WB revs up movie machine

Upping the ante, studio shifts into overdrive with broader mix of pics

Warner Bros. stunned audiences in 1927 by releasing “The Jazz Singer,” the world’s first talking movie.

Since then, however, the studio hasn’t always operated as a hive of derring-do.

Prolific and successful? Absolutely. A savvy crafter of screen personas from Bogart to Batman? Indeed.

But by the end of the Daly-Semel era, a specific kind of motor was clearly driving Warners to its enviable chunk of the movie market. Precision-tuned to deliver a steady flow of product, over time it let a by-the-numbers ethos seep into the fuel line.

The result: lackluster offerings like “Lethal Weapon IV” and “Wild Wild West.”

Now a new century has arrived, and with it a new mandate from parent company AOL. Content rules, and the orders to WB brass are not just to maintain a stable flow but to produce as many pics as humanly possible.

Hence, the studio is overseeing the most aggressive release slate in town.

At last count, there were 28 Warners titles for 2001 — 13 films in production and another 18 in post. Already a strong second in the 2001 market-share race, the studio’s biggest challenge may be how and where to display all of the high-end merchandise.

The race is on to complete effects-heavy titles like summer tentpoles “A.I.” and “Cats and Dogs,” as well as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the franchise already inducing magic-wand envy.

Warners also has the second and third “Matrix” pics in production, plus the next “Harry Potter” seg. Also skedded to wrap shooting soon are holiday heavyweights “The Majestic” and “Ocean’s Eleven.”

“Our guys are working like dogs right now,” says worldwide production prexy Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. “Producing 25-30 films is our capacity. It’s double shifts.”

Like all other studios, Warners is currently in a place where, thanks to the strike threat, little to nothing is flexible — dates can’t be pushed, there’s no wiggle room in production, there’s no time to fix it in post.Certain constituencies of the Burbank bunch are particularly prone to nail-biting.

Pics like the Robert De Niro-Eddie Murphy vehicle “Showtime,” the Michelle Pfeiffer starrer “White Oleander” and the Ashley Judd-Sandra Bullock two-hander “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” will need every minute of their production schedules.

And when execs can’t do anything about the laws of time and space, they start sleeping a lot less and making calls while still in their bathrobes.

His eyes occasionally tearing from a combination of fatigue and allergies, film division prexy-chief operating officer Alan Horn admits that he feel much better when he gets a full seven hours of shuteye.

For now, though, that isn’t an option. After he leaves the office, attends labor meetings and gets home in time to kiss his kids goodnight, there is always a pile of scripts to read, which keeps him up past midnight.

From the day that Horn took his post at Warners 21 months ago, he made it clear that he intended to read every script that his production executives said the studio should make. He also said he wouldn’t greenlight any of them until he believed the script was truly ready to shoot.

Despite the current time crunch, Horn says that his philosophy hasn’t changed.

“The threat of a strike has caused us to be mindful of time constraints,” he says. “But the only way to accelerate is to work harder. To truncate the process is dangerous.”

Horn’s partner in this marathon is Di Bonaventura. Their odd-couple teaming is one reason why Warners’ epic pace has been so fascinating to observe.

Di Bonaventura is almost never seen without his cell phone headset over his ear or around his neck. And despite a chronically bad back — he carries a portable back support everywhere — he seems oddly energized by the studio’s controlled chaos.

“Now that Sammy Davis is gone, he’s the hardest-working man in show business,” says Horn. “He puts in a tremendous amount of work.”

A strong work ethic

Indeed, it seems that a puritanical work ethic is what the execs have most in common. With the 2001 Warners lineup under their belt — the first that’s wholly a product of the Horn/Di Bonaventura regime — the men have forged a strong partnership.

They have distinctly different work styles and tastes.

Many of those who dealt with Horn during his tenure running Castle Rock say his dream project would be a remake of “My Dinner With Andre” — only with more dialogue.

One illustration of Horn’s taciturn demeanor came during ShoWest, when he stood in front of a star-packed dais to introduce the WB product reel to thousands of exhibitors. He described the Sylvester Stallone pic “Driven” as a “cost-cutting drama.”

When the apparent slip of the tongue sent whispers and murmurs of surprise rippling through the crowd, an undeterred Horn simply soldiered on with his presentation.

Di Bonaventura, in contrast, is given to boyish expressions of pure enthusiasm. While he certainly appreciates more nuanced film fare, describing the fur-flying mayhem of the CGI-driven “Cats and Dogs” is enough to make his voice rise with relish.

However, the pair’s differences seem to become a strength when it comes to building a film slate.

