For all of the changes that roil Hollywood every week, its operations remain resolute in their conservatism: Go with who you know. Back in 2001, a 35-year-old Toby Emmerich took the reins as New Line Cinema’s president of production after the departure of his mentor, Michael De Luca. In 2008, Emmerich became New Line’s president and CEO, reporting to Warner Bros.’ then-president Alan Horn.
Cut to 2022 and David “Zas” Zaslav is in charge of building the Warner Discovery empire. Emmerich, chairman of the Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group, is out; replacing him is De Luca, 59, and his lieutenant, Pamela Abdy, 48, who recently exited their jobs leading the MGM Motion Picture Group after its acquisition by Amazon. And Horn is readying his own comeback, as a consultant to Zaslav.
Emmerich and De Luca have more in common than most of the studios’ chess pieces. Both were forged in the scrappy New Line ethos, and they are cinephiles who make risky bets in order to work with top talent. Case in point: Both just debuted big movies at Cannes.
At the Cannes world premiere of George Miller’s $65-million fantasy romance “Three Thousand Years of Longing” starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton, Amazon film executive Julie Rappaport told IndieWire that theater play would be vital to MGM/UA’s future. In Cannes, Emmerich told me the same thing about Warners’ theatrical strategy.
That’s because Zaslav has espoused the power of branding a title in theaters. Zas himself attended the lavish Cannes world premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s $150-million music biopic “Elvis”; rising star Austin Butler hung out with Emmerich at the Beach Stephanie afterparty. Arguably, “Elvis” has more going for it as a commercial box-office performer than “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” but it also cost twice as much. Cost control will be front and center at Warner Discovery, which is something De Luca knows how to do. Zas would love more films like “Dog,” which grossed $75 million worldwide on a $15-million budget.
Announcing Emmerich’s exit Wednesday, Zas showered him with praise in a staff memo and said he was happy to comply with Emmerich’s request for a production deal; he will help with the transition through the summer. Emmerich had a rocky ride at Warners from the start, as the studio was taken over by AT&T. Phone company CEO John Stankey appointed Jason Kilar as Warner Media chairman. Emmerich tangled with self-appointed theater savior and Warner loyalist Christopher Nolan over the theatrical release of “Tenet” even before Kilar announced that all 17 2021 Warners titles would be released day and date on HBO Max. That drove the filmmaker to leave the studio, setting up his Robert J. Oppenheimer biopic at Universal.
Emmerich put his faith in a dynamic and diverse release slate, betting on risky movies that delivered, from Venice and Oscar-winning “Joker” to “Crazy Rich Asians” and “A Star Is Born.” (“Joker” director Todd Phillips is in talks to consult at Warner Discovery as well.) At DC, Matt Reeves steered “The Batman” to $769 million worldwide; also delivering was New Line’s $62.5 million-budgeted “Shazam!” ($366 million worldwide). On the downside, Patti Jenkins $200-million “Wonder Woman 1984” made $166 million worldwide. Artful but uncommercial gambles included classy literary adaptations “The Goldfinch” and “Motherless Brooklyn.”
For his part, De Luca boasts a stellar track record and a rep for following his gut, from New Line to DreamWorks to production deals at Universal (the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise) and Sony (“Gran Torino”), where he briefly ran production. His hits include New Line’s “Austin Powers” and “Rush Hour” franchises as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” while his productions “The Social Network” and “Moneyball” scored Best Picture nominations two years in a row, followed three years later by Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips.”
Of course, he has his misses, including Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers” and succes d’estime “Licorice Pizza” ($32.3 million worldwide). Also under his watch was the James Bond “No Time to Die success” (even if produced by Eon), and “House of Gucci”, which grossed $148 million worldwide on a $65 million budget.
From Emmerich, De Luca will inherit George Miller’s “Fury Road” sequel, “Furiosa,” which began production today; a leaderless DC, albeit one with a Reeves and Robert Pattinson sequel to “The Batman” in the works; Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling” starring Harry Styles and Florence Pugh; “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” remake “Wonka,” starring Timothee Chalamet; and of course New Line, which is now a production label.
When Emmerich took over New Line at Warners, it was a strong candidate to be disappeared; after all, the studio killed specialty labels Fine Line, Warner Independent Pictures, and Picturehouse. Instead, it thrived with a steady stream of smart, low-budget hits.
In 2017, it delivered $700 million worldwide with the Stephen King blockbuster “It,” directed by Argentine import Andy Muschietti (“Mama”). New Line scored robust franchises (including Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” films) and bet on a diverse slate of action movies starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (“Rampage,” “Central Intelligence,” “San Andreas”), comedies (“We’re the Millers,” “Game Night”), and strong genre material (James Wan’s “The Conjuring” generated $1.9 billion worldwide over seven titles, including “Annabelle” and “The Nun” spinoffs).
Long before Screen Gems and Blumhouse got into the game, De Luca and Emmerich knew how to discover talent and churn out smart originals. De Luca and Emmerich share a great deal of DNA, but in one aspect Emmerich could never compete: He has been in the Warners fold for more than two decades, and De Luca has not.