Satisfying Mr. Soderbergh: Warner’s Executive Search

On the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif., there sits an empty throne, and Hollywood’s ousted tyrants and lauded directors are casting their eyes east and west, wondering why the film industry is short a king.

In July 2000, the Hollywood trades reported that Warner Bros., founded in 1923 by Jack, Sam, Harry and Albert Warner, would become the last of the major studios to create a specialty-films division devoted to the distribution of smaller-budget films. Yet almost three years later, Warner Bros. president of production Jeff Robinov, who took over the project from his predecessor, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, has yet to hire someone to head the fledgling division-though not for lack of trying.

Spurred on by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. president and chief operating officer Alan Horn’s desire to complement his box-office receipts with some prestige-Warner will release two Matrix movies this year, but went home empty-handed at Oscar time-and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who has a fruitful production deal with the studio but can’t seem to get his movies properly marketed, the studio has intensified its search in recent months.

According to Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, the little sibling to Sony’s Columbia Pictures, the powers that be at Warner Bros. have called “every suspect available for a line-up.”

The studio’s short list has narrowed to Newmarket Films president Bob Berney and Scott Greenstein, who lost his most recent job, as the head of USA Films, in May 2002, when the company’s owner, Barry Diller, renamed it Focus Features and hired Good Machine partners James Schamus and David Linde to run it.

Before those two, Warner Bros. twice considered former Miramax marketing chief and Los Angeles president Mark Gill. Mr. Gill negotiated with Mr. di Bonaventura in 2002 as his Miramax contract was expiring, but neither side was ready to put together a deal. The possibility was broached again in January, but Mr. Gill chose to remain with his new production company, Stratus Films. Mr. Gill, Mr. Berney and Mr. Greenstein could not be reached for comment.

Warner Bros. has also reportedly courted Sundance Film Festival head Geoff Gilmore, Fine Line Features co-founder and former president Ira Deutchman and former Artisan co-president Bill Block. And according to a recent article in Variety , New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell may have been considered, as well as Mr. Soderbergh and his production partner, George Clooney. Mr. Mitchell didn’t return phone calls, and Warner spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti denied that Messrs. Clooney and Soderbergh were ever really considered for executive positions.

And that’s the extent that the studio is willing to discuss its executive search.

“It would be premature to talk about it now,” Ms. Brogliatti told The Observer when asked about the studio’s progress with its new division. She denied that the search had taken three years, calling the initial flurry of reports “pure speculation and fabrication,” and said that the process had begun in earnest in February.

Ms. Brogliatti added that the Warner Bros. specialty-films division would be up and running “sooner rather than later,” and only “when we find the right person.”

Whether Mr. Greenstein or Mr. Berney fall into that category depends upon whom you ask in the film industry. Though Mr. Greenstein has a key supporter in Mr. Soderbergh-who liked the way Mr. Greenstein quarterbacked his USA-distributed cocaine opus, Traffic , to critical acclaim and Oscar attention in 2001-the currently unemployed studio chief tends to have a chafing effect on those who come into his orbit.

Mr. Berney, who last year released the independent hits Y Tu Mamá También and My Big Fat Greek Wedding , is known for his almost scary ability to identify and then market the hell out of a sleeper. His surprise move last year from I.F.C. Films to Newmarket probably means he’d have a hard time getting out of his current gig, even if he were offered the Warner Bros. job.

Like Buying a New Car

Part of the delay in launching the Warner Bros. division comes from the tricky definition of what it’s supposed to do. Movies produced by this new arm will have a $15 million budget cap, and Ms. Brogliatti’s first response to The Observer ‘s calls was to insist that the new company would not be a “classics division,” but a “specialty-films division.”

Aside from that, there are few clues as to what kind of animal the studio is looking to create. And, as Mr. Bernard suggested, if the studio brass hasn’t yet defined the mandate of its new division, that will only make it harder to hire someone.

“Warner Bros. saying it’s going to start a classics division is like me saying I’m going to buy a car,” said Mr. Bernard. “I could buy a Volkswagen, a car that’s broken, an expensive car. Until Warner’s defines its business plan, no one has any idea what they’re up to and whether it would be a desirable place to work. If they’ve described it to some of the people they’ve interviewed, and it sounds like a place that’s not going to be comfortable for them, maybe [that's why] they are not going for it.”

