Managing Movie Superheroes Is About to Get a Lot More Complicated


LOS ANGELES – Walter Hamada is not your typical superhero wrangler.

He doesn’t have a booming fanboy-in-chief personality. His humble home office, at least as it appears on Zoom, illuminates the usual hooded and cape collectibles. Hollywood wasn’t even his first calling: he wanted to be a mechanical engineer.

However, as president of DC Films, 52-year-old Hamada manages the film careers of Wonder Woman, Batman, Cyborg, Flash, Superman, and every other superhero from DC Comics. And the new course he’s set for them is dizzying.

The most expensive DC films (up to four a year, from 2022) are slated to hit theaters, Hamada said. More superhero films (two a year, perhaps with a focus on riskier characters like Batgirl and Static Shock) will be released exclusively on HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s fledgling streaming service.

In addition, DC Films, a Warner Bros. company, will work with filmmakers to develop offshoots – TV series that air on HBO Max and combine with their big-screen endeavors.

“With every movie we watch right now, we think, ‘What’s the potential Max spin-off?'” Hamada said.

If you thought there was a deluge of superheroes before, just wait.

In order for all of the storylines to work, DC Films will introduce film audiences to a comic book concept known as the multiverse: parallel worlds in which different versions of the same character coexist. For example, Warner Bros. will have two different sagas in which Batman – played by two different actors – is shown at the same time.

The complicated plan involves a large increase in production. Last year Warner Bros. made two live-action superhero films, “Joker” and “Shazam!” In 2018 there was only “Aquaman”. All three were hits, which underscores the financial opportunity to do more.

For a variety of reasons, including creative dropouts and management revenue at DC Films (Mr Hamada took over in 2018), Disney-owned Warner Bros. Marvel tracked badly at the box office. Over the past decade, Warner Bros. has sold $ 8 billion in superhero ticket sales worldwide, including $ 36 million from Wonder Woman 1984 over the weekend. Marvel raised $ 20.6 billion.

Suffice it to say that Warner Bros., who invented the big budget superhero film “Superman” in 1978, was under pressure to band together.

Disney succeeds in part because its departments work together in ways that Warner Bros. has never overshadowed. But that is changing. AT&T called for greater cross-company synergies when it acquired WarnerMedia in 2018.

“We were so secret in the past,” said Mr. Hamada. “For example, it was shocking to me how few people at the company were actually allowed to read scripts for the films we make.”

The studios rely more than ever on established characters and brands – especially when their corporate parents set up streaming services. HBO Max has 12.6 million subscriber activations. Netflix has 195 million. How do you please Wall Street and fill the void quickly? You start by making your superheroes work.

This month Disney announced 100 new movies and shows for the next several years, most of which went straight to its Disney + streaming service, which has 87 million subscribers. Marvel has played 11 films and 11 television shows, including WandaVision, which will be released on January 15th, in which Elizabeth Olsen repeats her role as the Scarlet Witch from the Avengers franchise.

Warner Bros. has at least as many comic films in various stages of pregnancy, including a sequel to “Suicide Squad”; “The Batman,” in which Robert Pattinson (“Twilight”) plays the Caped Crusader; and “Black Adam” with Dwayne Johnson as the vicious title character.

TV spin-offs of “The Batman” and “The Suicide Squad” go to HBO Max. WarnerMedia’s traditional TV division has around 25 additional live-action and animated superhero shows, including “Superman & Lois,” which will be released in February appear in the CW network.

Sony Pictures Entertainment has its own superhero list with at least two other “Spider-Man” films in the works. “Morbius” with Jared Leto as a pseudovampire; and a sequel to “Venom,” which cost $ 100 million to manufacture in 2018 and grossed $ 856 million worldwide. Sony also has a number of superhero TV shows for Amazon Prime Video.

And don’t forget Valiant Entertainment, which is turning comics like Harbinger about overpowering teenagers into films with partners like Paramount Pictures.

Superheroes have long been Hollywood’s most dependable money-makers, especially when the sale of related goods is involved. (Wonder Woman tiara for cats, on sale for $ 59.50.) But how much fast-paced spandex and computer-generated visual effects can audiences endure?

