Can Warner Bros. Restore Its Movie Glory? Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy Want Christopher Nolan Back, Will Prioritize Theatrical and Take More Big Swings

As waves swirl in the infinity pool of the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy take in the view of the rolling hills of Antibes. The sun beats down so fiercely on a lily-white tablecloth that the co-CEOs and co-chairpeople of the Warner Bros. Film Group shield themselves with Gucci and Ray-Ban shades. They resemble the all-powerful studio chiefs of yore — or at least their surroundings do. A lot has changed since the Golden Age of Hollywood: Jack Warner didn’t have two smartphones constantly buzzing, misconduct allegations involving “The Flash” star Ezra Miller and cratering share prices to worry about.

“It’s so competitive now,” De Luca says, looking out at the shimmering water. “We all have to sing for our supper.”

And sing, they have. In a starkly different setting a month before, with the clatter of slot machines blaring in the distance, I met De Luca and Abdy in Las Vegas. They’d come to Sin City hoping to reassure movie theater owners that Warner Bros. was ready to deliver the kind of blockbusters — “Barbie,” starring Margot Robbie; “Dune: Part Two,” with Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya; and “The Color Purple,” with Oprah Winfrey producing — that it has struggled to produce in recent years. But as they rehearsed the important introduction, De Luca couldn’t help but joke about the low life expectancy of studio chiefs in a business that’s never been more treacherous to navigate.

“We’ll try to keep this job for more than two years,” De Luca said, sharing a private laugh with Abdy. The quip didn’t make it into their final speech, being too frank an assessment of the dire situation facing an industry still battered by a pandemic and shifting consumer habits.

Two years before, at CinemaCon, De Luca and Abdy were handing out different business cards. In 2020, they were tapped to run film at MGM, where they lined up buzzy projects — to mixed results — such as Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci,” Joe Wright’s musical flop “Cyrano” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” before the studio sold to Amazon for $8.5 billion.

“We thought of MGM as an opportunity to test our theory about original movies with signature filmmakers, and supporting first-timers,” De Luca says. “The legacy studios seemed gun-shy in taking original swings, and we thought they were leaving a lot of talent and material on the table.” 

DeLuca and Abdy would know. As a young hot-shot production chief at New Line in the 1990s, De Luca helped discover the likes of David Fincher and made “Austin Powers” into one of the most profitable comedy franchises in history. He later produced prestige  adult dramas like “The Social Network” and “Captain Phillips,” landing Academy Awards nominations and selling plenty of movie tickets in the process. Abdy came to prominence as a top production executive at Paramount, and later worked at New Regency and Makeready, where she shepherded auteur-driven films such as Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” and Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.” Clearly, they know their way around the Oscars and A-list talent. 

Back at the du Cap, they’re interrupted. The familiar face that crashes our table isn’t an agent or an actor — but someone far more powerful: their new boss, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who stops by to say that he’s going all-in on that theory they tried to institute at MGM. In a plain white T-shirt and a Warner Bros. centennial hat, the CEO snaps a photo of his film chiefs being interviewed, like a doting dad at an amusement park. Zaslav says he expects a diverse slate of films from De Luca and Abdy: “Romantic comedies, gangster films, horror, tentpoles, the gamut,” he says. None of these movies, he continues, will be made for streaming only, but will instead receive theatrical releases exclusively. “See you back here in 10 years,” says Zaslav, in Cannes for the premiere of the racy HBO series “The Idol.”  “We’ll be toasting the 200 movies that Mike and Pam have made.” 

There’s a bit of irony to this scene. In the past 14 months, Zaslav has been an industry disruptor since he finalized Discovery’s acquisition of Warner Bros. Just last week, his vision for a new, less partisan (and passionate) CNN seemingly backfired with the humiliating ousting of the network’s CEO Chris Licht. At the film studio, however, his move to install the respected duo of De Luca and Abdy has provided some much-needed stability.

After yet another corporate merger and a shocking upheaval of the way movies are typically released (cue Jason Kilar’s ill-fated two years as WarnerMedia CEO), De Luca and Abdy are banking on their deep ties to A-list filmmakers to make Warner Bros. a destination for artists again.

