With DC Universe, Warner Bros. Looks to Turn a Valuable Brand Into a Viable Platform

With DC Universe, Warner Bros. Looks

“F—k Batman.”

When the trailer for “Titans,” the first original series for the new DC Universe streaming service, premiered in July, that line stood out. It was uttered by actor Brenton Thwaites as Dick Grayson, who in DC Comics lore is not only the first Robin to Bruce Wayne’s Batman, but also leader of the (sometimes Teen) Titans, a group of young-adult superheroes. In their many iterations, the Titans have covered straightforward superheroics, soapy melodrama, and even slapstick comedy. The Warner Bros. Television-produced live-action “Titans,” however, is a darker, more f-bomb-friendly take than any before it.

“This platform allows us to reach creatively and do the kind of programming we’ve never done before,” says DC Entertainment chief creative officer Jim Lee.

That platform, DC Universe, officially launched Friday. The subscription app includes a digital comics reader with a sampling from DC’s nearly century-old library and a social-media platform. But its centerpiece is a streaming service that will be home to a deep well of archival programming and an ambitious new slate of original series — of which “Titans” will be the first piece.

“Titans” hails from executive producers Greg Berlanti, Akiva Goldsman, and Geoff Johns. Also in the works are live action series “Doom Patrol” from Jeremy Carver; “Swamp Thing” from James Wan; “Stargirl” from Johns; and new animated series “Harley Quinn” and “Young Justice: Outsiders.” Lee is currently at work with studio Warner Bros. Television to identify additional DC properties for future development.

According to Warner Bros. Digital Networks president Craig Hunegs, DC Universe will debut one new episode of an original series per week beginning next month, and will by 2020 increase to two new episodes per week.

“There are no shortage of producers and writers on the lot who want to do shows for us, because we’re promising them real creative freedom,” Hunegs says. “You’ll see not just on ‘Titans,’ but also on ‘Doom Patrol,’ on ‘Swamp Thing,’ on ‘Stargirl,’ a kind of creative vibrancy that maybe you don’t see with shows on traditional television networks.”

DC has been under the Warner Bros. umbrella for decades. But leveraging the brand’s properties has in recent years become an especially important part of the studio’s business. In film, Warner Bros. has produced a mixed DC bag, with “Justice League” falling flat at the box office but “Wonder Woman” overperforming with critics and ticket buyers and prompting an upcoming sequel. Television, however, has been a strength. The CW — jointly owned by the studio and CBS — has proved a successful platform for a host of DC shows including “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and “Supergirl,” giving Warner Bros. Television a collection of sturdy broadcast dramas with especially lucrative long tails. Warner Bros. and CBS’ deals with Netflix to serve as second-window homes for CW programs created a model that makes those series profitable and the CW a valuable venture for both parents.

If DC Universe succeeds, that success could look something like the CW’s. Hunegs declines to discuss specific subscriber projections for DC Universe, but it would be nearly impossible for the service — which will cost $74.99 per year — to rack up enough customers any time soon to justify the high cost of producing multiple high-concept action-adventure series.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the DC Universe shows can’t be monetized. The app launches today in the United States, with international distribution being eyed down the road. In the meantime, Warner Bros. is believed to be pursuing a licensing deal for “Titans” that would see another streaming service or platform serve as home to the show outside the U.S. Such a deal would mirror the strategy that CBS employed for “Star Trek: Discovery.” That series, which costs roughly $8 million per episode, airs in the U.S. on streaming service CBS All Access, which boasts around 2 million subscribers. But a deal with Netflix to stream “Discovery” outside the U.S. covers the bulk of the show’s cost.

An aggressive licensing strategy for original series would help Warner Bros. make DC Universe viable as it works to convert the DC brand’s vast pool of fans into subscribers.

“I think from the DC Entertainment point of view, it’s a natural extension and and evolution of what we’ve been doing for decades,” Lee says. “We’re one of the most public-facing businesses in Warner Media. We’re at conventions every year interacting with hundreds of thousands of fans, doing panels, outreach, contests, giveaways, everything. We just live in a day and age where the technology affords us the ability to now engage with our fans 24-7.”

Direct-to-consumer plays have become an increased focal point for traditional media congloms. The former Time Warner companies recently acquired by AT&T are no exception. The telecom giant has been outspoken about its plan to pour resources into HBO in hopes of developing a challenger for Netflix. Disney, meanwhile, has plans to launch next year a pair of entertainment streaming services, and with its ESPN+ app has already done so in sports. Comcast and other media giants are widely expected to make their own entries into the SVOD space in the not-too-distant future.

It is unclear still, in a rapidly crowding field, how much space there is for targeted products such as DC Universe. Consumers face an increasing number of options for digital entertainment services, but the amount of money they are willing or able to spend on those services is not endless.

For Warner Bros., however, DC Universe, represents an ambitious attempt to create a new platform for one of its most valuable assets — with significant potential payoff.

“It’s a standalone OTT service for sure, but also a way to promote our properties and a way to promote our films and television series, and a way to create a really compelling, immersive experience, all our DC content in one place. It’s going to be really, really valuable to fans,” Hunegs says. “Making the investment in the original series was an easy decision. And frankly if we weren’t willing to do that, then we weren’t serious about creating the best possible version of DCU. I’m confident that it’s going to pay off in the next couple of years and it’s going to be a pillar of the studio going forward.”