After The Dark Knight Rises & Harry Potter - What's Next For Warner Bros?

What does the future hold for Warner Bros now that they've lost two big cash cows?

What does the future hold for Warner Bros? The studio - home to some of the most successful films of all time and the powerhouse behind the Harry Potter and Batman franchises - would seem to be enjoying a golden age of profitability. And in many ways they are, but if you look at their last decade and then in the next couple of years that lie ahead, the future doesn't look quite as bright for this Hollywood titan. At the end of the 20th century, WB was one of the first studios to get in on the ground floor of the burgeoning nerd culture takeover of the entertainment industry. Time Warner subsidiary New Line Cinema had just enjoyed an unexpected hit adapting a cult comic book property with the first Blade film. Mega-producer Joel Silver (of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard films) had thrown in his support behind a pair of brothers who wanted to make an anime-inspired cyberpunk action film with a huge philosophical underpinning, and not only was The Matrix a serious hit for WB, but it had an enormous effect on American action cinema. The same year it came out, New Line took a $300 million gamble on a New Zealand director's plan to turn The Lord of the Rings into a trilogy of 3-hour films. And then of course, there's the story of the Boy Who Lived. By the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published and hit the United States, the series had become an international best-seller. WB won the rights for a film adaptation and took a very risky route - actively courting author JK Rowling's approval on many elements of the production, they undertook a massive task in planning out a film series to adapt all three of the books Rowling had written, and even the unpublished (at the time) fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Keep in mind, these plans were set in motion well before hits like X-Men and Spider-Man heralded a new age of profitability for traditionally "geek" material. But the results speak for themselves: Harry Potter is the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a massive critical AND commercial success (the final entry winning 11 Oscars, including Best Picture), The Matrix spawned two very successful sequels, and in 2005, WB brought Christopher Nolan in to revitalize their Batman brand. And in doing so, got a trilogy that has - to date - earned nearly $2.4 billion worldwide. The studio of Jack Warner was making almost all the right moves, and reaped rich rewards for doing so. But. . . now what? While the fantasy and Batman money trains had been reliable cash cows for WB for over a decade, the studio has shown a startling lack of ability to launch another property with that level of success. Their 2006 effort Superman Returns was a retro curiosity that failed to make back its budget (admittedly one bloated by previous incarnations of the movie), and it's debatable if next year's Man of Steel will fare much better. This brings into question how successful their planned Justice League project (hastily announced after The Avengers became the movie phenomenon of 2012) can be, especially since 2011's Green Lantern was a critical and financial disaster. The fourth Terminator film failed to cement the new trilogy they'd hoped to launch. Even the latest Tim Burton film - who is a reliable money-maker - was an expensive dud. Clash of the Titans started encouragingly in 2010 but featured a limp sequel this year. The Sherlock Holmes films (also courtesy of producer Joel Silver) have turned out a couple strong holiday hits, but with shrinking returns from the second film, Game of Shadows. With no announced sequel and the curious departure of Silver from WB - as well as star Robert Downey Jr's massively-increased popularity (meaning a higher asking price) after the Iron Man and Avengers movies - leaves the fate of the franchise far from certain. With Harry Potter ended and Nolan officially done with the Batman franchise, WB doesn't seem to have many reliably HUGE tentpoles up its sleeve. This is probably why there were more than happy to co-finance a THIRD Hobbit film for Peter Jackson, effectively turning two bites at that billion-dollar apple into three. After all, The Hobbit: There and Back Again is currently the only major blockbuster that WB currently has scheduled for Summer 2014, or the rest of that year for that matter. That's not to say that Warner is in any financial danger - The Hobbit will certainly be a profitable trilogy, the two Hangover movies have proven to be very successful (on a comparatively tiny budget), with a third one due next year. And 2013 will also see WB give their considerable marketing clout (and prime mid-July release date) to geek icon Guilllermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim, a "giant monsters vs. mechs" movie that stole the show at this summer's San Diego Comic-Con. The last time Warner gave a big push and that release date to an original sci-fi property, movie-goers were rewarded with Inception and WB made serious bank. It could happen again. But it does seem that WB is going to have a harder time keeping the title of the most profitable studio in the industry, a title it's claimed 3 of the last 5 years and counting. One need only look at Time/Warner's 20 highest-grossing films (15 of which come courtesy of Potter, Jackson, or Nolan) to see how important those franchises have been. Though admittedly, they look to be in much better shape than post-Marvel Paramount.
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Brendan Agnew has held jobs as a salesman, a fraud investigator, a credit card supervisor, and a teacher, but writing is always what's kept him sane. He's a life-long film/TV and literature enthusiast, a lover of interactive entertainment (that's a pretentious way of saying video games), and a full-time nerd. The only thing he enjoys more than immersing himself in all things nerdy is the opportunity to drag someone else in to the wide world of geekdom, kicking and screaming if necessary. If you don't think your daily feed is bloated enough already, you can follow him on Twitter: @BLCAgnew