Risk, Originality, and Diversity at the Produced By Conference

Pete Hammond, Peter Roth, and Toby Emmerich speak at the Produced By Conference at Warner Bros. Studios on Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Burbank, California. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Invision for Producers Guild of America /AP Images)

At this year’s “Produced By Conference,” hosted by the Producers Guild of America  on June 8 and 9, industry experts examined the role of theatrical exhibition during a revolutionary time in home entertainment. As an increasingly vertically integrated industry and a proliferation of streaming services, from Warner Media to the upcoming Quibi, provide more options to consumers, executives and content creators made the case for the continuing importance of the movie theater experience.

As the lines between content creators and providers become blurrier with studios increasingly deploying their own streaming platforms, the future relationship  between studios and exhibition is subject to potential change. Toby Emmerich, chairman of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group, stressed that Warner’s direct-to-consumer initiative Warner Media would not undermine his studio’s relationship with theatrical distributors or alter the length of windows, stating “I think movies that we create as theatrical films will be conceived as them and will be released theatrically in a traditional window.” 

Emmerich did note, however, that moving forward potentially fewer movies will be released theatrically, echoing sentiments expressed at the recent Promax Conference about the importance of theatrical releases as cultural moments. “The definition of what people will go into a theater to see, I think, is changing. A movie that you have to see on its opening weekend at the theater because it’s part of the conversation becomes all the more important. There will be more emphasis on tentpole movies than ever before. I think we all believe that people will always go to theaters. People will always want to congregate togeth er and be told stories together as audiences”. 

These industry changes, argued Emmerich, also encourage  originality and diversity. When asked about Disney’s dominance after their Fox acquisition and the forthcoming launch of streaming platform Disney+, he was optimistic, saying “I do think it creates the opportunity for us to take measured risks with films that Disney wouldn’t see as theatrical opportunities.  ”In fact, only two out of ten movies in Warner Bros.’ fall lineup—IT: Chapter 2 and The Jokerare based on pre-existing IPs. “They’re movies that we fell in love with. We just think that the scripts, the directors, and the cast are so good and that the stories are so compelling that we just have to take a shot. So, that’s what we’re doing. There are very few dramas being released by other studios. I have this baseball line that I like to quote: ‘Hit them where they ain’t’.”

The issue of diversity among directors, writers, and producers was at the heart of numerous panels. Streaming platforms led the conversation, with panelists such as Ava DuVernay (speaking about “When They See Us,” a Netflix limited series following the true story of five African-American boys who were wrongfully convicted for rape) and “Russian Doll” co-creator Leslye Headland. Diversity in theatrically-released films was also discussed, most notably in a conversation with writer, producer, and actress Mindy Kaling and acclaimed director Nancy Meyers, who shared their experiences about what it means to be a woman making comedies in an evolving industry.

“I think that the reason why people are taking risks now is because they are a) shamed into it by the current political environment in Hollywood and b) because they are on smaller budgets,” said Kaling, who recently worked with Amazon Studios for the film Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra. “As an Indian woman working now, keeping the budgets really low is something that can protect you,” she added. Kaling praised Meyers as a role model for all female filmmakers for her history of showing that women can be behind box office hits. 

Indeed, the success of films like Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman and Crazy Rich Asians show that diversity and originality pay off. A recent study by Webedia Movies Pro (parent company of Boxoffice), revealed that cast diversity was a crucial factor in driving untapped audiences, notably young women and moviegoers above fifty, to the movies.

“The biggest movies in the history of the business are usually movies studios are afraid of,” stated Emmerich, who encouraged producers in the audience to tell stories that truly speak to them. The executive also questioned the value of data-driven analysis in making content decisions, noting that historically the biggest hits have been unpredictable. After all, he continued, even the mega-box office hit Titanic was co-produced by two studios because it was deemed high-risk. “I suppose that some are cynical enough to create content based on those algorithms. I find that so disrespectful. I find it absurd. I don’t believe it,” added Peter Roth, president and chief content officer at Warner Bros. Television Group, defying the predictive powers of data. 

At Produced By studios and exhibitors discussed the importance of experimenting with various release strategies in delivering diverse and innovative content to audiences. Warner Bros.’ World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, was initially rolled out by Fathom Events. After becoming the biggest event cinema title of all time, the studio expanded to a full theatrical release, resulting in the film  ultimately grossing $17.96 million. Similarly, Amazon switched its release strategy for Late Night, opting for a platform debut before going wide a week later. As with They Shall Not Grow Old, the move was an attempt to capitalize on reviews and create a stronger word of mouth. 

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