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DC Boss Diane Nelson Talks Superhero Strategy Vs. Marvel at Variety Summit

The big boss of DC Entertainment is committed to keeping the story arcs of its many characters separate across its film, TV and digital properties, in contrast to the singular universe approach taken by its biggest rival, Marvel.

Diane Nelson outlined DC’s creative strategy and the growing components of Warner Bros.’ DC Entertainment division during a wide-ranging conversation Wednesday at Variety’s Entertainment and Technology Summit, held at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. Nelson’s mouthful of a title — president of DC Entertainment and WB Consumer Products and president-chief content officer of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment — underscores how important DC has become to fueling business throughout Warner Bros.

DC has a big year in store at the box office in 2016 with the highly anticipated “Batman vs. Superman” coming in March followed “Suicide Squad” later in the year — the first wave of 10 DC-branded movies expected to hit over the next five years. But she emphasized that there is no push for creative crossover among the films or with DC’s plentiful TV series, including CW’s “The Flash, “ “Arrow” and the upcoming “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”; CBS’ “Supergirl”; and Fox’s “Gotham.”

DC leaders have opted to keep its character worlds highly distinct in order to offer maximum creative flexibility to the writers, producers and directors that Warner Bros. works with in translating new and vintage DC properties in all manner of media. Creatives would otherwise be limited in tailoring projects for specific buyers. She noted the wide tonal differences between “Gotham” and “Supergirl,” not to mention “Teen Titans Go” on Cartoon Network. DC’s focus has working with Warner Bros.’ exec teams and creators at the various division levels, in recognition of the expertise they bring to developing products for their markets.

“We’re so talent driven,” Nelson said during the Q&A with Variety co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein. The focus on a single universe of characters with connected storylines “could end up handcuffing our creators into trying to work with the same storyline or force them to hold back characters or introduce certain characters. Ultimately it hinders the ability for someone like (showrunner) Bruno Heller to come in and create ‘Gotham.’ “

She noted that Fox’s Batman prequel has no creative constraints regarding “Batman vs. Superman” and vice versa. The single universe approach “has worked beautifully” for Marvel, she added, but didn’t make sense for WB.

Nelson credited Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Kevin Tsujihara with pushing DC Entertainment’s various executives to “push out” projects and properties with the potential to be leveraged by various studio divisions — similar to Disney’s franchise-driven approach.

Since Tsujihara took the reins of the studio in 2013, “we have broken down a lot of walls among the various (WB) businesses. We’ve had interaction across every business at Warner Bros.”

DC-related properties have driven some $8 billion in consumer products sales for the studios and more than $3 billion in home video titles. It also drives about 50% of the video game business at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

But at its core, DC is a publishing company. The titles published by DC Comics and the Vertigo imprint are the “foundation of the (DC) business,” she said. She credited DC publishers Jim Lee and Dan Didio with reinventing the publishing business starting in 2011 when the pair instituted “a total reboot of our publishing line — it’s been hugely successful in the past four years.”

The print comics — which are increasingly paired with digitally published titles — are a vital content source for DC and Warner Bros. at large. Vertigo, which focuses on stand-alone fantasy stories, is an engine “for getting original IP into the company and feeding other businesses as well as our publishing business.”

Nelson acknowledged that the are growing concerns about whether Hollywood is becoming oversaturated with superhero fare. The growth in the amount of comic-based fare only heightens the pressure to ensure that the storytelling at the heart of DC properties is strong and distinctive.

“We do believe we’re in a period time where comics and superheroes are really the driving force within pop culture,” Nelson said. “We have to be really sensitive to making sure were not creating any stories that don’t feel like they’re ready to be told… We have to make sure we’re getting the right story and the right content from the talent we work with. Ultimately we think if it’s a great story people will go out to see it.”

Among other topics Nelson touched on:

  • Nelson called CBS’ upcoming “Supergirl,” which is a departure for the Eye, “a really special show” designed to work for fans of the Superman milieu as well as general audiences.
  • Nelson was effusive about the contributions of uber-showrunner Greg Berlanti, master of “Arrow,” “Flash” and “Supergirl,” and Warner Bros. TV chief Peter Roth, to the success of DC’s TV series.
  • The venerable Mad magazine remains an important asset under the DC umbrella. But it’s been challenging to mine the magazine’s topical humor in other media. “We have more work to do on the publishing side to make sure we’re feeding enough (material) to leverage into other media,” she said.

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