Warners' films: Movie overboard!
Guy Ritchie's upcoming gangster film, "RocknRolla," is due to be released by Warner Bros. in early October. So why was the film's producer, the inimitable Joel Silver, showing the film to executives at Lionsgate and Sony Pictures? According to my colleague John Horn, Silver said he was screening it for other studios to get their advice about marketing and release plans for the picture. You can imagine how tickled Warners' marketing staff must've been, hearing the news that the studio's top producer was out soliciting ideas about how to sell his picture from rival studios.
A more likely scenario is that Silver is looking for a new home for the movie; a top executive at one of the studios said it was clear Silver was looking for a buyer for the film. People who've seen the film say it's not bad at all. But as Warners goes through the arduous process of absorbing two dozen or so New Line films into its distribution system, the studio simply has too many movies to release, so it's starting to pick out the weak calves from the herd.
Sources say Warners has also been shopping around "Slumdog Millionaire," a Danny Boyle-directed drama about a kid from the slums of Mumbai who has an amazing run on an Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." The film, whose U.S. rights were acquired for $5 million by Warner Independent Pictures, is good enough to be accepted at this fall's Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals. But Warners is unsure of its commercial prospects. The film, originally slated for release Nov. 7, has now quietly been bumped to next year. Warners is also open to offers on a third film, "Pride and Glory," an Edward Norton and Colin Farrell-starring drama about NYPD officers made by New Line that was initially slated for release by New Line this spring but bumped from the schedule.
What's going on here? I went to Warners chief Alan Horn for some answers:
"RocknRolla" was financed by Silver's Dark Castle Entertainment, which has delivered a series of low-budget horror films to Warners, including "The Reaping" and "House of Wax." Silver's deal entitles his films to a 800-screen wide release, but Warners ultimately decides how much of a marketing spend it's willing to risk on the film. In the past, when Warners had concerns about a film's commercial prospects, it has tried a limited three-city release, supported with TV advertising, to gauge a film's reception in the marketplace. The results are rarely encouraging, which Silver knows all too well; Warners did a similar release in 2005 with the Shane Black-directed "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," a Silver-produced comedy thriller that got good reviews but never won a broader national release. It's no wonder a savvy producer like Silver would be approaching a studio like Lionsgate, which makes its living releasing edgy films like "RocknRolla."
Horn was honest about his assessment of the film. "I think it's a well-made picture, but while it's funny in spots, it's very English," he said. "I don't think it's broadly commercial. It feels like a film that deserves a spirited release, but not a wide one. Joel has an 800-screen deal, which we'll honor, but we might not be willing to spend the marketing money he wants us to."
Horn shrugged. "I guess I'm in a shocking state of equanimity," he said. "The filmmakers have every right to do what they think is best in support of their movies. But we have the right to do what's best for Warner Bros. Sometimes the pursuit of those interests results in a disagreement. For now, we're preparing to release the film in October, but I don't see it starting out on 800 screens. If Joel is thinking there is someone out there willing to spend twice as much money as we're willing to, I'm sure he will pursue that."
Horn acknowledged that the studio is also open to offers on Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," but he said the studio isn't having a fire sale. "We're not going to give it away. If we can't find a buyer, then we'll put it out in a few markets--perhaps Chicago, New York and Toronto --and see if it works. I'm a big believer in letting the audience decide what it thinks. I like the movie. I just don't know how big the audience is for it."
Warners' overriding issue is that it simply is overloaded with pictures. As distribution chief Dan Fellman put it: "We're distributing more movies from September to the end of the year than most studios do in an entire year." Horn is trying to find the right number of pictures that the studio can handle without putting an unacceptable burden on its marketing and distribution staff. With New Line now slated to make six-or-so films a year, Warners will be cutting back on its releases so it would release no more than 25 or 26 films in a calendar year. It's a delicate balancing act, especially for a studio that is better built to release "Dark Knight" and "Harry Potter"-style blockbusters than small dramas or quirky comedies.
"I think having a new movie coming out every two weeks is plenty," Horn said. "Any more films than that and we're putting too big a strain on the system. It's just too crowded in the marketplace these days. I'd like for us to find a way to release movies like 'Slumdog Millionaire,' but we keep coming back to the same question--can we really do it justice?"
Warners is willing to try to find a happier home for some of its smaller-scale films. But with so many specialty divisions going out of business or in disarray, the list of happy homes is few and far between. A lot of good little movies are going to be packed off to the orphanage.
Photo of Guy Ritchie by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times; Danny Boyle by Graham Barclay / For The Times