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COMPANY TOWN

Warner shakes up DC Comics to compete with Marvel

Facing even stronger competition with a Disney takeover of Marvel, the studio unveils a plan for tighter control of the superhero unit and names 'Harry Potter' brand manager Diane Nelson to run it.

September 10, 2009|Claudia Eller and Ben Fritz

Warner Bros. hopes to cure a case of superhero envy.

After years of lagging rival Marvel Entertainment in adapting comic-book properties for the big screen and other media, the Burbank studio unveiled a major restructuring of its DC Comics unit Wednesday that will bring its operations under tighter control.

The move is an effort by Warner Bros. and corporate parent Time Warner Inc. to implement a new strategy for DC Comics, which will face stiffer competition from a steroid-charged Marvel as a result of Walt Disney Co.'s deal last week to acquire it for $4 billion.

Diane Nelson, a top brand manager who has overseen Warner's lucrative "Harry Potter" franchise since 1999, has been put in charge of the newly named DC Entertainment with a mandate to better exploit its properties across the studio's movie, television, interactive, digital and consumer products businesses.

"This is the structural iteration of what we have been trying to accomplish for a long time," said Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer. "We think it is important for Warner Bros. to exercise appropriate control over these properties, because they are highly valued assets of our company."

For the four decades that Warner has owned DC, the publisher of such classic comics as "Superman," "Batman" and "Wonder Woman," the New York publisher has operated largely independently of the studio.

As superhero movies have become one of the most profitable genres in Hollywood, tensions between DC and Warner have contributed to the studio's inability to match the success of Marvel, which has scored on the big screen with such A-list characters as Spider-Man and lesser-known ones such as Iron Man and X-Men.

"It almost appears as if Warner Bros. were just buying DC now and deciding what to do with it," said Gareb Shamus, chief executive of Wizard Entertainment, which publishes a magazine following the comic-book industry. "This move is going to be great for Warner because it firmly puts the characters in control of the people who make movies and television."

Numerous DC properties, including "Wonder Woman," "Justice League" and "The Flash," have languished in development at Warner Bros. for years, with little coordination among the studio's producers and executives and the comic-book publisher. The unit's top development executive had reported directly to DC Publisher Paul Levitz rather than to anyone at Warner.

In one notable example, the CW Network, which Warner Bros. co-owns, last year announced plans to produce a show based on Batman's sidekick, Robin. Several months later it was killed after Motion Picture Group President Jeff Robinov and "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan, who hadn't been consulted, expressed their disapproval, according to people familiar with the situation.

Under the new structure, Nelson will report to Robinov. Levitz is moving to a consulting role.

"DC has been a publishing company, but I think it has the potential to do more," Nelson said. "I come into this not as a comic-book fan per se but someone who knows Warner Bros. and how to bring value to the DC properties."

The new DC chief has been Warner's point person for everything "Harry Potter" over the last 10 years. The franchise, adapted from the books by J.K. Rowling, has been the most successful in the studio's history, generating more than $5.4 billion in worldwide box office and billions more from DVDs, video games and other media.

But the move is not without risk. Comic-book fans are sure to be wary of a corporate executive taking control of their beloved characters and will be watching closely to see whom Nelson selects to replace Levitz and run DC's publishing arm.

Warner has had a mixed history with the DC properties it has adapted for other media.

Its biggest success, 2008's "The Dark Knight," generated more than $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales and was a top DVD seller. The CW Network's "Smallville," based on the early life of Superman, is entering its ninth season. "Batman: Arkham Asylum," a recent video game co-published by Warner Bros. Interactive, has sold nearly 2 million units in less than a month, a major hit.

However, the studio's "Watchmen" movie released in March was a box-office disappointment, 2006's costly "Superman Returns" wasn't successful enough to merit another sequel, and 2004's "Catwoman" film was a major flop.

The next movie up is "Jonah Hex," a supernatural western that has just completed production. Currently filming is the military-commando tale "The Losers." Warner's next major superhero movie will be "The Green Lantern," starring Ryan Reynolds, which begins shooting March 15 for release in the spring of 2011. A third Nolan-directed Batman movie is in development.

A large part of Nelson's strategy will be not only to exploit the highest-profile characters but also to identify lesser-known ones with potential to be used in movies, TV, games and other media, as Marvel has successfully done with second-tier properties like "Iron Man."

"Before, DC as a publishing entity in New York was a repository of assets accessed by the motion picture group, TV, games and consumer products," said Warner President Alan Horn. With the reorganization, he said, "there will be much more cross-pollination."

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

ben.fritz@latimes.com

Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.

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