It’s no secret that things have been changing behind the scenes at DC Films. There have been executive departures, and a shift in the company’s approach to future superhero titles following the release of last fall’s Justice League (which despite racking up $657 million, was the least successful of all the DC Extended Universe titles and was slammed by critics). EW spoke to Warner Bros. film chairman Toby Emmerich, who was elevated to the post in January, about the company’s DC Films division’s next big title, Aquaman, and how it fits into the company’s overall strategy moving forward…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What excites you about having Aquaman in your pipeline?
TOBY EMMERICH: That it’s coming out this year. I’m excited to have it in as the last Warner Bros. release in 2018.
Let me ask that a different way: What excites you creatively about the project?
I think it’s hard in superhero movies to go to places you haven’t seen before. You think of how much superhero content there is in theaters and television and [streaming], it’s hard to go to someplace you haven’t been before. Aquaman and the underwater world of it all is fresh and different. James Wan has done an incredible job with his team. It’s taking you to a different place and imagining it in a way you haven’t seen before. For a superhero movie to be in that realm is cool and badass.
What made Wan the right choice to direct?
He’s a franchise maker and builder. I would give him credit for what became known as The Conjuring universe. He initiated the Saw franchise. And he initiated the Insidious franchise. And he built on the Fast and Furious franchise — his film [Furious 7] was the highest grossing one. So when you think of franchise makers and franchise builders there are not many people who have that resume. That alone makes him an inspired choice. And he’s also made many movies as a director and producer for us at Warner Bros. and at New Line. So we know him really well. William Goldman wrote my favorite book on moviemaking, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and he wrote, “make movies with people you like, because it’s really hard, so it’s easier if you really like them.” And we really like James. These movies are monsters. So when you have a director you really like, and who likes you as a company and a culture, it’s a happier experience and, more often than not, a better movie.
What made the Dec 21 date the right time to release it?
I didn’t pick the date. The honest answer is we’re excited about the movie, we want to release it as soon as we can, and that’s the soonest it can be ready for a giant tentpole date. The world is changing — look at Black Panther, that came out in February — so any date can be a tentpole date. But this is the soonest that it can be ready and we’re happy it didn’t miss the year.
For decades Aquaman was this mocked character in pop culture, in places like Entourage and other shows. What’s the most worried thought about Aquaman you’ll admit to having?
My most worried thought is it won’t be ready in time. I thought it was a clever gag in Entourage. I think it works as a gag. But I know it works as a movie. I know the character and the world is worthy of a movie. One doesn’t undermine the other to me.
Coming off Justice League, how important is it that this movie works?
It’s important. It’s important that it works. I think everybody really worked very hard to make a really good movie. It’s an expensive movie. We believe this movie can work and we’re going to do everything we can as a company — distribution, marketing everything — to make sure it’s successful around the world
There have obviously been changes behind the scenes at the company since Justice League. Is there anything philosophically different now in terms of approaching the creative on DC Films versus a year or two ago?
I want to focus on Aquaman. Aquaman is a bit of a bridge movie yet there is still the connective tissue to the DC movies. But just like how [director Patty Jenkins] brought her own sensibility to Wonder Woman — yet it was very connected [to Justice League] — that movie was very much a Patty Jenkins movie this is very much a James Wan movie.
The tone of Aquaman from the footage I’ve seen is a bit lighter and has more humor than Zack Synder’s movies were known for. Was there a conscious decision to shift away from that?
If you spend time with James and [Aquaman star Jason Momoa], they brought themselves to the party. They very instinctively were who they were when making this movie. And that comes through in the tone of this movie. But I don’t think it was a reaction to what had come before. I think it was them being true to themselves. … I’ll tell you this: I have two girls, 10 and 14, and they’re so quick to tell me what movies are going to bomb — my movies, other people’s movies…
Are they right?
They’re shockingly right more than I would have thought. Kids are closer to the zeitgeist, everything is a raw nerve ending, they pick up on so many cultural subtleties it constantly blows my mind. I showed them the Aquaman trailer and I’m enthused and excited that they’re so excited for Aquaman.
When you look at how the last few superhero films in general performed, is there any kind of conclusion to be drawn about what type of films are working now?
I think the good movies work better. Somebody once said the best business strategy in motion pictures in quality. And I think in a world of Rotten Tomatoes and social media, what’s been proven the better the movie — particularly in the superhero genre — the better it performs. You can’t hide the bacon anymore.
It’s interesting you say that because [DC Films] has had some titles that have done very well at the box office, but there’s been a Rotten Tomatoes debate about them. Some have wondered how important is it that such movies are critically successful, and it sounds like you’re saying it really does matter.
I would say no matter what, the better the movie is the more advantage it is. Now when you’re talking about art, I do believe that it’s tough to judge art at the moment when its presented to the world. My father was very involved in the arts, he was always taking me to museums and galleries and historical buildings. He believed any kind of art — whether it’s fashion or sculpture or architecture or filmmaking or music — it takes 20 years to judge the quality of something. Twenty years after Sgt. Pepper or Born to Run comes out, then you can understand what that album was. I guess when I say “quality,” I don’t want to judge anybody’s movies completely at the moment of release. But I would say there are movies that are right for their time, that an audience is ready for, that’s in sync with the zeitgeist, and I think you need a movie whose quality is recognized at the moment of release so it’s in touch with the culture of the moment. We’re at a unique moment around the planet and certain types of movies are working better than others at this moment of time. And I do think Aquaman will sync up with the global culture zeitgeist of what’s happening right now.
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