Arts & Entertainment

After Big Flops, Warner Hopes For ‘Sleeper’ Hit in Smaller Films

LOS ANGELES — When the romantic comedy "When Harry Met Sally" was released in July 1989, it made just $1.1 million during its opening weekend. But Alan F. Horn, whose film company produced the movie, was confident that, given time, it could be a hit.

He was right. The movie earned $93 million at the domestic box office that summer.

Horn is now president of Warner Brothers Entertainment. Last year Warner was the No. 1 studio at the domestic box office, bringing in $1.38 billion by bankrolling big-budget blockbusters like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Batman Begins." But the same strategy this summer resulted in a string of expensive duds, like "Lady in the Water," "The Ant Bully" and a remake of the ocean liner disaster film "The Poseidon Adventure" that sank faster than the ship itself.

As a result, Horn must now hope that one of a cadre of smaller, riskier films, like "The Departed," "Blood Diamond" and "The Fountain," will prove to be a sleeper hit like "When Harry Met Sally" and help pull Warner out of its No. 6 spot for the year so far.

The lackluster results for Warner’s blockbusters this summer show that the large tentpole features, like "Poseidon," which cost more than $150 million to make but brought in only $60 million domestically, are not sure things, after all. And when they fail, they put more pressure on smaller films to open big.

"A safe bet isn’t safe at all these days. When you saw ‘Poseidon’ on paper, it looked safe. It wasn’t safe at all," Horn said. "Is ‘The Departed’ safe? It’s got a great cast. Is ‘Harry Potter’ safe? It’s safe until we blow a movie and then the public will be furious. Categorically, there is no safe movie anymore."

Legendary Pictures, Warner’s financial partner for some of the studio’s most noticeable summer duds, including "Lady in the Water" and the animated "The Ant Bully," is flexing its might, pressuring Warner to cut marketing costs.

For Warner, the summer got off on the wrong foot, with the release of "Superman Returns." Studio executives say it will make a profit. But in bringing in only $389 million at the worldwide box office, "Superman Returns" failed to live up to prerelease expectations.

"If Superman had done twice what it did, the whole summer would have looked different," said Robinov.

Horn said Warner Brothers had no plans to alter its strategy. Other studios have entered the franchise film business, he said, suggesting that Warner’s decision was a sound one. Still, Warner will make fewer movies in the future — between 18 and 22 films a year — and will focus even more on blockbusters with worldwide appeal.

(c) 2006 New York Times News Service