“Specialty film,” like the term “independent film,” is one of those murky, catch-all phrases applied to movies that have been produced for under $25 million and feature narratives about people instead of machines, employ few special effects and often compete on the film-festival circuit. These films also generally have a tendency to win Oscars.

As the chasm between these movies and big-budget tent-pole movies expanded, so did the differences between the strategies for releasing them. Entirely new companies were born to nurse these smaller films, and their importance to the film industry was ratcheted up nearly every year at Oscar time, such as when The English Patient took home nine Oscars in 1997, or when Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love beat DreamWorks’ Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture in 1999.

Throughout, Warner Bros. steadfastly refused to devote any part of its production or marketing structure to worrying specifically about the kinds of low-budget movies that companies such as Miramax (Disney), Focus Features (Vivendi-Universal), Fox Searchlight (News Corp.) Fine Line (a division of New Line, which is owned by AOL Time Warner, which also owns Warner Bros.), United Artists (MGM) and Paramount Classics (Viacom) had dedicated themselves to distributing.

Former Warner Bros. chairmen and chief executive officers Bob Daly and Terry Semel, who steered the studio through the 1980’s and 1990’s, insisted that the company was perfectly capable of tending to the needs of all kinds of films by using studio marketing mechanisms that had long been in place. After all, the big studios used to put out “quality films” just fine.

Warner Bros. movies that succeeded-at the box office and at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion-under the stewardship of Mr. Semel and Mr. Daly included prestige pictures like Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and L.A. Confidential (1997), and such small films as Selena (1997) and Stand and Deliver (1988).

After the departures of Messrs. Daly and Semel in 1999, the studio’s new leaders-Mr. Horn, who had come from Castle Rock Entertainment, and Barry Meyer, who moved from C.O.O. to C.E.O.-began to mull a new specialty arm. It was reported that they were courting Mr. Gilmore and Mr. Deutchman. Mr. Gilmore could not be reached for comment, and Mr. Deutchman declined to comment on the search.

Still, the company never got off the ground, and in the vortex of the AOL–Time Warner merger, eventually became dormant.

Recent developments, however, have put Warner Bros. under pressure to follow through on its plans.

Horn + Soderbergh = Pressure

First was the studio’s now-annual back seat at the Oscar ceremonies. Mr. Horn declined to comment for this story, but he was recently quoted in the L.A. Times as saying, “With my tickets to the Golden Globes this year, they sent me binoculars.”

With his gift, Mr. Horn probably had a pretty good view of Miramax’s Chicago , Sony Pictures Classics’ Talk to Her , United Artists’ Bowling for Columbine and Focus Features’ The Pianist racking up awards.

Additional pressure has come from Mr. Soderbergh, the man many credit with turning low-budget filmmaking into a new Hollywood business with his 1989 film Sex, Lies, and Videotape . Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Clooney’s production company, called Section 8, is based on the Warner Bros. lot.

Under the terms of his deal with the studio, Warner gets first look at Mr. Soderbergh’s projects. But as the filmmaker’s work has grown increasingly diverse, his recent pictures have fallen through the multiplex cracks.

Last year, Warner picked up Welcome to Collinwood , a caper comedy produced by Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Clooney. The film was not exactly Lawrence of Arabia , but it featured a cast of low-budget film fixtures that included Sam Rockwell, Patricia Clarkson, Jennifer Esposito and a cameo by Mr. Clooney as a wheelchair-bound safecracker.

Warner Bros., used to releasing blockbuster films on 3,500 screens, wasn’t sure how to advertise a quirky comedy with a cast known for presenting at the Independent Spirit Awards. A poster for the film featured an antique postcard from Collinwood and the tag line “Five Guys. One Safe. No Brains.”

Yeah. No box office, either.

The movie, which had a reported budget of $12 million, grossed a total of $333,000 before it left the theaters.

