How Warner Bros. Should Develop A Justice League Film (Part 2 of 3)
Author: Mark Hughes
August 24, 2012

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PART 2: "The Details"

Now, let’s get down to the real nitty-gritty!

What precisely should Warner Bros. do and what plan should they follow in order to develop solo franchises and eventually build up to a Justice League film?

In simple terms, they need to make several solo films to establish the biggest character names who will eventually appear in a Justice League film, and keep each character’s solo film focused on that character alone, rather than trying to incorporate tie-ins and crossovers and cameos. Give great characters to great filmmakers and let those filmmakers develop their creative vision for the character in that solo film. Period. It’s very simple, and Warner Bros. knows how to do this because they did it brilliantly with Christopher Nolan’s Batman series.

Sure, WB would need to tell the filmmakers that a Justice League film is planned down the road, but there’s no need to worry about that in the solo films. Just make the best film possible for the character and focus on great storytelling, with the only “rules” being that the character will not be killed off at the end of the film, and that the solo films can’t explicitly state that no other super-powered individuals exist besides the hero in the solo film. Obviously, if a filmmaker does wish to include some minor mention of a broader DC universe (for example, if the filmmaker handling Batman wants to mention Metropolis or make a reference to Superman) then by all means, they should be allowed to include that kind of small hints and nods, but at their own discretion, not by dictate from the studio. It simply won’t be necessary, and it will be much better to follow the model that’s worked best for WB so far -- giving properties to visionary directors and letting them work their magic as they wish.

They need to decide which solo franchise to develop, and I think the answer is obvious. Superman is rebooting in 2013 with director Zack Synder’s MAN OF STEEL, so that one’s a given. Batman has to be rebooted with a strong new concept while not ignoring the obvious fact that audiences responded best to a Batman whose world isn’t too far removed from our own (although that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room to push the envelop with more wild characters and plots), and it should be done sometime around 2015 or 2016.

Besides those two big name characters, there are three other films that seem like the best options moving forward. There's no reason Warner Bros. can't do a great Wonder Woman movie, a great Aquaman movie and a great Green Lantern sequel. If those sound like unexpected choices, just hear me out.

A Wonder Woman film in the vein of 300, featuring the character as a member of an island of warrior-women akin to the Spartans, wielding swords and battling to protect their island from an invasion by an enemy force, could be made for a lower budget and released in Spring months, with less competition and a chance to be at least a modest success. With a budget of perhaps $100 million, a director like Nicolas Refn, and someone like Rosario Dawson, Olivia Wilde, Emily Blunt, or Keira Knightley as Wonder Woman, WB would have a solid film on their hands and wouldn’t have to worry too much about it’s box office performance, because even a weak $200+ million worldwide would be enough to justify the movie as part of the bigger financing plan.

An Aquaman film should be thought of as “AVATAR underwater, with a touch of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN humor and high-seas adventurism.” Take a look at Jason Momoa in his role on GAME OF THRONES, and imagine his hair bleached pale blond, and you’ve got an idea for how to depict Aquaman’s character. He’s an heir to the throne of Atlantis, but doesn’t know it, so that’s a great journey film to go from a young boy afraid to even go near the water to a young man who discovers his incredible secret birthright, and who then sets out to find Atlantis and save it from an enemy like Black Manta (who would be an amazing on-screen villain for the film). An environmental theme about saving the oceans, a really strong hero’s journey, and dedication to creating a truly thrilling undersea world would be a great mixture of ingredients for this film. I’d suggest approaching the Wachowski’s to helm the project, because it needs a creative team with a sharp and distinctive visual style who always think big. Budget it at $150 million like THOR, and if it’s good and marketed well, it need only perform modestly like CAPTAIN AMERICA to do its part in the bigger plan.

