The exit of Toby Emmerich as chairman of the Warner Bros. Pictures and the rise of former MGM film executives Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy are just the latest examples of upheavals in what is already shaping up to be a tumultuous new era at the studio. behind Harry Potter and Batman.
Emmerich’s ouster has been rumored for years, long before the company was sold to Discovery. Still, his decision to leave for a production deal stunned Burbank studio executives, many of whom had worked with Emmerich for decades. This follows a series of dizzying directives from the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, David Zaslav, and his management team, who were simultaneously obsessed with finding $3 billion in synergies to cut costs while increasing the number of films the company produced. This mission also includes the mandate to recruit the best talent to carry out these projects, a directive that often comes with a high price tag. Managing these warlike impulses will now fall to De Luca and Abdy.
“Historically, when new management comes in, it wipes the slate clean,” says USC film professor Jason E. Squire, editor of “The Movie Business Book.” “Sometimes it’s a good plan, and sometimes it’s not.”
The move also comes as Warner Bros. Discovery has redesigned the structure of its film business. Zaslav is said to be enamored with what the Walt Disney Company has achieved by leveraging its media operations as a series of hallmarks, with the likes of Marvel’s Kevin Feige, LucasFilm’s Kathleen Kennedy and Pixar’s Jim Morris and Pete Docter overseeing independent fiefdoms. He wants to do something similar with Warner Bros.
On Wednesday, Zaslav finally clarified this ambition by establishing a new world order: De Luca and Abdy will lead Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema, alongside Warner Bros. Animation and DC Films. All of the labels previously reported to Emmerich, who also enjoyed control of a slate of exclusive made-for-streaming features for HBO Max. It’s also unclear whether executives such as New Line’s Richard Brenner and DC Films’ Walter Hamada will still have a role in the new setup.
“Clearly they’re rebuilding,” one of Hollywood’s top marketers told Variety. “Perhaps with a sledgehammer.”
De Luca and Abdy’s skills will shrink in the new constellation, and the two leaders are unlikely to have the same oversight that Emmerich has maintained. They are expected to have control of New Line, but not DC or the animation arm. This decision has also confused some people in the studio, as they believe it will create more silos. During AT&T’s brief ownership, which lasted from 2018 to 2022, the company invested significant time in breaking down barriers between different divisions to create more opportunities for collaboration. The concern is that the new structure will lead to less cross-pollination across the media conglomerate.
Zaslav has been courting De Luca and Abdy heavily for months, impressed with their deep ties to the creative community and the success they’ve had in raising the profile of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer over the year and changing before it won’t be sold at Amazon. At MGM, a studio that had a reputation for being a sleepy gamer, De Luca and Abdy provided a burst of energy, landing splashy projects such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” (which earned the first nomination at the Academy Awards for Best Corporate Image since 1988), as well as Joe Wright’s musical drama “Cyrano,” Ridley Scott’s star-studded detective story “House of Gucci,” and Channing Tatum’s hit “Dog.” Skeptics, however, note that many of these movies came with big budgets, so only “Dog” became a true box office winner.
“De Luca was New Line’s prodigy. Now he’s the veteran,” says Stephen Galloway, the dean of Chapman University’s film school. “He has to prove he has a strategy for a studio where the feature film industry is a diminishing piece of the pie Features are more and more geared towards the tentpole, and that’s not what it’s been associated with It’s evolving in the property universe intellectual property and brands.
In his new position with Abdy, they face a daunting task. Zaslav wants to point out to talent that Warner Bros. Discovery can be an attractive home for content – it was angered by the rift Christopher Nolan had with the studio over its handling of the ‘Tenet’ release during COVID and former CEO Jason Kilar’s decision to release the 2021 slate on HBO Max at the same time the movies landed in theaters, sources said. However, Zaslav has also made it clear that he wants the studio to cut costs when it comes to streaming titles, cutting budgets, and making more movies that cost less than $50 million. As part of this, Warner Bros. Discovery wants to spend less on marketing and splashy premieres and rewards campaigns that many A-listers expect as part of their offerings. Since taking office, Zaslav has also put several projects into turnaround, such as DC’s “Wonder Twins” and HBO’s sci-fi drama series “Demimonde” by JJ Abrams.
“It’s curious that [Zaslav] turned to tried and tested, talent-friendly, old-school film executives,” says Galloway. “It’s certainly reassuring for talent in the wake of Warner Bros.’ disastrous decision to move everything to streaming.”
Galloway adds, “They need to reverse the impression that Zaslav is not in favor of feature films and talent.”
Many questions surrounding the film division remain unanswered. Once the dust settles on the C-suite, USC’s Squire predicts, the industry will be watching De Luca and Abdy’s early moves closely.
“The new management is reading everything to get up to speed. They can reduce some projects and improve others. They will start a conversation with the filmmakers to build the future,” he suggests. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some titles go straight to streaming after new management takes a look at them.”
Of course, all of this will take time. Movies take years to develop and produce, which means De Luca and Abdy’s slate won’t materialize until 2024 or 2025. Zaslav is about to find out how long it will take to turn things around in the slow motion movie industry.
“They have a good reputation,” Squire says. “It’s worth giving them time to see what’s going on.”
For Emmerich, the writing was on the wall even though the decision to leave was his. Zaslav had spoken to several prominent Hollywood actors, including former Fox and Paramount executive Emma Watts and Universal Pictures chief Donna Langley, about different jobs, which left Emmerich vulnerable to much speculation. And after years of serving a string of corporate masters, Emmerich, whose contract ran until 2023, seemed to have had enough.
“Toby has been the director of Teflon for years,” says Galloway. “Each time there was a reshuffle, he rose through the ranks of the company. He’s the nicest guy.”
In his memo to staff, Zaslav said Emmerich would oversee a transition this summer and stressed the outgoing executive would remain in the fold as a producer. It’s a role that will require Emmerich to have a deep understanding of the kinds of projects his old house now wants to do if he is to succeed.
“We have a long history of world-class production here at Warner Bros. Discovery, and our intention going forward is to tell more of the best stories and share them with an even wider audience around the world,” wrote Zaslav. “Toby and his team will play an important and valuable role in this venture, we are delighted to have joined them and look forward to seeing what they create in the months and years to come.”