Each year, the Producers Guild Of America (PGA) hold the Produced By Conference to discuss the state of the industry with film and TV powerhouses. Good times. Bad times. Things are certainly changing fast. Screenwriters and producers better catch up. Peter Roth, President and Chief Content Officer, Warner Bros. Television Group and Toby Emmerich, Chairman, Warner Bros, Pictures Group shared their insights on the workings of the film and TV studio and the direction of our industry.
“Warner Bros. is such a special place. When I joined the company in 1999 I felt myself entering a whole new world. Every day of my life when I drive into this lot, I feel such as a sense of pride, community, the value of people and the content we make,” said Peter Roth.
“During my first day, Jerry Levin, the then President of Time Warner talked about our values which included creativity and people.” This was in stark contrast to the perception of studios playing it safe with tried and tested material. Audiences still need to be entertained and enthralled by fresh and exciting material.
Both Roth and Emmerich came to Warner Bros. with a love of movies and a love of the movie business. Emmerich recounted a story from his childhood of sneaking out to see The Hot Rock (1972). “My parents didn’t know where I was. In those days theaters in New York City had matrons so you could go to the movies as unaccompanied minors. I went to the four o’clock show. The movie blew me away. I wanted to be Robert Redford. I stayed for the six o’clock show. When I got out at eight o’clock at night, it was dark, it was winter and there had been a blizzard so there was a foot of snow on the ground. When I got home, my mother had already called the police because she was expecting me home at six o’clock. I wanted to stay and watch the movie a third time, but my mom really would have killed me.”
Many Hollywood executives have similar experiences of falling in love with a particular film that you keep watching again and again. “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” they both declared.
Peter Roth had a slightly different experience entering the business. He recalls wanting to get into the movie business since he was eight years old. “My father was a book publisher and my form of rebellion was watching television. I would take a thermometer and run it under the hot water so I could stay home sick and watch television from sunrise to sunset.”
Roth commented that “television has always transported me to places I wished I could go and introduced me to relationships I wished I could have. I always found it transformative.” He found the fantasy, the escapism, the power, and the connection something that he longed for really moved him.
The entertainment landscape is certainly transforming. The film and TV sectors are often merging and overlapping while trying to retain their individuality. The telecommunications sector is also playing a greater distribution role as evidenced by the purchase of Warner Bros. by AT&T. The staff at Warner Bros. now have improved cellular service while enjoying premium content. “We now have five bars. We used to have three bars,” joked Emmerich.
The Warner Media conglomerate is on the precipice of intensified inter-company collaboration. “The big change that’s coming is the direct to consumer offering,” said Emmerich. “We’ll be making shows and movies for that platform. I think that’s going to be really exciting.”
Roth sees increased streaming and increased content as the appropriate evolution of television. “If we don’t adhere and cater to what the consumer wants, we’ll be irrelevant and obsolete. Streaming is a phenomenon that affects all of us. People want greater convenience, greater choice, and greater control. The experience of digital and streaming is absolutely the way of the future. When AT&T bought us it was vital that they platformed that opportunity for us.”
The seismic change at Warner Bros. has been exponential since Roth joined Warner Bros. in 1999 when there were three broadcast TV networks and minimal cable to chose from. “We have increased production from 38 scripted series to 58, from 17 unscripted series to 38, from 3 animated series to 17 today. 62% of our scripted fare is now available on streaming and cable. This is what the audience dictates,” said Roth.
Streaming will also cause massive shifts in the current broadcasters as producers increasingly shift their content to their own platforms. Peter Roth shares his concerns for this apparent double-edged sword. “I fear increased insularity and vertical integration as many companies rely almost exclusively on producing and exhibiting their in-house fare. Homogenization of television is never good for the consumer. We [Warner Bros.] currently have TV series showing on 26 different networks and we have every intention of continuing that. I think that’s what will distinguish us from all other companies. It’s vitally important we service this opportunity and maintain the strength of our independence.”
Emmerich believes motion picture companies and studios will look more like streamers and vice versa in time. Auteur-driven films may increasingly be shown in theaters and ‘theatrical’ releases increasingly shown on television. “The definition of what movies audiences watch at theaters is changing. A movie you have to watch at the opening weekend because it becomes part of the conversation, becomes more important. There will be more emphasis on tentpole movies than ever before. People will always go to theaters. People will always congregate and be told stories together. That experience will never go away, but the kind of movies that justify the theatrical experience may become more limited.” These movies will be conceived, produced and exhibited as such.
He followed up with a quote from John Lassiter from Pixar, “The best strategy in the motion picture business is quality.”
Despite the Disney-Fox conglomerate controlling the lion’s share of the industry, Emmerich believes their merger has created unique opportunities for Warner Bros. and other studios because Disney-Fox has a narrower, more specific focus in the movies and television they will produce. “This will allow us to take measured risks because we see certain films as theatrical opportunities that they won’t.”
This is evidenced in Warner Bros’ release schedule for the rest of the year. Less than half of their movies will be based on pre-existing properties. “We have five original dramas coming to theaters this year. They’re movies that we fell in love with; the scripts were so good, the directors and cast were so good, the stories were so compelling, we thought we have to take a shot.” This philosophy flies in the face of the relative reluctance of other studios to release dramas in theaters.
