Inside Warner Bros. Pictures Chief Toby Emmerich’s Vision for the Studio and DC Universe (EXCLUSIVE)

What a difference a blockbuster makes.

Wonder Woman,” the comic-book global juggernaut about the do-gooding warrior princess, has lifted spirits around the Warner Bros. lot and reenergized the struggling DC Comics cinematic universe, which many critics and fanboys had written off. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” may have grossed a combined $1.6 billion globally, but the consensus was they were dark, dour and creatively inert. “Wonder Woman,” with its message of female empowerment, has been a panacea, earning some of the year’s best reviews and inspiring a wave of internet memes.

“It’s a huge turnaround for [DC],” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “There’s been so much hate spewed at them that people were wondering if they had it in them to make a film that people actually liked.”

The success of “Wonder Woman” comes as the movie studio is in the first months of a leadership shakeup that elevated Toby Emmerich to the position of president and chief content officer and led to the ouster of production chief Greg Silverman. As one of his first priorities after taking the job in December, Emmerich has spent much of his time immersing himself in the world of DC Comics, in an effort to help the unit better compete with its highly successful rival, Disney’s Marvel.

His learning curve has been steep.

“I don’t speak comic,” Emmerich acknowledges in his first sit-down interview since assuming his new role, a week after “Wonder Woman” took the box office by storm. “I do feel like I speak motion pictures. I speak for an audience. I look and ask, ‘How does this work for a general audience?’”

Michael Mueller for Variety

The DC team says Emmerich’s lack of comic-book knowledge isn’t an issue.

“He understands that when wea’re talking about the characters, we’re not just talking about what their powers are,” says DC Entertainment president and chief creative officer Geoff Johns. “We’re talking about who they are as people.”

Emmerich may struggle with the difference between the Dark Knight and Darkseid, but comic-book movies aren’t the reason the exec is now leading the studio’s film arm. He established himself as one of the industry’s most widely respected creative executives during an eight-year stint running Warner’s New Line Cinema. There, he primarily churned out modestly budgeted comedies and horror films, such as “We’re the Millers” and “Annabelle,” which often proved enormously profitable. Though New Line made a few pricey films — some of which worked (“San Andreas”), others that didn’t (“Jack the Giant Slayer”) — that wasn’t really Emmerich’s modus operandi. He had deep relationships with the creative community and an ability to rein in costs that made him attractive to corporate higher-ups.

“Toby came into this role having successfully run a movie studio that produced every genre, from billion-dollar franchise titles to microbudget horror films,” Warner Bros. Entertainment chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara says. “He’s extremely talented, well-respected and has a vision for Warner Bros. Pictures’ future, as well as a plan on how to execute on that vision.”

Emmerich’s success at finding the next big franchises will determine whether or not his tenure at the studio is a long and happy one. Warner Bros. was once the titan of Hollywood, boasting the likes of “The Hobbit,” “Harry Potter” and “The Dark Knight.” Those series have reached their conclusions, and in the intervening years the studio has struggled to find new ones. The tens of millions spent and lost by Warner Bros. on “Pan,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and this summer’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” show just how difficult it can be to develop fresh hits. In the interim, Disney, with its arsenal of “Star Wars” and “Avengers” adventures, has established itself as the dominant brand in movies.

“Warners has had an uneven record,” says Matthew Harrigan, an analyst with Wunderlich Securities. “Aspirationally, they want to be the envy of all the other studios, but the implementation has been uneven. If you look at ‘Suicide Squad’ or ‘Batman v Superman,’ it’s embarrassing how bad the critical fallout was.”

Sitting in a garden patio at Warner Bros.’ Burbank headquarters and later, after the air grows crisp, in a conference room adorned with posters of studio triumphs such as “Wonder Woman” and blunders like “King Arthur,” Emmerich is eager to give the credit for the latest windfall to Johns and Jon Berg, the executives who oversee the comic-book films. He stresses that the success of “Wonder Woman” is more their doing, saying the film was deep into post-production when he took over at the studio. He believes the movie feels fresh because the “heart and humor” that director Patty Jenkins injected into the picture was a break from the downbeat superhero films that have been hitting multiplexes. “The zeitgeist of the culture, in America and many parts of the world, were ready to embrace a female superhero,” Emmerich says.

It’s too soon to credit “Wonder Woman” with shattering Hollywood’s glass ceiling for female directors, but the film did prove that there is an appetite for action films about strong women.

“I know that our competitors are going to look at the success of this movie,” he says. “People love to call Hollywood lemmings, and it’s not always unfair. I’m sure that plenty of producers and writers and studio executives are asking, ‘What the heck happened with “Wonder Woman,” and how do we get in on that action?’”

