Warner Bros. Film Chief Toby Emmerich on ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Sequels, ‘Aquaman’

Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/S

It wasn’t a typical summer for Warner Bros., a studio that has long dominated popcorn seasons past with the likes of “The Dark Knight,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Wonder Woman.”

This year, the superheroes and post-apocalyptic warriors were missing from the company’s slate, but that didn’t stop Warners from weaving together a string of box office winners. “Ocean’s 8,” “The Meg,” and “Crazy Rich Asians” all combined to put together a memorable summer. Even though “Tag” and “Life of the Party” didn’t set records, both films should end up in the black. What’s particularly impressive is that an era where franchises are the name of the game, Warner Bros. pulled it off by relying heavily on original properties. Only “Ocean’s 8” is part of a pre-existing series, and the film is a spin-off from the George Clooney heist adventures of a decade ago.

“The business is increasingly challenging, but we need to continue to take calculated risks — making original movies is part of that,” Toby Emmerich, Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman, told Variety. “Movies where if a filmmaker hits the bullseye, it can surprise and overperform.  As always, nothing beats great execution.”

He also may have a new franchise on his hands. “Crazy Rich Asians” is part of a series of beloved novels by Kevin Kwan, charting life and love among Singapore’s 1%, and the studio would like to field at least one more follow-up.

“There are two more books,” said Emmerich. “We certainly think that there will be more movies because both books can stand on their own as films. The filmmakers and the rest of the talent are excited to continue the franchise.”

Emmerich, who assumed his new role at Warner Bros. in January, says he’s not just happy with the summer. He believes that the studio has cobbled together an impressive first half to 2018, though he does cop to one big misstep. “Paddington 2,” which the studio bought from the Weinstein Company last fall when the indie studio was on the verge of bankruptcy, scored some of the best reviews of the year. Its glowing critical notices didn’t translate into ticket sales. When it opened last winter, “Paddington 2” eked out $40.4 million stateside. It did better overseas, making $186.4 million, but Warner Bros. didn’t control those rights.

“If I had to do it over again I think we would have tried to convince our production partners to push back our release so we could have had more time to market the film to the domestic audience,” said Emmerich.

He’s also pleased with how the studio’s marketing team was able to make “The Meg” seem like much more than a “Jaws” retread by emphasizing its humorous and more fun-loving side in its campaign. Posters included the tagline “pleased to eat you.” Others displayed an image of a woman lounging in an inner tube in the open water as a massive shark gets ready to gobble her up — opening wide, the ads jokingly say. The studio also opted to put the film at the tail end of summer, after the likes of “Jurassic World: The Lost Kingdom” and “Incredibles 2” had played out.

“The feeling inside the company was that a giant shark movie belongs in August, and would give us the most open water and the biggest box office bite,” said Emmerich.

“The Meg” has gone on to gross $465.7 million globally.

At a time when studios are being slammed for not offering enough roles for women and underrepresented groups, Warner Bros. leaned in to diversity. “Ocean’s 8” with a cast that included Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, and Sandra Bullock was dominated by a who’s who of A-list actresses, and “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first major studio movie centered on an Asian-American character’s story since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.” The movies grossed $291.8 million and $136.9 million, respectively.

“People want to see themselves and a world that looks like the world they live in on screen, that’s part of what the diversity conversation is all about,” said Emmerich. He noted that in the case of “Oceans 8,” there’s also sound financial reasons for making movies that cater to female audiences. “Women have a big vote in what movies families and couples go to see,” he added.

Warner Bros.’ biggest bets will mostly come during the last four months of 2018. That’s when “Aquaman” and “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald” will hit theaters, carrying with them the ambitions of the DC and Harry Potter cinematic universes. “Fantastic Beasts” features Jude Law as a youthful Dumbledore and burrows more deeply into wizarding lore. Emmerich thinks that the return of fan favorite characters should help the film connect.

“Aquaman,” a superhero film set in the watery world of Atlantis, is the bigger risk. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” made money, but critics pilloried them as being too dark and self-serious. Only Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” with its optimistic heroine and star-spangled spirit, managed to shake off the serious case of the gloominess that had infected the earlier DC efforts. Emmerich thinks that James Wan, the film’s director and the filmmaker behind “The Conjuring,” has found the right tone.

“It’s not too hot or too cold — [Wan] struck a great balance between fun and jeopardy, edge and wonder, comedy, and tragedy,” said Emmerich. The studio chief also thinks that “Aquaman” will provide a unique spin on Spandexed heroes in another key respect.

“James created a totally original underwater universe,” said Emmerich. “Just as Patty Jenkins did with Themyscira, James’ Atlantis is cool and compelling — unlike any world we’ve seen on film before, in a superhero movie or any other.”

“Fantastic Beasts” hits theaters on Nov. 16 and “Aquaman” opens Dec. 21, ensuring that the studio will have a very busy holiday season. Warner Bros.’ fall may get even more packed. Emmerich refused to rule out moving Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” a drama about an aging drug runner, into 2018 in order to qualify it for Oscars.

“We’re waiting for Clint to show us the movie, and the way that’s worked for 25 years is whenever and wherever Clint says,” said Emmerich, chuckling while deferring to the 88-year old filmmaking giant.

If Eastwood is back in the awards hunt, he may be doing battle with “A Star is Born,” a film he once flirted with directing. The rock ‘n roll romance instead marks the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper, who stars as an aging singer drawn to an up-and-coming talent (Lady Gaga). The film earned raves when it debuted at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

“It’s a movie that’s been made four times, so that’s a hurdle the movie has to overcome,” said Emmerich. “It does that though because there’s a romanticism to it and a relatability and an energy.”

The movie business is feeling good on the strength of a summer box office revival, but the industry still faces fierce headwinds. Streaming services such as Netflix continue to build audiences, television is providing higher-quality entertainment, and fewer people are stopping by their local multiplex. Film isn’t as dominant as it once was. So what’s Emmerich’s strategy to compete?

“We’re committed to having a diverse slate, across all genres, and taking enough at bats to sometimes hit home runs,” said the Warner Bros. film chief.