow” have become the backbone of a network that had been flagging and rudderless. CW also airs the femme-friendly “iZombie,” and has “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” on tap for midseason. The appeal of these DC shows help CW maintain the SVOD output deals with Netflix and Hulu that have been crucial to its survival.

After “The Flash” premiered last fall to CW’s highest ratings in more than five years, Berlanti got a call at his WB office asking him to stop in to see Tsujihara in the executive office building. “That was the first time that ever happened to me,” Berlanti says. The producer made sure he brought along a few prototypes of “The Flash”-derived action figures that Consumer Products was about to unleash.

“He was excited about the character and Grant,” Berlanti says. And that enthusiasm has not waned. “You can tell that he really loves the show. He always talks to us about watching it with his kids. You get a sense that he’s really invested,” he says.

At Warner Bros. these days, success is all about sharing.

The DC Docket
Warner Bros. has an aggressive five-year plan for superhero pics.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice directed by Zack Snyder (March 2016)
Suicide Squad directed by David Ayer (August 2016)
Wonder Woman  starring Gal Gadot (June 2017)
Justice League Part 1 directed by Zack Snyder, with Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill (November 2017)
The Flash starring Ezra Miller (March 2018)
Aquaman starring Jason Momoa (July 2018)
Shazam starring Dwayne Johnson (April 2019)
Justice League Part 2 directed by Zack Snyder (June 2019)
Cyborg starring Ray Fisher (April 2020)
Green Lantern (June 2020)

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