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Like Boromir, Warner Bros. Faces the Temptation to Use the Ring
Will it lead to the franchise's downfall as it led to his?
“Why not use this Ring?” asks Boromir as gazes upon the One Ring to rule them all at the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). The Dark Lord Sauron is stirring again in Mordor. The strength and valor of Gondor, Boromir’s home, is fading, and his people are facing Sauron’s growing power with an increasing dismay. Then out of a sleepy, idyllic hamlet comes the apparent answer to their needs: the ability to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron with his own superweapon. Is it any wonder that Boromir’s first inclination is to use the power of the Ring to defend the people and the nation that he loves by destroying the great evil that threatens them?
Boromir is not alone in facing an increasingly desperate fight against a rival empire and asking this same question as a result. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is also eying the Ring—The Lord of the Rings itself, that is—to use in his struggle against the Dark Lord Mickey’s Evil Disney Empire. So it looks like Lord of the Rings movies are back on the menu! But will Waner Bros. overuse the The Lord of the Rings franchise until it’s thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread?
As detailed in The Wrap, Zaslav included Lord of the Rings when he spoke a few weeks ago at Godlman Sachs Communacopia and Technology Conference about Warner Bros. Properties he views as currently underutilized:
One of the other real strengths of Warner Bros. is we talk about the great IP that Warner Bros. owns. But, for us, the challenge is that our content, our great IP — “Harry Potter,” DC, “Lord of the Rings” — that content has been underused.
Back in March of this year I discussed the news that Warner Bros. had announced new Lord of the Rings movies in development and here Zaslav makes explicit one of the reasons behind that news: the irresistible allure of fresh content from a stable of fantastically popular properties.
Zaslav’s choice of words in describing DC, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings is telling: “When you put those franchises in, [Warner Bros. is] the best performing studio in the world. We need to deploy our best capital, and we need to do it with the best creative people in the world.”
To a CEO like Zaslav, IP like these franchises are “capital.” What good is owning the rights to adapt stories from books and comics like these if there’s no shared cinematic universe (or multiverse!) that can come out of them that churns out fresh content to keep audiences purchasing tickets to fill theaters and paying for subscriptions to your streaming service? And in recent years DC, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings have all been either in sorry states or sitting idle. While the DCEU has had its moments, it has generally disappointed and fallen far short of the staggering success of rival Marvel Studios. The Harry Potter franchise wrapped up with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 in 2011, while The Lord of the Rings saga left theaters on a low note with The Hobbit trilogy’s final installment The Battle of the Five Armies in 2014.
Now all three properties are being reorganized and redeployed. James Gunn and Peter Safran have taken the helm at DC Studios and are relaunching DC with a new cinematic universe as the DCEU gives way to the DCU. Harry Potter is being adapted into a new TV series that will stream new episodes on Max for a decade. And new The Lord of the Rings movies are in development at Warner Bros. as well.
Zaslav at least seems aware of the danger of going too far in the opposite direction from underutilization: “we’ve got to be careful not to overuse the content,” he admitted.
Warner Bros. rival Walt Disney Studios provides the cautionary tale of the consequences of grinding properties into the ground in an attempt to wring out every possible dollar from them. Both Marvel and Star Wars, acquisitions made to bring some of the strongest and most in-demand content under their umbrella, saw promising and then lucrative beginnings sputter into mediocrity after over-saturating the marking and flooding their content onto both the big screen with theatrical releases and the small screen via TV shows and miniseries.
But the warnings may offer little in the way of motivation in comparison with the potential gains. For all the recent mediocrity (or worse) of recent releases from Marvel and Lucasfilm, the initial results are hard to argue with. According to Box Office Mojo, Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy launched its first two titles into the top twenty films on the list of top lifetime grosses worldwide of all time: The Force Awakens is fifth on the list and The Last Jedi is nineteenth. Marvel’s achievements are even more impressive: a staggering six of the top twenty (four are in the top ten!) are Marvel movies.1 Isn’t facing eventual mediocracy worth it if you make billions along the way? Warner Bros. is hoping so.
Of the top twelve highest grossing Warner Bros. movies of all time, eleven are DC, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings titles. The only movie not from one of these franchises is the new number one on the list, Barbie.2 While the only two Warner Bros. movies to crack the top twenty highest grosses overall are Barbie at fifteen and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, at eighteen, these franchises seem to represent the best shot Warner Bros. has at fighting back against the dominance of Disney.
Considered from this perspective, the picture becomes altogether too clear. To have any chance of taking down the Dark Lord Mickey, the temptation to use the Rings is too great to resist. Will all love Warner Bros. and despair? Or mostly just despair? I for one hope that there is quality content, not just a quantity of content, that comes out of this coming redeployment of these franchises. Even amidst Marvel and Lucasfilm’s recent mediocrity, there have been flashes of greatness.
It may be more likely that we end up wishing that these reboots and redeployments had never come to us, that none of them had happened. But so do all who live to see such content. That is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the content that is given to us.
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Big week next week: on Thursday you’ll get the regularly scheduled newsletter but then we’ll have a special post on Friday as well for Hobbit Day! (Some or many of you may be aware that Sept. 22nd is Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday).
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This is to say nothing of the other Disney movies in the top twenty!