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WB still seeking DC strategy

Film development proceeds slowly, other content debuts

In theory, last summer’s $1 billion haul for Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight” should have supercharged the studio’s plans to spin off DC Comics’ stable of superheroes into successful film franchises.

But Warner Bros. still doesn’t have an overall strategy, even as it has firmed plans for the “Green Lantern” feature set for July 17, 2011. It recently put the glowing ring on Ryan Reynolds to star in the actioner that will be directed by Martin Campbell, two-time Bond franchise rebooter.

The studio has access to well-known characters such as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash — properties that have the potential to mint a lot of coin for the coffers of Warner Bros.’ various divisions should a pic score with audiences.

The DC move would seem like a no-brainer. But it’s easier said than done. Studio executives admit to being delayed by the writers’ strike and then by the takeover of New Line. And WB toppers Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov would like the studio and DC to closely develop superhero pics together, rather than hand off projects to individual producers. They’re also aiming for each division at the studio to time the release of everything –from licensed merchandise like T-shirts and action figures to exclusive DVDs, videogames and digital content — to when a pic gets released in order to build up the tentpole’s franchise potential.

Meanwhile, the Home Entertainment and Interactive divisions aren’t waiting for the big features to roll out; they’re moving ahead with DC-based projects of their own.

However, the studio has yet to tap an executive to shepherd DC Comics’ adaptations the way Marvel has a dedicated team to run its own film division. DC currently consults on projects the studio is developing.

Warner Bros. has spent years trying to come up with a strategy, the way Marvel has done with its own comicbook properties.

And outside of “Green Lantern,” Warner Bros. has yet to officially announce plans on which superhero it will greenlight next. Ask the studio about the next Batman installment and it says it’s all up to how director Christopher Nolan wants to proceed. Marvel, on the other hand, has skedded its next pics — “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Avengers” — through 2012.

For now, DC’s far lesser-known properties are moving forward, with supernatural Western “Jonah Hex” out next year and actioner “The Losers” headed into production, while projects for better-known characters like Aquaman, the Flash, Green Arrow and Shazam are still being developed.

Another reboot of Superman is also in the works, but needs to start production by 2011 in order to bow before the character rights revert to the heirs of Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, in 2013, who will demand steep licensing fees.

While a date has not yet been set, the studio does want a new Batman pic for summer 2012.

Spy thriller “Red,” with Bruce Willis attached, isn’t even being made at Warners, but Summit Entertainment.

More obscure characters can still strike a chord with audiences. Marvel proved that when it successfully launched “Iron Man” as one of Hollywood’s top new film franchises. The character wasn’t that well known among the masses, but the pic banked $585 million at the box office, with a sequel due out next summer.

The pokey development of DC’s superhero business has spurred Warner Bros.’ other divisions to come up with their own ways to capitalize on the characters.

This week, Warner Home Entertainment hyped its own “Green Lantern” pic “First Flight” at Comic-Con in San Diego. The animated direct-to-DVD film is the latest in a line of more adult-skewing PG-13 films the division has produced with Warner Bros. Animation that are based on DC’s characters and have performed well at retail.

Last year, it released “Wonder Woman,” and “Batman: Gotham Knight,” “Justice League: The New Frontier” and “Superman: Doomsday” before that. “Superman/Batman: Public Enemies” is next. “Doomsday” remains one of its top earners, with more than $9.4 million; the toons are made for around $3.5 million apiece.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. Interactive is developing a “Green Lantern” videogame, and is off and running with plans to produce games based on DC characters that appeal to various age groups and turn into their own franchises. For Batman, that ranges from the cutesy “Lego Batman” to the far edgier “Batman: Arkham Asylum” that’s forthcoming.

It’s easy to compare DC with Marvel, given their comicbook businesses. But making movies has been a little easier for Marvel.

Marvel isn’t owned by a major conglom, and is set up to make decisions faster, whereas DC is just one of the many divisions under Time Warner.

The performance of a pic also can move Marvel’s stock price, so it constantly needs to keep investors updated on its development pipeline. Time Warner is so large, with so many media divisions under its belt, that despite the impressive haul of “The Dark Knight,” the pic hardly affected the company’s stock at all. So WB doesn’t need to be in a hurry to have DC’s caped crusaders make the leap to the bigscreen.

In fact, why rush when taking time to develop Warners’ superhero pics can lead to a revived Batman franchise that dominates at the box office, instead of a high-profile stumble like “Catwoman” or the lukewarm reception afforded “Superman Returns?”

The only ones clamoring for the films are the fans. And that’s just the way Warner Bros. wants it.

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