In the meantime, DC is plunging ahead with two more female-focused projects, “Gotham City Sirens,” in which Margot Robbie will reprise her “Suicide Squad” role as the demented Harley Quinn, and Joss Whedon’s “Batgirl,” which the “Avengers” writer and director urged the studio to make. There will also be more Diana Prince. Emmerich says that Jenkins is already working on a “Wonder Woman” sequel. It won’t take place in World War I, as the first film did, but it will also likely be set in the past.

“It will take place somewhere between 1917 and 2017,” Emmerich says coyly.

He’s also thinking of ways that DC can differentiate itself from Marvel projects, which tend to be family-friendly. Emmerich says he admires violent, irreverent and very adult comic-book movies such as “Logan” and “Deadpool.”

“I would be surprised if we didn’t at some point make an R-rated DC movie,” says Emmerich.

Emmerich, who prefers cardigans to power suits, isn’t the typical Hollywood executive. Perhaps it’s his upbringing: His father, Andre Emmerich, was an influential art dealer; his mother, Constance Marantz, is a concert pianist; and brother Noah has a key role as an FBI agent on “The Americans.” Emmerich comes off as more cerebral and composed than the typically flashy and hard-charging studio chief. He’s devoted to his wife and two children and tries to cook dinner and breakfast for the family on the weekends.

“Aquaman” and “The Conjuring” director James Wan says Emmerich preaches the gospel of self-improvement to friends. He convinced the filmmaker that taking cold showers has salutary benefits.

“It’s easier to partake of in the summer than the winter, but it does pep me up and keeps me going through the day,” Wan says.

Unlike other Hollywood players, Emmerich speaks at a lower decibel level, referencing film classes he took as a student at Wesleyan University, where he was a contemporary of Whedon and Michael Bay.

“I don’t speak comic. I do feel like I speak motion pictures. I speak for an audience. I look and ask, ‘How does this work for a general audience?’”
Toby Emmerich

“He’s a strong presence,” says producer Chris Bender, who has worked with Emmerich on the likes of “We’re the Millers” and “Vacation.” “We’ve been in the trenches many times. Sometimes you’re in the test-screening phase and your movie’s getting a good score or a bad score, but he’s always had a nice, calming effect even when the situation’s tough.”

To unwind, Emmerich reads, meditates, does yoga and Pilates and plays the occasional game of tennis. He used to ride a motorcycle (but admits he’s not doing that as much these days) and he’s an amateur photographer (his first job was taking head shots of actors and musicians).

Though he’s kept a low profile since taking the job at Warner, he’s already making a mark on operations. He’s promoted Courtenay Valenti, a studio veteran, to head production and development, and he brought back Kevin McCormick, a former top Warner executive, to serve as exec VP of production and as a senior adviser. By the fall, Emmerich wants to move the Warner Bros. animation division and DC Comics into a central location with the rest of the production team.

“Culture’s influenced a lot by architecture and the space that you’re in — how you physically bump into each other,” he says. “I like conversations a lot more than meetings. The closer people are and the more ebb and flow that there is, I think the better it is.”

DC may be commanding the bulk of his attention, but Emmerich is also looking beyond the Justice League. He’s confident in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the “Harry Potter” spinoff that made $814 million globally last year, anticipates four more “wizarding” films and believes that the series will build a bigger audience as it continues. He’s also bullish on “Jungle Book,” a long-gestating motion-capture version of the Rudyard Kipling stories that’s being directed by Andy Serkis, the actor behind Gollum in “LOTR.” Many in Hollywood have questioned the wisdom of moving forward with the film given Disney’s adaptation of the same material became a nearly $1 billion worldwide hit in 2016, but Emmerich says that Serkis’ vision is unique.

“I’m very curious how the world embraces it,” he says. “It is based on the same source material that the Disney movie is based on, but man, is it a different interpretation. If Rudyard Kipling saw this movie, he would more readily recognize it as an adaptation of his book.”

These days, most studios are making fewer films but placing bigger bets on movies about costumed vigilantes or big-screen versions of toy lines. Despite the production slowdown among its competitors, Warner intends to release a wide array of films. The plan is for the studio to back 18 to 22 titles a year, roughly double what Disney produces. Despite being burned on the likes of “King Arthur,” Emmerich believes that Warners must continue to be aggressive and take chances, knowing that big swings can sometimes lead to big misses. He’s also wary of prizing well-known brands above compelling stories.

“There are things that everybody’s heard of, like Kleenex tissues,” says Emmerich. “Everyone knows what it is, but I’m not looking to make the Kleenex movie. Just because they’ve heard of it doesn’t make it a good idea.”

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