“I’ve been at Warner Bros. for a long time, because it’s the best studio in the world for filmmakers,” says Todd Phillips, director of the billion-dollar hit “Joker” and its upcoming sequel starring Joaquin Phoenix and Lady Gaga. “But in recent years, the studio kind of lost its way. To me, Mike and Pam are a sign to everyone that Warner Bros. is back on track. They have a deep respect for what we do.”

For generations, Warner Bros. had been the gold standard when it came to nurturing top filmmakers like Phillips. It’s where Clint Eastwood was given the license to move from action flicks like “Dirty Harry” to directing contemplative dramas like “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby,” where art-house favorite Christopher Nolan was entrusted with the “Batman” franchise, and where actor Ben Affleck was allowed to move behind the camera to Oscar-winning effect with “Argo.” 

But that legacy imploded in the early days of the pandemic when Kilar, who ran the now defunct WarnerMedia, decided to debut the entire 2021 Warner Bros. film slate on HBO Max. His reasons were complicated. COVID had forced cinemas to close for months, and even when they were able to reopen, moviegoers were wary of returning.  

At the time, WarnerMedia, under then-owner AT&T, was trying to bolster a streaming service that had launched during the public health crisis. But it’s how Kilar announced the decision publicly in the press, with nary a word to stars and powerful agents who had brokered deals exclusively for theatrical releases, that outraged the artistic community. The town (make no mistake, that’s how the insular world of show business sees itself) went nuclear, decrying Kilar’s “self-dealing” and slamming him for failing to engage it beforehand. Clearly, the whole mess left a lot of artists feeling burdened and worried about working with the studio — including Christopher Nolan, who took his next project, “Oppenheimer,” across the street to Universal. Abdy, all business at the du Cap, says she and De Luca “are through the worst of it.”

De Luca and Abdy say they weren’t looking for such a plum gig when the Warners job came available. Largely unsure about how Amazon wanted to “relate” to MGM after the acquisition, “we said all the best to them and started talking about launching a production company. Then Zaslav called,” De Luca remembers. Zaslav was looking to make a change, ushering out 30-year WB veteran Toby Emmerich as film chief last June and replacing him with new blood. For De Luca and Abdy, that meant inheriting a movie studio that came in fourth place in terms of market share in 2022. Their mission is not only to deliver hits for movie theaters, but to flex some of their career-defining taste to restore the luster to Warner Bros.

Already, the pair have greenlit eight movies at a studio that, like all of Hollywood, has had to face two words that are poison to the industry’s penchant for excess: cost cutting. They’ve been able to pony up big money for an adaptation of the ubiquitous mobile game Minecraft, starring Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa, as well as enlist Tim Burton to revive his demented poltergeist comedy with “Beetlejuice 2.” At the same time, they’ve splurged on splashy talent packages, a new spy thriller for Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry, and have landed rights to bestselling author T.J. Newman’s latest aerial thriller “Drowning.” 

Looking to field an entire team of Oscar winners and nominees, with a healthy dose of genre rock stars, De Luca and Abdy recently secured overall deals with Baz Luhrmann, “The Batman” director Matt Reeves and M. Night Shyamalan (and greenlit his daughter Ishana’s directorial debut at New Line). They landed the next film from buzzy “Barbarian” director Zach Cregger in a brutal multi-studio auction. Abdy is actively pursuing Iñárritu, with whom she made two movies as production chief at New Regency. She and De Luca also brokered a pact to make new “Lord of the Rings” films, and visited Peter Jackson in New Zealand to reestablish the studio’s connection to the franchise’s original director.   

And, yes, they want to mend fences with Nolan. The “Batman” mastermind is perhaps the studio’s most successful director, one who lit a match and walked off the lot after Kilar’s day-and-date debacle, grousing with scorched-earth flair that he went to bed working for the greatest studio in the world and woke up working for the worst streaming service.

