Only Netflix Could Get ‘The Irishman’ Made and Other Highlights From THR’s Studio Head Roundtable

Disney’s Alan Horn, Warner Bros.’ Toby Emmerich, Universal’s Donna Langley, Netflix’s Scott Stuber, Paramount’s Jim Gianopulos, Sony’s Tom Rothman and Amazon’s Jen Salke all participated

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Studio heads from the Big Five studios — Disney, Sony, Universal, Paramount and Warner Bros. — and Netflix and Amazon Studios got together to discuss (and debate) streaming, censorship and the future of the movie business.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s roundtable included Alan Horn, Chief Creative Officer and Co-Chairman of Disney Studios; Toby Emmerich, Chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group; Donna Langley, Chairman, Universal Filmed Entertainment Group; Scott Stuber, head of film at Netflix; Jim Gianopulos, CEO of Paramount; Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony’s Motion Picture Group and Jennifer Salke, Head of Amazon Studios.

The big debate topics were Netflix’s decision to not release viewership data (which Stuber says they will be doing “more and more” in the future), as well as the controversy around “Mulan” in China, and Amazon’s plans to shift their focus to Prime.

Fun fact: The studio chiefs even weigh in on the films they are most proud of — and which ones they wish they had produced themselves.

See below for 10 takeaways from the THR roundtable. Read the full story here.

1. Netflix promises more transparency on viewership

“We are definitely, as a company, moving more … and you will see more [viewership transparency],” Stuber said. “We do it in some of our earnings reports, and we are going to be doing it more and more because that filmmaker and that actor and that actress want to know that their movie got out there globally in a big way.”

2. Censorship in China is tricky

Horn acknowledged the recent flare-up when one of the film’s stars, Yifei Liu, spoke out about Hong Kong protests — and sparked a #BoycottMulan movement among Chinese partisans. “First of all, if ‘Mulan’ doesn’t work in China, we have a problem,” he said. “But my feeling is that free speech is an important component of our society, and folks ought to be able to say what they want to say. And I can’t speak for what  says in China, and we didn’t know what she was going to say. We try to be nonpolitical.”

Langley acknowledged that Universal is unlikely to produce a “Fast and Furious” movie with a Chinese villain: “We run a business. We have to be sensitive to important markets.”

3. The ‘finite universe’ of Disney’s vault

“There is no question that we, at some point, are going to run out of the kinds of films like ‘Aladdin’ or ‘Lion King,’” Horn said. “We have taken a step past that now, so ‘Maleficent’ is a step away from ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and ‘Cruella’ (2021) is a step away from ‘101 Dalmatians.’ But there is no question it’s a finite universe.”

4. Netflix’s success metrics

Stuber acknowledged that the streamer’s metrics are different from its studio competitors’ focus on box office. “We value over a month, basically. We look at 28 days and because we can see where things are opportunistic, we can market toward it,” he said. “We greenlight off of X money and how much we are going to spend. And we hope that this many people watch in that 28 days. And that’s our success rate metric.”

5. Only Netflix could have produced ‘The Irishman’

The studio heads — including some who had passed on Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” at various point in its development — acknowledged that only Netflix could have gotten the three-hour-plus, $150 million-plus film made.

Stuber agreed that Netflix has a different approach to the economics. “When I took the job [in 2017], I was building a new studio. We have no IP, we have no library, we can’t remake things,” he said. “So you have to say, what is your opportunity? And your opportunity is filmmakers. For us to get Marty [Scorsese] at Netflix was a big thing. It was a big win. So that was one thing. And then the economics. We have enough subscribers that we think the movie can deliver on. Thankfully he over-delivered.”

Gianopulos noted: “It was very ambitious for a studio to take on a project like that. There is a different perception of the economics. For us, at that level, for a period drama — or for anyone, I would submit — it was ambitious. And it was perhaps too ambitious.”

Emmerich added, “That’s where the consumer wins. I don’t think any of the studios could make that movie at that cost at that length and come out alive… The only difference for us, and maybe for the average consumer — I’ll bet everyone at this table wants to see ‘The Irishman’ in a theater.”

6. Why Amazon is shrinking its theatrical release window

Salke, a TV veteran now overseeing Amazon Studios’ film slate, said that the company still plans to release some of its features in theaters — though its previous three-month window is likely to shrink. “We’re just trying to shift — it’s not closing the door on theatrical release. We will continue to [make] and acquire movies that will embrace that strategy. But it really is trying to get these movies to our Prime subscribers as soon as possible.”

She also defended the company’s handling of Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night,” acquired for $13 million at Sundance and widely reported as a box office underperformer. “It went through the contractually obligated theatrical release that we were happy to support for Mindy [Kaling] and Nisha [Ganatra] and everybody,” she said. “But then it gets this horrible report card. The truth is, the movie has been watched. We only have U.S. rights, but it’s been watched in the U.S. more than any other movie in the short time it’s been on. “Manchester [by the Sea]” and that movie are neck-and-neck.

7. ‘Joker’ and Why Warner Bros. Isn’t Following the Marvel Path

“The impetus behind making “Joker” really came from Todd [Phillips],” Emmerich said. “But one of the advantages of being Warner Bros. and having DC is that we don’t feel that all the movies have to be — not that Disney’s films are — but we don’t feel our films have to be of the same tone or in a connected universe. We thought making an R-rated supervillain origin story was a cool idea. We didn’t see [the success] coming at this level when we greenlit the film.”

8. Proudest greenlights

Gianopulos named “Deadpool” for its box office success — and “Slumdog Millionaire” for its creative (and Oscar) success.

Rothman surprised by naming a box office dud, 2003’s “Master and Commander.” “Peter Weir said no to me three different times. And I chased that movie for 14 years,” he said.

And Langley named Paul Greengrass’ gritty 9/11 drama “United 93.” “The first movie I advocated to greenlight as president of production,” she said. On the complete other end of the spectrum, the other movie I am really proud of from a commercial standpoint was ‘Mamma Mia!’ There were a lot of people [at the studio] who didn’t love ABBA as much as I did.”

9. Gianopulos on the one that got away

Gianopulos really wishes he hadn’t passed on Zak Snyder’s “300.” “We had a narrow window to [make it]. And that was like a story my grandmother used to tell me as a little kid,” he said. “She always told me Greek myth stories…I was so close to it that I thought we should do it for real. And I saw this comic book, the [Frank] Miller book, and I thought, ‘Oh come on, you can’t do it like that.’ I thought Ridley Scott should do it like ‘Gladiator.’”

Alan Horn, who approved the film while he was at Warner Bros., recalled his pitch meeting with Snyder. “I said, ‘Are there swords in this movie?’ Yes. ‘Are there sandals? Arrows?’ Yes. ‘Shields?’ Yes. I said, ‘Come on, we just did ‘Troy’ 20 minutes ago. How are we going to do that?’”

As Langley added, “It wasn’t obvious until it was obvious.”