• Longform 

    Breaking Down DC Films and its Beguiling, Befuddling Roll Out Strategy

    By | October 16th, 2014
    Posted in Longform | 16 Comments

    Yesterday, Warner Bros. dropped a bombshell on the comic and movies industries in completely unexpected fashion. It was revealed by WB’s CEO Kevin Tsujihara that at least 10 DC films would be released between now and 2020, with the potential for additional stand-alone films starring Batman and Superman to come during that span as well. For a Wednesday morning at an otherwise ordinary investor meeting, it was a hell of a thing.

    As you can see below, though, the list is quite impressive:

    Warner Bros. upcoming slate of films

    There are two films a year for five years, and those are:

    • 2016: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad
    • 2017: Wonder Woman, Justice League Part 1
    • 2018: The Flash, Aquaman
    • 2019: Shazam, Justice League Part 2
    • 2020: Cyborg, Green Lantern

    One of the more surprising elements of this was the fact that DC wasted a perfectly good comic convention that they could have released this news at, but one could almost take the announcement as a reaction to the mic drop Marvel had on Monday night with its Civil War/Captain America 3 news. It’s hard not to look at that graphic above and think that they might have put that presentation together pretty quickly, but that’s a pretty cynical take on what otherwise was enormous news.

    Even with the sheer size of the announcement, though, it wasn’t something that generated the type of awe other comic movie announcements have garnered in the past. Generally speaking, there were two types of response from fans:

    Fan X: “Oh my god, FINALLY, a Wonder Woman movie! So awesome! But what about The Flash TV show?”

    Fan Y: “What the hell are they doing, and don’t they realize they’re making a Flash TV show already?”

    There were a wide swath of responses – never forget our old friend apathy – but overall, most responses fell into one of those two camps. For a company unleashing its biggest salvo yet tied to some of its biggest properties, it’s hard to imagine Warner Bros. and DC were pleased with the response as, for the most part, even the most excited fans were guarded as they quietly hoped for something great.

    A big part of the reason why is that DC’s track record isn’t exactly pristine. Even if you enjoyed Man of Steel, something like Green Lantern doesn’t exactly instill confidence in your average viewer.

    But it’s more than just their track record that makes me trepidatious. That part hardly even bothers me as, once upon a time, Marvel was a company that had Iron Man yet otherwise had a hard time figuring out how to make the Hulk work. Track records are made to be broken, and just because DC hasn’t made great movies so far doesn’t mean they can’t make quality ones in the future.

    No, my issue lies deeper than something as simple as quality. We don’t know anything about that yet, and we won’t know anything about it for several years. What concerns me is how Warner Bros. is approaching these properties, and how even though Marvel’s laid out an amazing playbook, it appears that they haven’t learned from their competition as to what it takes to make a shared universe work for comic fans and non-comic fans alike.

    In some ways, the way that Warner Bros. unveiled these movies acts as an excellent metaphor for their approach to creating them. Rather than unleashing this news to their biggest fans at DC’s last NYCC as a hometown convention, it was announced to investors at a meeting. It makes wonderful business sense, and likely was effective in instilling confidence in current and potential investors for what they have to offer, but it shows they care more about ensuring their bottom line than developing good favor with its potential audience.

    And that’s totally fine. They’re a business, and their job is maximize revenues (even as they have to massively reduce costs). If history has shown anything, it’s that comic book properties work, and they’ll likely see success with that. From now to 2020, Warner Bros. as a studio will likely be highly profitable thanks to these films and the others they announced.

    Continued below

    From a sheer volume standpoint, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t be. Two films a year being released with enormous built-in audiences thanks to its comic readership, with vast crossover potential thanks to the goodwill and excitement comic book movies have generated in the past. But simply releasing a movie isn’t the same as making a successful one.

    Even Marvel found that out as it has developed as a standalone production house. The Incredible Hulk was its second release, and while it turned a profit, it was far and away Marvel’s weakest release in terms of revenue generation. Since then – 7 years ago – Marvel has released 8 films, and as their brand loyalty built around a quality product, it has managed to achieve enormous success even while capitalizing on more tertiary, unexpected products like Guardians of the Galaxy.

    A key word in that previous paragraph is “built”. The entire time, it was clear that Marvel was building something. They started with heavy hitters like Iron Man and Thor and Captain America, culminated the whole thing with The Avengers, and only after they became synonymous with “highly entertaining movies” did they attempt something rather outside the box like Guardians.

    When you look at DC’s graphic that shows what films they’re releasing and when, it’s really hard to see the same level of thought.

    Sure, they’re leading with the stuffed to the gills Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – which will introduce a new Batman as well as Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman and probably The Flash and is the type of flagship you can build upon – but they’re following that up with Suicide Squad. Don’t get me wrong, Suicide Squad can be very enjoyable, but as Multiversity Editor-in-Chief Matthew Meylikhov pointed out to me yesterday, that’d be like Marvel having unleashed Guardians in its first year. Could it work? Sure. Are they making it much harder on themselves by pushing a more off-the-wall property to the front of the line? Absolutely.