The Denzel Washington starrer “Training Day” is pure Di Bonaventura: a cop thriller with lots of action and an appealingly twisted storyline. It’s not the kind of project that one wouldn’t think Horn would immediately sparks to, but he did with an A-list star and experienced action helmer Antoine Fuqua at the helm.

Projects like Gaylord Films’ co-production of “White Oleander” and Castle Rock/Village Roadshow’s “Hearts in Atlantis” are closer to Horn’s heart. Based on critically acclaimed novels, both are more in the vein of drawing-room dramas.

Neither is popcorn fare, but one or both could conceivably be the sort of project to make an appearance on Oscar night — an evening during which Warners is historically absent.

The ego element

Di Bonaventura has also proved an extremely efficient first line of defense for Horn when it comes to dealing with egocentric filmmakers — or determining whether a production schedule can handle a first-time helmer combined with a demanding, A-list star.

“I don’t get the early morning calls,” says Horn. “He’s the one who has to put out the fires.”

That setup is crucial as WB hands the helm to a new breed of directors, such as Darren Aronofsky (the next “Batman” pic) and Shekhar Kapur (“Steinbeck’s Point of View”), and stops relying as heavily on the grizzled likes of Richard Donner.

The studio, traditionally committed to mega-star product, also is more open to pics with lesser-known talent. “Exit Wounds,” Warners’ biggest hit to date of 2001, co-starred rapper DMX, something less than a household name.

There are worries, however. A recent one was Warners’ inability to woo DreamWorks away from Universal for foreign distribution. Horn says that his disappointment stems less from missing a potential product source and more from losing access to a top-notch slate.

“They make good movies,” Horn says. “The only loss we feel is the opportunity to work together. It would have been fun.”

Horn makes it clear that AOL TW CEO Gerald Levin, who praises content as king, also would have loved to see DreamWorks on his team. Horn says Levin is more than happy to exploit as many movies as Warners’ relationships will provide.

“(DreamWorks) was a marketplace deal, and not an easy one to make,” Horn says. “But to put it in girlfriend terms, they stayed with the wife.”

It’s about the numbers, too

Warners may be in a production frenzy, but Di Bonaventura says number-crunching remains a big part of his studio’s game plan.

“The economic realities of the marketplace force us to be more selective,” he opines. “No one can afford that 11th project anymore. We are still the biggest buyer out there, but the rigors of the marketplace mean that we have to be more selective.”

Those common-sense vows no doubt please AOL execs, who have shown little interest in micromanaging the film side. At least until the first major flop hits, at which point insiders expect the Virginia cavalry to ride West in great numbers.

A selective philosophy has also applied to what Horn calls “painless” studiowide budget cuts like trimming T&E expenses.

Warners is continuing to prune its standard-issue producer deals — and work more closely with the equity-laden producers that have become invaluable to the conglomerate.

Outfits like Village Roadshow, Franchise Pictures, Alcon Entertainment, Gaylord Films, the Senator-backed Canton Co. and Morgan Creek serve as co-financiers or even sole financiers for the overwhelming majority of the Warner slate.

Horn is blunt about the appeal of these companies, which help the studio crank out a tremendous amount of product without the overhead to match. “We like partnerships that give us the distribution edge,” he says. “They get the advantage of our HBO and BSkyB deals, our DVD distribution. It makes it more than worth their while.”

The ties that bind carry risks of their own, of course. Just ask Vivendi, whose union with Universal comes as StudioCanal is re-evaluating its role in the pic production biz.

WB-based Bel Air, to cite one example, has shown signs of vulnerability due to 2000 misfires “Pay It Forward” and “Proof of Life.” Warners also has a high-profile association with Franchise Pictures, Elie Samaha’s volatile company.Due to its array of deals, the 2001 WB release slate contains only two titles that are wholly backed by Warners: the modestly budgeted Freddie Prinze Jr.-starrer “Summer Catch” and the jewel in the AOL TW crown, “Harry Potter.”

Even the sleep-deprived Horn can’t contain his enthusiasm when he pops the “Harry Potter” trailer into his VCR. “I am so proud of this,” he says. “We saw 15 minutes of edited footage last week, no effects except for the feather on a fishing line, and it was just incredible.”

Of course, plenty of effects will need to be added to complete not only “Harry Potter” but “A.I.,” “Cats & Dogs,” and “Osmosis Jones” — to say nothing of next year’s “Matrix” installment, “Arac Attack” and “Time Machine.”

Simply managing the traffic from these projects has required scores of effects supervisors and required Di Bonaventura to put out even more fires.

Strike or no strike, Di Bonaventura says it comes with the territory. Rising to take his back supporter to his next meeting, he says gamely, “It wouldn’t be a movie studio if something didn’t go wrong.”

(Cathy Dunkley contributed to this report.)