It was a Warner Bros family affair Wednesday night as Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan, Sylvester Stallone, Brett Ratner, Todd Phillips and Adam Sandler were among those who came out to say farewell and celebrate the career of Warner Bros domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman, who after 38 years at the Burbank studio announced his retirement back in July.
As pointed out by Warner Bros CEO of Entertainment Kevin Tsujihara last night, Fellman is one of three domestic distribution presidents who have served at the studio over the past 40 years along with Terry Semel and Barry Reardon — an indication of how stability, steady performance and legacy are executive qualities prized by Warners. For those executives and filmmakers attending and for those sending their adieus via a videotaped message, they continually called Fellman “a friend” and “a mentor.”
Taking the podium at the Four Seasons Hotel, Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan said Fellman “formed the bridge between the filmmakers, which include a lot of people in this room — the production executives, the producers — and the exhibitors.” He mentioned how Fellman encouraged him to travel to CinemaCon to talk to exhibitors. “He made us realize how they’re part of our process, that they’re our partners,” said Nolan. When Batman Begins posted a flatter Saturday than expected, Fellman told Nolan that exhibitors were upset because audiences weren’t buying popcorn. “The idea that people paying for concessions and popcorn were part of the whole equation as to whether they’d take in the movie — that was revelatory,” said Nolan. In that same conversation Nolan had with Fellman about Batman Begins, the executive’s sage box office insight also indicated something that was more promising: “He said we could do $200M on the movie, which the weekend numbers couldn’t suggest at the time.” (Batman Begins finaled at $205.3M stateside).
“He’s the guy always sitting on my right side, giving out more data about the weekend, then anyone I can imagine,” Tsujihara said. “I start pestering him on Friday morning about the weekend, and no matter what happens, Dan can gave me the record we just broke. I remember one Monday, he told me that we had the biggest movie of all time in December starting with the letter ‘E'”, the exec joked before calling out a slew of records posted by Fellman during his tenure.
The distrib chief’s finesse with dating pictures drove Warner Bros. from an annual B.O. haul of $348M in 1978, largely from Richard Donner’s Superman, to a steady annual $1B+ from 2001 until now. Through last weekend, Warner Bros has cleared $1.4B at the 2015 B.O., the third highest among the majors. During Fellman’s reign, Warners also amassed $25B at the box office with 97 titles that grossed more than $100M. In addition, he’s seen the global success of such tentpole franchises as Harry Potter ($7.7B), The Hobbit ($2.9B), The Dark Knight ($2.4B), The Matrix ($1.6B) — and the list goes on. Fellman also capitalized on pulling moviegoers into theaters during the offbeat months of the year with October 2013’s Gravity ($274M) and February 2014’s The Lego Movie ($258M).
When imparting box office wisdom to filmmakers, Nolan recalled another conversation he had with Fellman the morning after 2002’s Insomnia opened. Before speaking to Fellman, Nolan was told by then-WB chief Alan Horn and the film’s producers that Insomnia would final at $85M. However, when Nolan finally spoke to Fellman, the executive had a more grounded projection. Remembered Nolan, “I told Dan ‘I heard we’re going to do $85M.’ Dan paused and said, ‘I think it’s more like $65M.'”
Nolan then went on to quip, “Then when the film made $67M and change, I first became acquainted with the ‘Dan Fellman sweet spot’ — which is, he tells you what’s going to happen with just enough upside that you can say, ‘Ah, we did better than that!'”
But Fellman’s legacy was more than just dating films and hitting targets. He literally took cinema into the future. “He was instrumental in driving the industry to digital cinema and satellite delivery,” said Tsujihara. Via video, Imax CEO Richard Gelfond heralded Fellman as the first distribution executive “to take blockbuster films and steer them into Imax.”
In that same video, it seemed that everyone who’s ever had business on the Burbank lot — including Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Mad Max helmer George Miller, producer David Heyman and Harry Potter director David Yates — praised Fellman. Spielberg beamed, “Dan you’ve handled every film I directed at Warner Bros!” while Bullock thanked the distribution chief for “how much you’ve contributed to my career.”
Eastwood was the last of the three speakers last night. If there’s a great final feather in Fellman’s cap before he departs, it’s the fact that he drove the director’s film American Sniper to a career-record opening and cume ($89.3M wide weekend and domestic cume of $350.1M). “Being the head of distribution is one of the hardest jobs in the movies,” quipped Eastwood, “You have to be a terrific actor when you tell people their grosses are going to improve next weekend. You have to like every movie because you have to release every movie; a lot of the good movies don’t do anything, and the bad movies do terrific.”
Promised Eastwood, “We’re gonna miss you, Dan, but you’re going to release my next picture whenever that is.”
Those also celebrating Fellman’s career last night included Warner Bros global marketing and distribution chief Sue Kroll, worldwide distribution president Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, President of Worldwide Production Greg Silverman, EVP Distribution Jeff Goldstein, MGM Chairman/CEO Gary Barber, New Line President/COO Toby Emmerich, New Line President of Production Richard Brener, Jerry Bruckheimer, Irwin Winkler, Mike Medavoy, Jon Avnet, Jon Peters, Elie Samaha, Landmark president/CEO Ted Mundorff and former Warner Bros chiefs Semel, Barry Meyer and Bob Daly.