“We’re hoping to get Nolan back,” De Luca says. “I think there’s a world.” Both executives concede that Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Donna Langley is a force to be reckoned with, as she secured “Oppenheimer” after his public breakup with Warners. De Luca and Abdy remain hopeful. Two sources familiar with Nolan say that the director received a seven-figure royalty check from Warner Bros. within the past eight months. The payment was tied to his 2020 film “Tenet,” which the studio released. A source says De Luca, Abdy and Zaslav all agreed he was owed the bonus in good faith. No strings were attached, according to insiders, but the studio was partly motivated to repair that fractured relationship. In a sign that the healing has begun, Nolan has done post-production work on “Oppenheimer” on the Warners lot. (A rep for Nolan did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.)

Making artists feel valued is clearly important to De Luca and Abdy, whose mantra is “Let’s give people white-glove treatment and get that repeat business.”

But those gloves can get dirty. In the current moviemaking landscape, many productions are in limbo in the wake of the writers strike, and sets could shut down entirely if the actors union officially joins the Writers Guild of America on the picket lines next month. Beyond labor tensions, the theatrical box office is still clawing out of the crater left by the pandemic. Consumer habits keep shifting as studios change how and where movies are released. Over the course of COVID, theatrical windows — the industry term for the amount of time movies appear exclusively in cinemas — shrank dramatically as more films did away with the big screen altogether in favor of streaming debuts. 

All that experimentation has failed to satisfy investors. In fact, Wall Street has grown disenchanted in recent months with the economics of streaming, believing that launching streaming services has cost too much money and produced too few profits. No media company has been left unscathed, with share prices dropping across the sector — Warner Bros. Discovery’s stock has plunged nearly 50% since the merger in 2022. And that selloff has spurred waves of layoffs and cost cutting around Hollywood. Economizing means sacrifice, evident when I spotted Abdy in the Southwest Airlines queue headed to Las Vegas from L.A., pulling her own carry-on. Typically, studio heads fly private jets that are fired up before they’ve even closed out their presentations with “Good night, CinemaCon!”

And so Hollywood has changed course yet again, with Warner Bros. Discovery announcing that its film group will no longer make straight-to-streaming movies. “Not only do we want to open more motion pictures, but our theory is that we’ve got to leave them in theaters as long as possible,” Zaslav says.  

One set of movies that the two executives won’t have to worry about are those involving Batman, Superman and the rest of the Justice League. The executives say that in one of their first conversations with Zaslav they suggested they spin off DC Studios into a separate entity, as Disney did with Marvel. To that end, “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn and producer Peter Safran took the DC mantle last year.  

“I think James has such a vision for these characters. He lives and breathes them,” De Luca says.

When it comes to what kinds of projects excite them, the pair shy away from what Abdy calls “executive-led development,” where junior film executives and hungry writers “want to do well and follow instructions.” She concludes, “You end up with these scripts that don’t have a controlling filmmaker vision at the center.” 

But here’s the catch: Respecting filmmakers and giving them freedom and financial support can lead to great movies, it’s true. It does not, however, always result in big hits. That was certainly the case when De Luca and Abdy ran MGM. “Cyrano,” an attempt to reimagine the classic love story as a musical starring Peter Dinklage, raked in all of $6.4 million in domestic box office receipts. “Licorice Pizza” managed to score MGM its first Best Picture Oscar nomination in more than 30 years, but it still lost tens of millions of dollars. In fact, most of the movies that De Luca and Abdy backed at MGM failed to turn a profit (the notable exceptions being “No Time to Die,” “Creed III” and the Channing Tatum drama “Dog”). 

De Luca argues that the box office was hobbled by the pandemic. “We were releasing movies in between variants,” he says. Looking wistful, though, he adds, “The one that breaks my heart is ‘Cyrano.’ I loved it, but I admit it didn’t work.”

De Luca and Abdy are more approachable than your average Hollywood bigwigs. “She’s a Jersey girl; he’s a Brooklyn guy,” Zaslav says of his newly minted studio chiefs. “You’re not going to find two more real people.” 

