DC Film has had a strangely mixed year. It all began with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that was controversial before it was even released. Even though the film grossed an impressive $872,662,631 at the box office - making it the 11th most successful superhero film of all time, even if you factor in inflation - it's performance is generally considered disappointing. Meanwhile, Suicide Squad may be performing well at the box office, but critically it's come in for some serious criticism. The main problem has been choppy editing, with the studio trying to blend two different versions of the film. So essentially, we had one incredible box office success that was viewed as a disappointment, leading to a massive reorganization, which produced another blockbuster mega-hit that's causing online fury!
Now the problem's escalating, with an open letter allegedly published by a former Warner Bros. employee that rages against the company's leadership. Looking at the studio's leadership, and the recent history of box office problems, the writer observes:
"If I worked at a donut stand, and I kept fucking up donuts, I'd be fired. Even if I made a tiny decent one every now and then, it doesn't matter. I'm gonna get fired."
What's Going On?
With rising overheads and falling DVD sales, Warner Bros. has essentially been shedding jobs at a rate of knots. In 2009, the company cut 10% of its workforce; it cut another 10% in October 2014, with further redundancies just two months later. While the letter-writer doesn't seem to have been directly affected by the redundancies, she tells of a horrific work environment.
"I was also there in 2014, when you made the decision to lay off 10 percent of your workforce. It was a terrible year. Let me catch you up: Every morning I woke up with a pit in my stomach, because I assumed that would be the day I lost my job. Every day I saw someone packing up their desk, or carrying a box to their car. I can not describe to you the relief I felt when my department was told we were safe, or the guilt I felt afterwards walking through the halls of my office with that relief."
I've worked in companies that were struggling, and I can easily understand that horrible emotional cocktail. That's made all the worse when, emotionally, you have a deep-rooted commitment to your employer; you genuinely believe in the company, and are devastated to see it struggle. The letter-writer clearly had similar emotional ties - there's a heart-breaking paragraph where she describes her love for the studio - but ultimately moved on. Still caring passionately about her former employer, she's in touch with others back at Warner Bros. - people who likely share her own fears and concerns, and whose emotions are still deeply conflicted.
From this background, the letter-writer has penned a missive directly to Warner Bros. President Kevin Tsujihara. She blames him personally for the problems Warner Bros. is suffering, in part because of a clearly ill-conceived email he sent to all staff back when the redundancies were first announced. She excoriates him for a string of failures - Blended, Jersey Boys, Edge of Tomorrow, Man from U.N.C.L.E., Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and, now, Suicide Squad.
In a sign of the writer's emotional turmoil, it was originally written a year ago but then shelved. Now, furious at the quality of Suicide Squad, she's brought the letter out of the drawer, amended it, and published it openly.
"Zack Snyder is not delivering. Is he being punished? Assistants who were doing fantastic work certainly were. People in finance and in marketing and in IT. They had no say in a movie called Batman v Superman only having 8 minutes of Batman fighting Superman in it, that ends because their moms have the same name. Snyder is a producer on every DC movie. He is still directing Justice League. He is being rewarded with more opportunity to get more people laid off. I'm assuming you yourself haven't been financially affected in any real way. You and your studio are the biggest lesson about life one can learn: The top screws up and the bottom suffers. Peter Jackson phones it in and a marketing supervisor has to figure out a plan B for house payments."
Is This A Fair Argument?
It's clear that all is not well at Warner Bros. You don't announce successive waves of redundancies if your overheads aren't eating into your profits, and those decisions have clearly had a disastrous impact on staff morale. The letter-writer raises a side of the film industry that we tend to forget; that for every big household name like Zack Snyder or Peter Jackson, there are hundreds of assistants, IT experts, and finance and marketing specialists. When a company like Warner Bros. gets it wrong, these are the people who are most severely impacted.
This kind of letter, though, is absolutely unprecedented. As I write, key figures in Warner Bros. are in damage limitation mode; producers are rallying around Zack Snyder, and Patty Jenkins is defending her ongoing work on Wonder Woman (the letter-writer claims inside information that it's already a mess).
