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WB: fewer pix, more punch

Tighter sked lets studio put focus on franchises

Warner Bros. Pictures wants to be the industry’s franchise factory, with five tentpole movies out of the studio’s annual slate of 25-30 titles.

These ambitions bring to mind Lucy Ricardo standing before a conveyor belt of chocolates: It looks great, until it proves to be too much of a good thing.

But Warner Bros. president-chief operating officer Alan Horn says he’s prepared to stay the course — with a few adjustments.

Last year, Horn said that he wanted Warners to release 30 movies per year to maximize revenue as well as to utilize the studio’s massive distribution system and exploit output deals.

Since then, however, Horn has realized that operating at capacity has real downfalls. The studio competes with its own pictures. The marketing staff gets squeezed. The studio is forced to play favorites. And, getting involved with clunkers like “Battlefield Earth” doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume.

So now, Horn says he’s lowering his expectations, but only slightly: 27 titles, a 10% cut, would probably work better all around.

“It’s better not to have the pressure on the marketing people,” Horn says. “That number feels a little better and marketing costs are going up. I don’t want our movies to bump into each other.”

Warners will release 26 pictures this year, a number on the high side, but something less than an anomaly: Sony will release the same number in 2002.

Unlike Warners, however, Sony has three marketing departments — one each for Columbia, Screen Gems and Revolution.

“Having too many films on your schedule really drains your staff,” says one Warners producer who has made four films for the studio.

“Right now, Warners has had four films in the last five weeks. It’s a lot of work, a lot of theaters. And you tend to give more attention to your winners.”

And it remains to be seen what will happen when Warners “reduces” its expectations from 30 to 27, but increases the number of event pics.

Of Warners’ 26 pictures this year, only two — “Scooby-Doo” and the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” — truly fit in that event category.

Of his desire to have five tentpoles in every annual slate, even Horn admits, “It’s really hard to do.”

Nonetheless, 2003 is already spoken for with “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” Tom Cruise starrer “The Last Samurai,” “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions.”

In 2004 Warners will have the second installment of “Scooby-Doo” (says Horn: “I want to make it better”) and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” but that still leaves three slots.

Among the frontrunners for those posts are the following:

“Catwoman”: Horn says Ashley Judd is the frontrunner for that part (“I like Ashley, and I’d like her to do it”), but no deal is in place and the film won’t get the greenlight until the studio gets the latest draft from John Rogers.

“Constantine”: The light on this film went from green to red after “The Cell” director Tarsem dropped out of the project (a move that inspired dueling lawsuits from Tarsem and Warners, both of which have since been settled). Nicolas Cage was to star in the comicbook adaptation; the current star candidate is “Matrix” hero Keanu Reeves, but no deal can be made until a new director is nailed.

“Batman and/or Superman”: It’s been five years since the poorly received “Batman and Robin,” and Warners now seems ready to take its superhero responsibilities seriously.

Since then, the studio carefully examined all sorts of permutations for these two superheroes.

In 1997, Warners pulled the plug at the last second on Cage in “Superman,” saying the script wasn’t quite there. Last year, the studio brought Darren Aronofsky on board to develop “Batman: Year One” with creator Frank Stack.

But the superhero project that has the greatest likelihood of moving forward, Horn now says, is “Batman & Superman,” in which the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight join forces against evil. Wolfgang Petersen is attached to produce, develop and possibly direct.

“Troy”: Horn is high on this romance set in the Trojan War. It’s based on a spec by Michael Tabb that was purchased for the studio two years ago by Mark Canton and Senator Entertainment. Senator is not attached as a co-financier of the project.

One project that is no longer on the front burner is Aronofsky’s ambitious sci-fier “The Fountain” (aka “The Last Man”).

“It’s on hiatus,” says Horn. “It was greenlit at a budget in the $60 million range, and it came in higher, so it’s off the table right now. It’s not a go. Everything has to work together.”

When it does, 20th Century Fox-based New Regency is already in place to split the costs. “Arnon (Milchan) expressed such passion for it,” Horn says. “They were able to come in on a partnership position.”

Warners doesn’t want partners on what Horn calls “jewels of the crown” like “Harry Potter” and “Scooby-Doo” — franchise properties that develop a brand for the studio and throw off lots of cash.

“We are very unlikely to take a partner on one of those,” he says. “Partners want the right to have a sequel. I don’t want to be locked into any of these people for seven sequels.”

Horn admits that if he had to do it over, Warners would certainly have done “The Matrix” as a solo act rather than look to Village Roadshow Pictures to share the burden.

“Anytime a movie is a gigantic success, I wish we hadn’t partnered,” he says. “On the other hand, they stay at the table and they make movies with us.”

Indeed, partners like VRP are the only way that the studio can possibly release 26 or 27 pictures a year. Even a billion-dollar production budget doesn’t go far when five of those movies are tentpoles budgeted in the $125 million range.

But it’s the movies that Warners has the least to do with that cause the most consternation on the lot.

Films from Morgan Creek Prods., Franchise Pictures, Alcon Entertainment and Gaylord Films are only financed in small part or not at all by Warners. The studio advances P&A costs, collaborates on marketing and takes a fee in exchange for distributing the film. It’s a scenario that provides a small return on virtually no risk.

When the movie is, say, Alcon’s recent “Insomnia,” Warners is happy be associated with rave reviews and take a percentage of its $60 million domestic gross, as well as recouping its 20% advance. And if the Warners name was associated with the film’s rave reviews, well, so much the better.

It’s fair to say, however, that Warners feels considerably less fuzzy toward films like Franchise’s “Battlefield Earth,” “Driven” (which, in a moment of off-the-cuff candor, Horn referred to at the 2001 ShoWest as “a cost-cutting drama”), “Get Carter” and “3000 Miles to Graceland.”

Critically reviled films produced by a company under criminal investigation by the FBI don’t exactly contribute to the image that Warners hopes to cultivate.

Of course, Franchise films have nothing to do with Warners’ production staff. But since the Warner Bros. logo looms just as large on a Franchise film as it does on, say, “Training Day,” public confusion is hardly surprising.

The reason Warners puts up with this indignity, of course, is that the Franchise relationship has been a highly profitable one — as much as $60 million annually. Last year, Franchise contributed five films to Warners, or nearly 20% of its total slate.

Among Franchise’s upcoming projects is one that’s considerably closer to Warners’ heart — “Alex and Emma,” a contempo adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story “The Gambler” to star Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson and be directed by Horn’s former Castle Rock partner, Rob Reiner.

The reason it’s not going through Castle Rock, Horn says, is that its $30 million-plus budget was more than Warners wanted to pay. Franchise came up with the coin and Warners agreed to put up what Horn calls “a little more than 10%” of the negative costs.

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