Abdy and De Luca are East Coast Italians at their core. They talk about food with the same fervor as they discuss the films they make, and brag about finding the best pizza in France during Cannes (it was a hole-in-the-wall called Mammas in the town of Juan-les-Pins).

At home on the Warners lot, they share an office. Abdy takes her position at a standing desk, with De Luca sitting nearby — and four smartphones forming a porous barrier between them. “I really feel like we get much more done,” says Abdy. “If he’s on a call with someone and I owe them an answer, I just yell across the office. It works for us.”

Her morning starts with a workout. On days with no early meetings, she drops her 10-year-old Mackenzie off at school. Her kid plays basketball, and after she and a few colleagues saw how their girls benefited from team sports, Abdy stared a Hollywood moms league of her own. CAA’s Maha Dakhil and Paramount’s Daria Cercek join her on Sunday nights to square off.  De Luca begins his day by resolving any remaining calls from the night before. It’s important to them that staff, talent and the executive team feel they are completely in sync.

“If you get one of us on the phone, you’re getting both of us,” Abdy says.

Their slate is still taking shape, and many of the movies they’ve greenlit won’t hit theaters until 2024 at the earliest. In the meantime, they’ll spend this summer shepherding “Barbie” and “Meg 2: The Trench” — high-profile projects that were started in the previous WB regime.

Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote and directed “Barbie,” praises De Luca and Abdy for making her feel supported throughout production on her $100 million movie. “I’ve never done a summer movie. Usually, I’m playing a couple festivals and hope someone buys the film,” she says. She was particularly touched that Emmerich, De Luca and Abdy all came to her L.A. location shoot in a show of solidarity. “Everyone was on the same team of making good movies. It was like having two sets of grandparents,” Gerwig says. 

De Luca and Abdy also committed to changing the culture at Warner Bros. They host movie nights with preeminent filmmakers. “After the AT&T years, everyone felt a bit of battered child syndrome,” De Luca says. “We have one of the best film libraries in existence, so we started inviting our filmmakers to come and choose a movie that inspires them and talk about it with our staff.”

On any given night, visitors to the lot have come to see Luhrmann discuss “Rebel Without a Cause,” George Clooney stop by to screen “All the President’s Men,” Andy Muschietti share “Superman” and — surprise — Nolan wax poetic about “Chariots of Fire.” (The program has been temporarily suspended out of respect for the writers strike.)

The centerpiece of a week on the lot is Zaslav’s direct reports meeting, not at the du Cap but in a conference room attached to Jack Warner’s office (where Zaslav sits when in Los Angeles). After Discovery took control of Warner Bros., Zaslav “de-layered” the studio, Abdy says — removing the Byzantine structure that existed under Kilar, which had Ann Sarnoff, Warner Bros. chairwoman, running the show across different entertainment entities.

“It’s like Knights of the Round Table,” De Luca says, “It’s us, Casey Bloys, Channing Dungey, JB Perrette from streaming and games, and so on. It’s like a big family dinner.”

Abdy thinks the new structure is most efficient in “how we talk about each other’s talent. If there’s something our people are interested in on the TV side, if someone wants to make a reality show, we can have those conversations in a way I don’t think happened before.”

Examples of that synergy and how it can goose theatrical marketing include HDTV’s pitch to make a full-scale Malibu dream house to promote Warners’ upcoming “Barbie.” Later this year, they say, Food Network will go all-in on chocolate-themed programming tied to the release of Chalamet’s “Wonka.”

The new realities of the movie business became clear to De Luca and Abdy with the release of one of their first big movies, “Don’t Worry Darling,” which they’d inherited. When the sci-fi allegory premiered at Venice last August, its director, Olivia Wilde, was overtaken by bad press about her dating Harry Styles, one of her stars, and feuding with the leading lady, Florence Pugh.

How did it feel to be in the middle of such a Hollywood hurricane?

“That was just a bad PR head wind,” De Luca says. “I found it a little sexist because if a male director had a romance with someone on his cast? It happens all the time; no one cares.”

Abdy sighs, adding, “It’s an age-old story.” If anyone knows story, it’s them.

Grooming: Sophia Porter using Bumble & Bumble

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