Sadly, I do think that the letter-writer may have a point. Although Warner Bros. continually exceeds $1 billion in the domestic box office - Suicide Squad has pushed Warner Bros. over $1 billion for the 16th year in succession - there are signs of trouble. This chart, compiled by The Wrap last year, pretty much sums up the problem:
Of the 21 movies Warner Bros. released in 2015, only two made more than $100 million domestically; what's more, the chart clearly shows the declining performance of Warner Bros.'s blockbusters. That said, even this can be overstated; the performance of Mad Max is a neat rebuttal to many of these arguments.
There's a sense in which it's not entirely fair to blame Kevin Tsujihara for the historic performance of Warner Bros. He only took over in March 2013, and it takes about two years for a leadership change to have a real impact. The 2015 performance, though, does indeed begin to sit on his shoulders; and as President, he's squarely responsible for this year's difficulties. That probably partly explains why the letter-writer held back from publishing her missive last year.
Kevin Tsujihara faces a difficult challenge; to turn the studio's fortunes around. This letter undoubtedly complicates his task. The letter shines a light on the troubled issue of staff morale, and suggests that fear of successive redundancies is turning staff morale toxic. The real danger sign in this letter is a throwaway reference to Wonder Woman:
"Don't try to hide behind the great trailer. People inside are already confirming it's another mess."
The letter-writer clearly cares passionately about Warner Bros., and I'm willing to assume that her inside contacts do too. That said, this quote shows that some current employees have lost confidence in the leadership, and have shifted into what I call a 'bunker mentality'; keep your head down, fume impotently, and hope things will get better eventually. When a 'bunker mentality' slips in, productivity drops like a stone. It's tempting to dismiss psychological issues like this as irrelevant to a company's performance, but the truth is that they really do impact the bottom line.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Kevin Tsujihara has a difficult challenge. It's not easy to turn a company around, especially when staff morale is so low. That said, the letter does give cause for hope; namely, the writer's clear love for Warner Bros.
"I have so much respect for your studio. I love every square inch of that magical backlot, from Stars Hollow to the fitness center I always meant to use. The people I worked with during my time with your company are now close friends. On my last day, I hugged them and I told them I loved them."
The staff at Warner Bros. clearly have a deep emotional connection with the place, in part likely because they know they're part of a company with a rich, culturally transformative history behind it. There's a lot to be proud of. This, I think, is at the heart of turning things around; Kevin Tsujihara needs to realize that motivating the staff, channelling their passion and dedication, is just as important to the company's future as resolving the overhead issues. The studio will never flourish while its staff are in a 'bunker mentality'.
Meanwhile, it's true that Warner Bros. need to do better. The studio is facing stiff competition - not least from the eternally-ascendant Disney, which has the tremendously successful Marvel Studios and LucasFilm in its corner. But Warner Bros., too, has tremendously powerful properties; you're talking franchises with the weight of Batman and Superman, a new chance to explore the world of Harry Potter in the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trilogy, and the potential of Justice League. I wholeheartedly believe that Warner Bros. could be only one well-put-together movie away from a box office blockbuster hit.
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Organisationally, Warner Bros. need to ensure that it doesn't reward failure. I actually think the company's learned that lesson; far from being "rewarded," Zack Snyder's significance to DC Film has been radically downsized, with Geoff Johns stepping in as President of DC Film. Johns's vision - notable in the current comic book "Rebirth" event - looks set to breathe new life into the DC Extended Universe, and the tone of the Justice League clip was dramatically different to that of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
I'd also suggest one other thing: Warner Bros. need to start pointing to their successes. The DC Extended Universe may have its weaknesses, but DC's superhero TV shows are top-tier, and the success of the DC Animated Universe is the stuff of legend. The conversation about DC - focused only on the movies, and a narrative of critical failure - is a sign that Warner Bros. has forgotten how to control the conversation, how to drive the topic of discussion until we're all talking about what went right.
In a strange way, this letter-writer has done us all a favor - even Warner Bros. She's shone a light on the issues facing the studio, and now it's up to Warner's leadership - not least Kevin Tsujihara - to pull things together. For myself, I remain convinced that Warner Bros. has a bright future ahead of it.
Are you excited for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Wonder Woman? Let me know in the comments!
Featured image: Warner Bros.