LAS VEGAS--Could Warner Bros. movies be the new HBO?
This sounds like a slightly crazy question, mostly because Warner Bros., as you may be aware, is the studio of “Fantastic Beasts,” “Shazam” and a hundred Godzilla movies. It’s the place of endlessly sequelized stuff that studios these days seem to make all the time — and that corporate sibling HBO, network of “Barry,” “Veep” and “Game of Thrones,” has decidedly not been making.
You also may be aware that HBO is under orders to change by new owner AT&T. Its chief executive has left, a more broadcast-pedigreed person is running the show, and the next wave of HBO programming is as likely to come from a large corporate-wide WarnerMedia mandate as much as from a specific curatorial vision. AT&T’s thought is that a venue such as HBO, for all its acclaim and awards, may not be able to go on as a sovereign boutique shop in this age of mega-content.
“We have done an amazing job establishing our brands as leaders in the hearts and minds of consumers,” WarnerMedia chief executive John Stankey said in the company’s executive shuffle last month, before hailing a “strategic position[ing of] our leading portfolio of brands, world-class talent and rich library of intellectual property for future growth.”
Which is why it is beyond weird to see a bunch of new Warner Bros. movies that look . . . lot like HBO offerings.
A quick explanation. CinemaCon, the gathering at which studio executives present their upcoming fare to theater owners, kicked off its first substantive day Tuesday. Warner Bros., with motion picture-group chief Toby Emmerich, was the first major studio to present. The company began with a litany of DC movies — this weekend’s “Shazam,” the Harley Quinn-centric “Birds of Prey” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”
Then things got strange.
The studio began rolling out smaller fare. Quirkier fare. More literary fare.
An adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s beloved literary novel “Motherless Brooklyn,” which Edward Norton wrote, directed, produced and stars in. (The movie looked downright auteurish). “The Kitchen,” a 1970s adaptation of a dark graphic novel from Vertigo, in which stars such as Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish go to serious dramatic territory.
Even its entry in the spring teen-romance category, “The Sun Is Also a Star,” is based on an acclaimed young-adult novel — and, with its immigrant themes, has more in common with last year’s “The Hate U Give” than, say, “Twilight.”
In fact, even some of its superhero movies seem off the beaten path. Todd Phillips, who made “The Hangover” and lately has been taking more serious turns with work such as “War Dogs,” came out to plug his new “Joker” film with Joaquin Phoenix.
"There’s been a lot of chatter about what this film is, and most of it isn’t inaccurate,” he said. “But I guess that’s to be expected when you make an origin story about a character that has no definite origin.” He then called the movie’s genre “a tragedy.” Oh, and he showed footage. And sure enough, there was triple Oscar nominee Phoenix playing a bullied clown in a turn that soon went Shakespearean.
This was all before the presentation of “The Goldfinch,” an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s 800-page Pulitzer Prize winner that will arrive in theaters in the fall.
"I knew they would be able to capture Donna Tartt’s tone, and that was so important,” star Ansel Elgort told the theater owners in the room. The director is John Crowley, who brought another acclaimed novel, “Brooklyn,” to the screen a few years ago.
“The Goldfinch” feels exactly like the kind of material HBO usually does — original drama based on a sprawling Pulitzer-winning novel with deeply felt characters. Heck, even HBO passes on major American literary prizewinners sometimes.
So what’s going on here?
Partly these movies are a function of Emmerich’s background. The executive comes from New Line, the WB division known for smaller-budgeted and sometimes riskier projects. That DNA abides here, too.
Partly it’s that Warner Bros. — unlike Universal, Sony or Disney-Fox — doesn’t have a boutique unit to make these more upscale movies. So they get rolled into the studio themselves.
And partly this is all the result of the studio not having an endless well of box-office-provable characters of a Disney-Fox. Sure, there’s DC and its Aquamania, and “It: Chapter Two” (which itself began kind of small) and other horror entries. But there’s also not a lot of Star Wars-like franchises to crowd the roster. And studios need to release movies if they want to keep revenue coming in. So gambles it is.
This is also, it should be added, why the trend can’t last. As the panel unfolded, one couldn’t help feeling like this was all happening on borrowed time, and AT&T, now that it’s making changes, would say no mas or at least let’s do things a little differently.
The company, particularly as it names a full-time replacement for recently resigned Warner Bros. studio chief Kevin Tsujihara, will probably press hard for more of the same franchiseable material from Warner Bros. that it wants out of HBO — whether that means mining titles in the library or (over) paying for it elsewhere. The animation division already showed that it’s headed firmly in this direction: The presentation Tuesday featured teasers to new movies based on “Scooby Doo,” “Tom & Jerry” and the “Space Jam” properties. There’s a live-action “Detective Pikachu” coming from Warner Bros., too.
Of course, if these more upscale gambles work, AT&T could shift course and give the go-ahead for more of these types of movies. They may even apply pressure to HBO to be more like Warner Bros., wondering why they don’t make fresh literary adaptations like “The Goldfinch.”