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Warner stumbles, hopes to do better at box office

Warner Bros. has released five films in a row that have underperformed at the box office. The rocky start puts more pressure on forthcoming films to deliver.

March 21, 2013|By Daniel Miller, Los Angeles Times
  • Henry Cavill (center) as Superman and Christopher Meloni (far right) as Colonel Hardy in "Man of Steel."
Henry Cavill (center) as Superman and Christopher Meloni (far right) as… (Courtesy of Warner Bros.…)

It has been a rough start to 2013 for a movie studio unaccustomed to taking one on the chin. And in this case, there has been more than one haymaker.

Warner Bros. has released five films in a row that have underperformed at the box office, including "Jack the Giant Slayer," a roughly $195-million production that has flopped, tallying $55 million in domestic receipts after three weeks of release.

The film's tepid performance and last weekend's disappointing opening for "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" mark an unusual rough patch for Warner Bros., which has historically been among the most successful studios. Buoyed by franchises such as "Harry Potter" and "The Dark Knight," the company is typically No. 1 or No. 2 in the annual box-office ranking.

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Jeff Robinov, president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, told The Times he wished that all of the company's 2013 releases, which also include "Gangster Squad," "Bullet to the Head" and "Beautiful Creatures," had performed better.

"I look at what we do as a sports season — what matters is where you are at the end of the season and if you are in the playoffs and win the championship," said Robinov, who since 2011 has had the final say on which movies the studio makes. "This isn't our fastest start, but as I look to the last three-fourths of the year it looks incredibly strong."

The studio's rocky start now puts more pressure on forthcoming films to deliver strong returns. Warner Bros. can look to the May release "The Hangover Part III" and June's Superman origins story "Man of Steel" as safe bets. But ahead of those releases are the Jackie Robinson biographical baseball picture "42" and director Baz Luhrmann's 3-D take on "The Great Gatsby" — both considered riskier propositions than the franchise fare.

It doesn't help that on the whole it has been a down year at the box office, with the total take down 12% compared with last year.

"I have just seen the box office go from bad to worse this year," said box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com, who noted that films targeting the typically reliable young male audience have not found wide support from the group. Warner's Sylvester Stallone drama "Bullet to the Head" has grossed only $9.5 million. "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," a Steve Carell-Jim Carrey comedy, opened to a weak $10.2 million.

"I think [Warner Bros.] is just falling victim to what every other studio is facing — a malaise in the marketplace, particularly with pictures aimed at the male audience," Dergarabedian said.

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The Burbank-based studio, a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc., has only recently come under the control of a new CEO.

Kevin Tsujihara, 48, previously president of the studio's home entertainment unit, took over the studio March 1 after a two-year competition for the top job against Robinov and Warner Bros. Television Group President Bruce Rosenblum. While Warner Bros. is known for its stability — Tsujihara is the 90-year-old studio's fifth CEO ever — film industry gossip has centered on whether Robinov would depart the studio.

"I don't have any plans to leave at all," said Robinov, 54, who has a reputation for nurturing relationships with directors such as "Dark Knight" helmer Christopher Nolan and running a group that ably markets movies like recent Academy Award best picture winner "Argo."

Tsujihara could become more involved in the film business. He doesn't lack the experience, having already held a seat on the studio's green light committee, which decides whether a film project should be made. And he's known as a good manager.

"I don't think he suffers fools well, but he is interested in others' opinions and he understands the value of Warner's product," Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Securities analyst, said in an email.

Tsujihara also was involved in bringing the recent blockbuster "The Hobbit" to the big screen, helping head off labor problems in New Zealand, where the film was shot.

"Kevin understands the economics, and creatively he's got a very good opinion," Robinov said.

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Some industry observers view the studio's box-office slump as an opportunity for Tsujihara to put his stamp on the film group, whether through a change in philosophy or personnel.

But Pivotal Research Group senior analyst Brian Wieser, who covers the media sector, said that in this sort of situation, he wouldn't expect drastic changes: "Rocking the boat in a well-established business is not necessarily a wise thing," he said.

Tsujihara declined to comment.

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