HUMILIATING! Boss Jeff Bewkes Keeps Barry Meyer/Alan Horn On Short Leash

I called Warner Bros early today for confirmation when I heard that Barry Meyer and Alan Horn had re-upped their contracts. And I was lied to by Warner Bros. Just like I was lied to by the studio last summer when I first heard the duo were starting to negotiate, and Jeff Bewkes was balking at giving Meyer and Horn a full 3-year, or 4-year, or 5-year vote of confidence. So instead I’d been discussing this situation with my sources inside parent company Time Warner. I heard from them on March 2nd that Bewkes ultimately would offer to re-sign Meyer and Horn. But the issue was for how long. In the end, after not wanting to renew the pair, Bewkes is keeping them on a 2-year choke chain.

One year in charge, and everyone is waiting for Bewkes to again shake things up in Hollywood. (Like when he re-possessed Bob Shaye’s New Line.) Warner Bros needs a top to bottom earthquake. Let’s face it, tired and cranky Barry Meyer for most of the past year had been threatening to retire, and people were starting to take him at his word. He would have left quite a legacy: Warner Bros TV doesn’t have anywhere near the profit or clout it used to despite a plethora of expensive creative deals. Of course, Time Warner doesn’t break out Warner Bros’ earnings, a convenient legacy dating back to when Bob Daly and Terry Semel ran the studio. Another legacy is that his fellow moguls credit Meyer with singlehandedly prolonging the agony of the writers strike for weeks longer than the CEOs wanted because of his steadfast hardline position of “not wanting to reward the WGA” for the labor action.

Distracted and depleted Horn is just as stubborn: he won’t relinquish control of the film studio. Then again, how can he leave Jeff Robinov solely in charge? (Someone I know once asked Horn why he kept Robinov on board, and Alan replied, “Because he works hard.” As if that’s a reason.) I’ve reported previously that Meyer has been wanting Horn to assume more of the load for television, which is supposed to be part of Alan’s job responsibilities. Horn promised he would, then didn’t.

He wouldn’t even give autonomy to a specialty film division. First, he fired Mark Gill at Warner Independent even though March Of The Penguins made a mint. Then he made it dependent. Then he killed it.

Recently, Horn has been getting bad buzz for his taste in films. If he could, he would make message movies but also money losers like Blood Diamond again and again. He refusefd to put any money behind Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby until the critics rallied around it. And everyone in Hollywood was convinced that Warner Bros shrugged off Slumdog Millionaire because PC-obsessed Alan “didn’t get it”. (He felt the harrowing poverty of the Indian slum kids didn’t mesh with the uplifting payoff.) Instead, Robinov fell on his sword for the boss’ decision to hand off 50% of the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner to Fox Searchlight. (The official WB backstory is that Robinov had too much product after the integration of New Line and Picturehouse added to Warner Bros Pictures films and the last remaining Warner Independent titles. So he decided not to distribute Slumdog in a very full Q4. “The issue was not that Alan —or anybody else, for that matter —didn’t ‘get’ the movie. It’s that they couldn’t ‘schedule’ the movie,” one WB exec described to me.)

Good thing, too, because Horn’s studio is incapable of mounting effective Oscar campaigns. Those movies that have won did so in spite of Warner Bros, not because of the studio.

Horn’s film division also was embarrassed by not nailing down the legal rights to Watchmen adequately. Mogul after mogul in Hollywood couldn’t understand how Warner Bros could even have started filming the graphic novel with 20th Century Fox still laying claim to the pic. And Watchmen looks like it won’t earn out with no domestic legs and no interest overseas. (Snarked one rival studio exec: “Now Alan is going to use Watchmen as justification to ban all R-rated films at Warner Bros.) Paramount owns 25% plus is the international distributor. Also Legendary Pictures owns a chunk. And finally Fox will receive up to 8 1/2% gross participation, and a cash payment upfront including recoupment of its development costs and attorney fees. So cutting Fox in at the last minute played havoc with Warner Bros’ economics on the movie.

But Horn’s biggest failure has been to leave the most valuable DC Comics characters in movie development limbo. Of Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League, only Batman has an ongoing live action franchise. And now that director Chris Nolan is working on back-to-back pics, who knows when the threequel will get a start date. Horn and Robinov remain paralyzed by indecision, chaotically starting and stopping work on scripts. Meanwhile, Marvel is exploiting the hell out of its characters with an ultra-ambitious film development slate.

I hoped Bewkes would bring in new blood atop Warner Bros. With this humiliating 2-year extension, he is. Because the jockeying to replace Meyer and Horn begins now.

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