Emmerich quotes a baseball term to justify his contrarian views. “Hit ’em where they ain’t.”
Peter Roth agrees that you look for opportunities in films that are under-represented. Studio executives can insist on the prevailing wisdom in terms of what films work. “We are dealing with human conditions and tastes. I’ve learned to ask questions and not make assertions. Ask what is not on the air. What TV shows you watched as a kid do you miss that really spoke to you? It could be an idea, a genre, a relationship, a dynamic, a place.” Starting from this place of questioning can yield impressive results.
Roth recalled a pitch meeting from a respected writer when he asked what isn’t on the air they would love to see. The writer responded, “There is nothing scary. The X-Files was born from that conversation.” Apart from what’s not on air, Roth suggests examining updated variations of familiar themes. Every TV series has its antecedent.
Roth also suggests a third strategy for writers. “I read this one script that blew my mind. It was one of the greatest, most articulate, most passionate, most beautifully constructed scripts I have ever read. I picked up the phone and called Aaron Sorkin. I advised him that in the history of television there was never a successful TV show set in Washington D.C. Aaron vehemently argued that just because something has not historically worked on television, it doesn’t mean it can’t work now. His passion impressed me. His script can and did break through. The show in question was The West Wing.”
The current mantra of daring to be different is having its moment. Safe, familiar screenplays are no longer going to cut it. William Goldman’s adage “Nobody Knows Nothing” is even truer today than ever before according to Emmerich. He was at Newline when a little project called The Lord Of The Rings trilogy entered. It was considered too risky to produce a trilogy of an unknown quantity. Disney and Miramax partnered with Newline to cut a deal to produce them. “There were a million reasons and precedents about why fantasy movies shouldn’t have worked. The corridors of every studio are filled with framed posters of iconic, award-winning films that everybody else rejected.”
Roth’s response to the ubiquitous question of what studios are currently looking for is “our next hit! There is no scientific, algorithmic, arithmetic formula to anything that we do. Bring us the best of who you are. Tell those passionate stories that are unique to you.”
TV remakes are having a resurgence on our screens with mixed success. Roth cites Murphy Brown as a painful example. “It didn’t have the power, the relevance, and impact of the original series. It’s an audacious move to take on a classic. It better be so extraordinary, unique, compelling and contemporized that it can speak to a whole new generation of audiences. Otherwise, why do it?” Roth attributes the failure of the remake of the iconic The Fugitive to a lack of modernizing it. “We introduced the same dynamic that audiences had seen thirty years earlier and they didn’t care.”
Contrary to popular belief, an endless movie diet of remakes, reboots, and sequels does not guarantee box office success. The disappointing figures posted by Godzilla and Dark Phoenix confirm that audiences are more discerning than ever. They are spoiled for choice.
One of the key strengths of Warner Bros’ that’s baked into their DNA is that they are a director-driven studio.
In reference to sequels, prequels, and spinoffs of familiar franchises, Emmerich declared, “One of the changes we made in our culture is that every one of those films should stand on its own to service the filmmakers’ vision.” This has served the D.C. universe which Warner Bros. controls. This is in contrast to the Marvel Universe in which every film is a piece of the puzzle. Warner Bros.’ standalone policy has allowed their films to have more diversity in tone, style, and genre. Consider the stylistic differences between Aquaman and The Joker. “These wildly different visions of superhero movies allow us to attract different audiences.”
Franchises have presented tremendous growth opportunities for Warner Bros, specifically in the D.C. universe since 2013. “At the time we only had 1 D.C. TV series on the air. That was Arrow. Today we have 14 series on the air. We have 7 on the CW, 4 on the D.C. OTT system, 1 on Epix, 1 on Syfy and 1 on Netflix,” boasted Roth. “It was with calculation that we decided to embrace some of these D.C. characters that we hadn’t previously. It was Greg Berlanti who came in with an absolute, clear, singular vision triggered by his frustration with what he couldn’t do at the ABC. ‘I have a vision. It’s gonna start with Arrow. I want to reinterpret and revisit the DNA of that character,’ said Berlanti. He [Berlanti] brought a completely different take on the character inspired by The Bourne Identity. During a lunch meeting, Berlanti wanted to introduce The Flash in an episode of Arrow. Arrow begat The Flash which begat Supergirl which begat Legends Of Tomorrow which begat Black Lightning. Each of these iconic characters and properties were part of a larger vision of how to introduce them to a new generation of television characters.”
The main driver of Greg Berlanti’s passion was his love of the D.C. characters. “There is a level of commitment and adoration that is present in each of these characters,” added Roth.
Naturally, this environment provides interchangeability of these characters between film and TV platforms. “It is a shared universe. It makes sense for the film and television D.C universes not to be necessarily interlinked,” said Emmerich. “You can have characters and universes coexist on film and television simultaneously, and in some cases, cross-pollinate. What’s good for D.C. on television is good for D.C. in movies.”