Now comes the movie most people will second-guess, but I think it’s a an easy choice -- GREEN LANTERN should get a sequel. Just convince Michael Bay to come aboard and work his action-packed magic. Tell Bay the studio wants a sci-fi epic, something akin to STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGER OF THE SITH for superheroes, bold in scope, taking full advantage of the concept of an army of superpowered space-cops fighting Sinestro’s army of superpowered villains. Don’t set it all on Earth, set it in space and different planets, and use the whole Green Lantern Corps. But the key is, get Michael Bay to helm it. There’s no reason Green Lantern shouldn’t have one of the best modern sci-fi film blockbusters, so get it done. This will require an investment of at least $180 million for the budget, then create a marketing blitz of non-stop advertising and tie-ins. An additional consideration might be to cast Channing Tatum as Green Lantern. He’s on a role, he has a big and growing fan base, and he’s proven he is a good actor. This is a winning combination, and the film could bring in box office similar to THOR if marketed right.

Those three film suggestions are solid ideas with reasonable budgets and reasonable expectations for box office performance. We’re talking about spending about what Marvel spent for their Hulk, Thor, and Captain America films, and getting back about the same sort of box office returns those films generated. That should be easily doable and would support the broad strategy of building franchises to in turn build a larger film universe that leads into a box office heavy-hitting Justice League film. In this scenario, Superman and Batman have the solo franchises that provide the big box office performances that combine with the other more modestly performing franchises to bring in enough total combined receipts to make the plan work.

And consider that instead of just a single extra big-money franchise like the Iron Man franchise, WB will have two big series to provide a powerful one-two punch in theaters, since Batman can generate box office even larger than Iron Man while Superman should be able to bring in at least Iron Man numbers, if not more. Due to that added financial backing to the entire investment, then, WB would in fact be even more strongly positioned than Marvel was in that company’s multi-film financial planning, and look how ultimately successful Marvel was with one less heavy-hitting franchise than the DC characters will supply.

All of this will result in WB having five solo franchises leading into a Justice League franchise. These five films could reasonably be expected to top the $2.8 billion Marvel’s solo films brought in, especially due to the added benefit of Superman’s and Batman’s major contributions to the plan. If MAN OF STEEL has a budget around $200 million, and if Batman on film’s reboot can be done at a reasonable $160 million, then the combined total budgets for all five solo films would be around $790 million, to generate probably easily $3 billion or more in box office before a Justice League film was released. Add to that the merchandising potential, the tie-in animated DVD potential, and consider how all of the films would, as previously noted, work together as sort of advertising and marketing for the entire plan (and one another, and ultimately Justice League) that more than pays for itself.

This plan would set up a grand total of six franchises for WB, with sequels and additional merchandising down the road. Compare this outcome to the option of WB just making Superman and Batman solo films before jumping right into a Justice League film, which would result in only three franchises, less merchandising, less combined marketing strategies, and would include all of the risks previously mentioned. I think there’s just no question that the solo franchise route provides safer investment, more merchandising potential, spin-off potential supported by multiple pre-existing solo franchises and a fully developed on-screen “world,” and far more revenue generation for a lot longer period of time.

If Warner Bros. committed to this plan soon and put together a group to oversee getting the filmmakers and the screenplays, they could be ready by next summer to start work on at least the Wonder Woman film and the Aquaman film. With those two films releasing in summer of 2014 (after a 2013 summer release of MAN OF STEEL), GREEN LANTERN 2 could go into production in 2014 while WB formally starts the hunt for the team to take over Batman. That means summer of 2015 would feature a Green Lantern movie, as Batman goes into production for a 2016 release. Meanwhile, the same year Batman goes into production (2015), the Justice League film would start production as well, also to be released in 2016 with Batman.

This plan gets six superhero franchises produced and released within the next four years, with any given year seeing no more than $360 million in total combined budget expenses (some years having one film released, others having two films released). If instead WB put both a Batman solo film and Justice League film into production starting early 2013, spending around $160 million on Batman and $200+ million on Justice League, they’d end up spending $360+ million to have two films that would be released by 2014. Add to that the $200 million spent for MAN OF STEEL (released in 2013), and you have a total of $560+ million for three films over the next three years. Does that plan sound very superior to my six-franchise plan? I don’t think so, I think it is in fact clearly a much weaker position for Warners if they go straight to Justice League with only Superman and Batman solo franchises developed - Mark Hughes

NEXT: "The Payoff"

Longtime BOF'er Mark Hughes is former media specialist & campaign ad writer. He now works as a screenwriter for film & TV.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkHughesFilms and read his Forbes blog, "REEL ESTATE."

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