New Era Begins at Warner Bros., Back Toward Its Entertainment Roots
“Success is about creative talent, in front of the screen, and behind the screen, and fighting and fighting to create a culture that supports that creative vision,” Mr. Zaslav said when announcing the takeover. For much of the past year, he has rhapsodized about the studio’s rich legacy, repeatedly paying tribute to Jack, Harry, Sam and Albert Warner, “the brothers who started it all.”
On Friday, Mr. Zaslav talked about his aspirations to “dream big and dream bold” in an email sent to his new employees. “Hallelujah,” one Warner Bros. manager said in a text message afterward. Another executive at the studio, speaking by phone, said she was going on a “wild” shopping spree to celebrate, adding, “Hollywood is back, baby.”
Others were not so sure. Mr. Zaslav qualifies as an entertainment insider, having run Discovery, a cable television behemoth, for 15 years and working at NBCUniversal before that. But he has little film experience. The merger also comes with breathtaking debt — some $55 billion — that will have to be paid down, even as content costs rise. Mr. Zaslav will need to make difficult decisions about how to allocate resources. How much money should be spent on movie production and marketing? To what degree should the studio make movies for exclusive release in theaters? Should the focus shift even further toward supplying films to HBO Max, the company’s streaming service?
Under Ms. Sarnoff, Warner Bros. slashed its annual theatrical output by nearly half and built a direct-to-streaming assembly line. “The good old days are gone forever,” one Warner-affiliated film producer said on Friday.
Hollywood as a whole finds itself in a similar state of mind: optimistic about the future of movies one minute, pessimistic the next. There is evidence that theaters are finally bouncing back from the pandemic. Over the weekend, the PG-rated “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” took in a huge $71 million in North America, the biggest opening total for a Paramount movie since 2014, while “The Batman” (Warner Bros.) added $6.5 million in ticket sales, for a blockbuster domestic total of $359 million since arriving on March 4.
At the same time, one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors, Michael Bay, sputtered over the weekend. His crime thriller “Ambulance” (Universal) arrived to just $8.7 million in ticket sales. In another bummer, “Morbius” (Sony) collapsed in its second weekend, collecting $10.2 million in the United States and Canada, a 74 percent decline.