    When you look at the list, it’s like they decided what movies they wanted to release and when they wanted to release them by roulette wheel. After all, part of what made The Avengers work so well was because the origin stories of its characters preceded the big kahuna. In DC’s case, only Wonder Woman is getting a solo film before Justice League drops, and she only gets hers after Deadshot, Captain Boomerang and the rest get their day. It’s maddening to think that even though Wonder Woman is finally getting her spotlight, she somehow rates after something that will likely be the comic movie equivalent of The Expendables.

    In the way they’re rolling them out, it’s like DC presumes they already have the type of brand loyalty that allows Marvel to release things like “Bus People” to huge box office numbers. Sure, they have established goodwill by having a lineup of very, very famous characters. But with the chilly reception most of their films have received so far, it’s hard to imagine them having anything like that with paying movie audiences, even with the inherent fame tied to Wonder Woman and Green Lantern.

    In a weird way, this all reminds me of DC’s approach to Villains Month from last year. Warner Bros. announced all of their movies and the years they’re dropping before really seemingly hiring anyone, just like when DC announced all the Villains Month titles before hiring creative teams. Like with Villains Month, this method will almost assuredly prove financially successful. But is it really the best way to accomplish something worthwhile with your product?

    Not likely.

    The biggest issue of all of this, however, is something I haven’t even mentioned yet. While Marvel has very carefully cultivated its film and television universe to have the two sides interact in a well-constructed manner, Warner Bros. is going a different route. In fact, according to Geoff Johns – DC’s biggest writer and Chief Creative Officer – its TV and movie universes will remain separate. That was confirmed yesterday, as they revealed that Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) will be The Flash in his upcoming solo film, and likely the Justice League ones beyond that – even though they have a perfectly good Flash setting CW ratings records in Grant Gustin, whose incredibly charming performance grounds the TV version in all the best ways.

    Continued below

    What we’re looking at with The Flash achieving top ratings and a film coming up in 2018 is a world where there will be both a TV show and a movie starring the character. As a massive Flash fan, I’m thrilled. But the way they’re handling it is troubling to me.

    When it comes to comics, one of the many reasons why it’s an insular, difficult medium for some is because of the confusion things like continuity and multiple titles starring the same character cause. It makes the product murkier, and makes it more exclusionary to those looking to come into it. By choosing to keep shows like The Flash, Arrow and Gotham separate from their film product – especially the former two, with their established shared universe – it’s like DC is both rejecting existing successes and embracing the difficulties that the comic book medium inherently has.

    Having two Flash origins and two Flash stories running concurrently is great for people like me, but for your average Joe? It’s a wrinkle of confusion that only makes the product weaker, no matter how it works for the comic industry.

    Warner is thinking like a comic company in this situation. They want to have their cake and eat it too, bringing in profits from multiple layers of storytelling featuring the same characters. It’s the same way DC makes money by releasing six comics that star Batman. People want more of the same character, right?

    But those layers work because comic readers have been trained to think like that. “Batman” and “Detective Comics” have been separate titles for the entirety of my lifetime, and I understand it because my brain has adapted to that sort of idea. Not everyone is like me. Not everyone is a comic reader, and not everyone is going to want to see the same story twice, no matter how fast the character can run.

    There’s a reason why something like Broadchurch can be critically beloved ratings success for the BBC, but Gracepoint – the exact same show, more or less – is a bomb. Redundancy confuses and disappoints TV and movie audiences, and you can see it as each progressive “Spider-Man” reboot makes less and less money.

    A huge part of Marvel’s success has come from the fact that it embraced all of their products as a unified whole. Sure, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t doing that well in the ratings, but that has less to do with the idea of Marvel universe continuity and more to do with the fact the show just isn’t (or at least wasn’t, for a time) very good. The idea that Marvel’s done such a good job of making their properties work together is why it had high ratings to begin with.

    By cutting that connection, Warner Bros. is choosing to ignore what’s already working for them in their television shows, and instead they risk turning off their potential audience by confusing them for the chance that they could reap benefits from double dipping. It might work, but it seems like an unnecessary risk to take, especially considering utilizing preexisting assets like Stephen Amell and Gustin would likely ensure success from day one.

    Here’s the kicker: I’m still excited to see all of the movies they announced. I know that seems weird to say after reading the rest of the piece, but it’s true.

    Of course I’ll see a Shazam movie. Of course I’ll see a Wonder Woman movie. Ten year old David Harper is beyond pissed that I’m even complaining about “too many Flash movies and TV shows.” Huge amounts of people will likely see these movies, and you know what? It just might work. If Warner Bros. hires the right people for these jobs, these movies may make a ton of money and be good to boot. That’s always possible.

    The problem with Warner Bros.’ announcement yesterday, though, has little to do with any lack of excitement we may have. It’s the same problem we have with DC as a publisher of comics. It isn’t that everything is so bad and it isn’t that it couldn’t work. It’s that it could be so much better. That’s easy for me to say as the guy who is judging from afar, but it’s true.

    Continued below

    I’ve loved DC’s properties for almost all of my comic reading life. At different times, I’ve bought comics starring each and every one of the characters they announced for, and loved doing it. Azzarello and Chiang’s “Wonder Woman”. Geoff Johns’ “Teen Titans” and “Green Lantern”. Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s “The Flash”. There is greatness in each and every one of the properties Warner Bros. will be bringing to life.

    I just hope they can find that greatness, despite an approach that doesn’t leave me angry like some, but it does leave me disappointed.


    //TAGS | Multiversity 101

    David Harper

    David Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).

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