WB to roll back output, cut down on event pix

New strategy focuses on more mid-budget efforts

As part of its comeback strategy, Warner Bros. will cut back its output to roughly 20 feature pics per year, down from the average of 28 over the last few years, in an effort to control production and marketing costs.

Announcing the drop in an interview with Daily Variety last week, WB chairman and co-CEO Terry Semel, along with newly appointed lone prexy of production Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, discussed a number of shifts in the Warners structure and philosophy.

Semel, who shares the WB reins with fellow chairman and co-CEO Bob Daly, also said WB would be cutting back on big-budget “event” pics. Other plans include working with an array of new producers, more reliance on co-production ventures and, following the success of “City of Angels,” more pics in the mid-sized budget range.

“We have not taken ourselves out of the big-event movie business,” said Semel. “However, we don’t need to do that very of-ten. We don’t need an event picture four or five times a year.”

Di Bonaventura made his first press appearance since taking over as top dog in Warners production following Bill Gerber’s exit to take a production deal.

New deals

Di Bonaventura noted that Warners was expanding the scope of its producer ranks with a number of new deals. “There is a conscious effort to expand the family and make it more diverse,” said Di Bonaventura.

Semel mentioned the mid-sized budget range of $20 million to $80 million, which encompasses an area that most studios deem unwanted and unprofitable. But Semel noted that many of WB’s mid-sized pics had been successes, like the recent “City of Angels,” which won the domestic U.S. box office two weeks in a row.

“Without question, costs have been skyrocketing,” Semel said, because the glut of pics has helped boost production and distri-bution costs. “We intend to make fewer pictures.”

B.O. blues

The internal moves at WB come after 18 months of disappointing box office results for such pics as “Fathers’ Day,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “Mad City,” “Sphere” and “The Postman.”

Semel claims any changes at WB are not linked to the last year’s domestic B.O. perf of the feature division. Rather, he says Warners is responding to a changing show business.

“It’s the result of the state of our own industry, across the board,” he said. “We can’t change what the industry does. Why don’t we change what we do? I think that everyone is happily more reflective right now.”

Warners recently shelved “Superman” with Nicolas Cage and Kevin Spacey under Tim Burton’s direction, as well as “I Am Legend” with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Di Bonaventura insists that both are still actively back in development and will be restructured to go into production in the future.

But the moves were proof of Warners’ desire to cut back on spendthrift ways. Sources said last week that WB was meeting with Burton as late as Friday to reconfigure the “Superman” pic.

Another byproduct of a smaller slate will be the studio’s ability to greenlight pics when they’re ready, rather than when they’re needed to fill a distribution pipeline. “We want to be able to focus,” said Semel. “We want to have more time to work on the screenplays and more time to work on the budgets.”

More first- and second-time directors (read: inexpensive) will be inked for WB pics. And the studio wants to use a variety of producers.

Pics from established producers like Joel Silver, Jerry Weintraub, Jon Peters, Richard Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner will be mixed with those from the studio’s newer deals with producers like Paula Weinstein and Barry Levinson, Mark Canton, Denise DiNovi, Jorge Saralegui and Andrew Lazar; also in the blend are the co-financing deals with Village Roadshow, Steve Reuther and Morgan Creek.

Extended family

“There is a conscious effort to expand the family and make it more diverse,” added Di Bonaventura.

However, one top industry agent points to the expensive older deals with Weintraub, Peters and the Donners as close to extinction. “There will finally be a shift away from the good-ol’-boy network that has always existed at that place,” said the agent.

Financial co-ventures on features will be a mainstay at Warners through the inhouse production pacts with Village Roadshow, Morgan Creek and Steve Reuther’s Bel Air Entertainment — all of which were brought in to replace the void left by the departures of Arnon Milchan’s New Regency and Arnold Kopelson’s production company.

But Warners is still hesitant to venture into a split rights deal with other studios, largely because it wants to retain foreign rights.

Though “Twister” was a hit for WB and Universal, Warners insiders say the studio is always open to the idea, but has no specific plans to explore the split-rights package. Another reason is that the inhouse deals still allow Warners to retain copyright on most of the releases.

Semel and Di Bonaventura were eager to discuss their slate, which includes “Analyze This,” “The Avengers,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “Dino,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” “The Iron Giant,” “Frost,” “The League,” “The Matrix,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Mickey Blue Eyes,” The Negotiator,” “A Perfect Murder,” “Practical Magic,” “Quest for Camelot,” “Soldier” and “Three to Tango.”