More than you think, said David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a film consultancy. “If the stories are well written and the production values ​​are strong,” he said, “then there will be little evidence of fatigue.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Warner Bros. is the recent prioritization of HBO Max. “The risk is that watching these movies first on TV detracts from the entertainment experience and then detracts from value,” Gross said. “For a single film, there is no more profitable business model than a successful theatrical release that creates the greatest possible pop culture event. It’s the locomotive that pulls the entire train: goods, theme park licensing, other revenue. “

On Friday, Warner Bros. released Wonder Woman 1984 in North America, where it raised $ 16.7 million. Citing the coronavirus pandemic (only 39 percent of theaters in the US are open), the studio was simultaneously distributing the film in theaters and on HBO Max. Warner Bros. will release all of its slate for 2021 in the same hybrid fashion.

WarnerMedia provided only vague information about the performance of the sequel to HBO Max, saying in a press release that “millions” of subscribers saw it on Friday. Andy Forssell, general manager of WarnerMedia, said the film “exceeded our expectations for all major measurement and subscriber metrics.”

So far, “Wonder Woman 1984” has raised $ 85 million worldwide, with $ 68.3 million from overseas cinemas where HBO Max does not yet exist. The Gal Gadot film, directed by Patty Jenkins, cost at least $ 200 million and an estimated $ 100 million to be marketed worldwide. It received much lower ratings than its series predecessor.

Toby Emmerich, president of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group, said Sunday that he “sped up” a third Wonder Woman film. “Our real Wonder Women – Gal and Patty – will return to complete the long-planned theater trilogy,” said Emmerich.

Mr. Hamada rose to power through New Line, a Warner Bros. division that primarily produces horror films and mid-budget comedies. Among other things, he worked with filmmaker James Wan and others to make “The Conjuring” (2013) a “world” with six films and worldwide ticket sales of $ 1.8 billion. (“The Incantation: The Devil Made Me Do It” is out in June.)

“In studio meetings, a lot of the time executives repeat slogans and it becomes a joke,” said Wan. “Walt always brings something constructive, useful and important to the table. He speaks to me in a language that I understand. “

When Mr. Hamada joined DC Films in 2018, the department was in dire need of stability.

Two horribly expensive films, “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) and “Justice League” (2017), both directed by Zack Snyder, have been judged by critics to be almost unobservable. Ben Affleck, who played Batman in the films, wanted to go ahead and complicate plans for the sequel. At the same time, filmmakers were developing other DC films that had nothing to do with the existing storylines – and actually contradicting some of them.

Mr. Hamada and Mr. Emmerich had two options: to find out how the different storylines and character incarnations could coexist or start over.

The answer is the multiverse. In a nutshell, this means that some characters (Wonder Woman, as portrayed by Ms. Gadot, for example) will continue their adventures on Earth 1, while new incarnations (Mr. Pattinson as “The Batman”) will populate Earth 2 .

“The Flash,” a film set to hit theaters in 2022, will link the two universes and show two Batmans, with Mr. Affleck returning as one and Michael Keaton as the other. Mr. Keaton played Batman in 1989 and 1992.

To complicate matters, HBO Max gave Mr. Snyder more than $ 70 million to re-cut and add new footage to his Justice League. Mr. Snyder and Warner Bros. had argued over his original vision, which the studio viewed as overly bleak, leading to re-recordings being performed by another director, Joss Whedon. (That didn’t go well, either.) “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” now running for four hours, will hit HBO Max in segments in March.

For now, at least, Mr. Snyder is not part of DC Films’ new draft. Studio managers describe his HBO Max project as a dead end – a road that leads nowhere.

The multiverse concept has proven its worth on television, but it is a risky strategy for big screens. These films need to attract the broadest possible audience to justify their cost, and being too sensitive to comic book nerds can be an aversion. New actors can take on a character; James Bond is the best example. But do several Gothams turn in theaters?

“I don’t think anyone else has ever tried this,” Hamada said. “But the audience is high enough to understand. If we make good films, they will fit. “