Dan Fellman, the outgoing distribution president at Warner Bros., is a big New York Yankees fan. Coincidentally, his studio has for years been the Bronx Bombers of the movie industry, spending more than other studios and taking big swings at blockbuster projects that bring in home runs.
But not this year.
Of the 21 movies Warner Bros. has rolled out in 2015, only two have made more than $100 million domestically: the Dwayne Johnson earthquake epic “San Andreas” and George Miller‘s long-gestating sequel “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The studio’s top five films have grossed less than half than those each of the last two years (see chart).
When the studio has connected this year, it’s usually been for singles and doubles — with modestly budgeted movies like the pooch picture “Max” ($42 million) or “The Intern” ($60 million) — a departure from the studio’s home runs of the past with blockbusters “Gravity” or “The Dark Knight Rises.”
A major bomb like “Pan” could cost the studio as much as $115 million. Andy and Lana Wachowski‘s flop “Jupiter Ascending” was not produced by Warner — that movie cost $176 million and made only $47 million domestically — but it was a black eye nonetheless. So was the $70 million Guy Ritchie misfire “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” which the studio co-financed.
“Our Brand Is Crisis,” a small political comedy starring Sandra Bullock that is projected to open to less than $10 million next Friday. None of the studio’s four other remaining 2015 films are expected to hit the $100 million mark at the domestic box office either.
That’s a stark contrast from the billion-dollar box-office takes by Warner’s competitors this year, including Disney (“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Inside Out”) and Universal (“Furious 7,” “Jurassic World” and “Minions”).
The studio’s poor box office performance has driven chatter for months that change may be afoot. Even insiders have wondered whether top Hollywood producers Michael DeLuca or Scott Stuber are being wooed as potential replacements in the executive suite.
“We obviously have had a challenging summer,” studio spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers told TheWrap. “We knew that was coming, and it came. But we have confidence in the management team, and we feel really really good about our slate for 2016 and ’17.”
Insiders say that Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara has told his team that for the moment he is standing by his long-standing film unit leadership, including Sue Kroll, who runs marketing and distribution, Greg Silverman, who oversees production, and New Line chief Toby Emmerich.
However, the way of Hollywood is such that if things don’t turn around in the coming year change is all but inevitable.
“When you have a year like this, you have to reevaluate, and if you do that, then you’re fine,” a producer who has worked with the studio told TheWrap. “Are you spending too much money on movies that don’t have franchise potential? If so, then you have to stop doing that.”
“Pan,” a fairy tale saga with a $150 million production budget, cost too much for a subject matter of little interest to millennials and offering a tough framework for building sequels, this producer said.
The structural problem for Warner is that its biggest franchise hits, including “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings,” have ended. DC Comics heavyweights like Batman and Superman aren’t around this year, either. This holiday season will be the first in three years that Warner Bros. will enter without one of Peter Jackson‘s Tolkien tales to dominate the box office.
This has left the studio grasping for medium-sized hits while it gears up for potentially new franchises.
The misses in 2015 include the “Entourage” movie, Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon‘s comedy “Hot Pursuit,” Channing Tatum‘s “Magic Mike XXL,” Liam Neeson‘s “Run All Night” and Zac Efron‘s “We Are Your Friends.”
Other than “American Sniper,” which opened in limited release at Christmas last year, the only two Warner Bros. films to have claimed the No. 1 spot at the box office since January are the Will Smith thriller “Focus” and “San Andreas. ”
New Line and Village Road Show’s “San Andreas” was a bona fide hit, taking in $470 million globally on a production budget of $110 million. “Mad Max: Fury Road” has grossed $375 million worldwide, but overruns on a budget that at $150 million was too big to begin with have taken some of the shine off that win.
As most veterans in Hollywood know, the studio business is cyclical. And next year the studio’s slate is much more encouraging.
The 2016 slate includes the Zack Snyder-directed “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (March 25), David Ayer‘s supervillain mashup “Suicide Squad” (Aug. 5), the first of the studio’s 10 superhero movies over the next five years. It also has high hopes for the Harry Potter spin-off “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (Nov. 16).
Also scheduled for next year are sequels to “The Conjuring,” “Barbershop,” “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
But two of its biggest-budget entries, “Tarzan” and “Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur,” are based on properties that have more in common with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” than Superman in terms of familiarity to young audiences.
“Warner Bros. is going to be just fine,” Phil Contrino, senior analyst at BoxOffice.com, told TheWrap. “The superhero stuff from DC is going to deliver. ‘Suicide Squad’ looks very good and in 2017 they have the LEGO movies starting, so the big picture looks fine.”
For the record: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect worldwide gross figure for “San Andreas.”