Next up for Section 8 was Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Clooney’s joint labor of love, the abstract science-fiction film Solaris . Warner Bros. passed on the movie, a remake of a 1972 Russian cult classic, which itself was an adaptation of a novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. Twentieth Century Fox picked it up. An esoteric exploration of human identity and consciousness that polarized critics, Solaris might have been the kind of release that art-house audiences argued about over glasses of merlot. But art-house audiences never received the memo. Instead, Solaris was sold as a sci-fi skin flick, with a poster that used an image of Mr. Clooney and Natascha McElhone sucking face. Released on a mind-blowing 2,400 screens, Solaris disappointed fans expecting Aliens meets Out of Sight .

Another blow for Section 8 came with the release of Mr. Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind . The film was purchased by Miramax, a company that knows its way around an eccentric low-budget picture.

But Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein save their best films for the last quarter of the year, carpet-bombing multiplexes with their arsenal of nomination-worthy fare.

Confessions , a likable movie adapted from Gong Show host Chuck Barris’ “memoir,” starred Sam Rockwell, Mr. Clooney, Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts. It was well reviewed. But it fell off the radar at theaters, where audiences were lining up to see Oscar contenders like Chicago , The Hours and Lord of the Rings .

The film was so badly trampled in the Oscar stampede that Miramax plans to re-release it this spring.

“We feel it was a crowded time,” said Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands. “But it’s got a lot of potential, and we want to give it another opportunity.”

T.L.C. for Eros

Mr. Soderbergh is now understandably invested in a division at Warner Bros. that can give the proper T.L.C. to his mid-size projects. And based on his current production schedule, that division had better be up and running pretty soon.

Mr. Soderbergh has taken over from Pedro Almodóvar as director of one of the segments of Eros , a collaborative exploration of “love and sexuality” which will also feature segments directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and Wong Kar-Wai. Then there’s the Section 8 production Criminal , a remake of Nine Queens that will be directed by Mr. Soderbergh’s long-time first assistant director Gregory Jacobs, with whom Mr. Soderbergh will write the script. These movies seem to be earmarked for Warner’s new division.

It is perhaps a mark of how much Warner Bros. values its relationship with the prolific Mr. Soderbergh, who is also at work on Ocean’s 12 , that they are scrambling to do his bidding and allowing him a hand in the selection process.

The proposed division would also allow Warner Bros. to create more binding and flexible relationships with favored directors like The Matrix ‘s Wachowski brothers, who made their directorial debut with the small-budget 1996 Gramercy Pictures film Bound , and Christopher Nolan. Newmarket released Mr. Nolan’s low-budget 2000 debut, Memento , but when Section 8 produced his follow-up, Insomnia , Warner Bros. distributed it, and has now installed him as the director of its upcoming Batman installment.

But even if Warner’s specialty-films division is carefully crafted to complement the studio’s big-budget production apparatus, how it distinguishes itself in a multimedia conglomerate that owns not only Warner, but New Line-which has its own specialty-films offshoot, Fine Line-is another thorny question that Mr. Horn & Co. must answer.

Adding a specialty division to Warner Bros. could fuel the tension between Warner and New Line, which has escalated ever since the two companies began releasing installments of competing blockbuster fantasy franchises, New Line’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Warner’s Harry Potter films.

But that kind of competitive tension can be good for business. As Ms. Brogliatti observed, “AOL Time Warner is a company that encourages multiple brands in the same category.”

Only after Warner Bros. names a leader for its new division, and gets specific about the company’s structure, will it begin to really compete for the first time with the other “brands”-both inside and outside the AOL Time Warner family.

Competing specialty-film companies, including Miramax, Fine Line, United Artists, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics, are run so differently that it’s hard to compare or even group them together.

Based on any of these models, Warner Bros. could elect to create an arm that would produce its own small-budget movies, acquire independent features from other companies, release a mostly international slate, focus exclusively on marketing artier pictures produced by its parent company, or any combination of the above.

Even Miramax, the original specialty-film company, continues to evolve. On May 19, the company announced plans to produce big-budget tent-pole movies of its own, in partnership with studios and through equity financing-essentially reversing the Warner Bros. expansion model.

“We feel comfortable getting into the business of making bigger-budget movies, especially since the larger studios-and Warner Bros. is the latest example-are coming onto our turf, as long as we manage our risk appropriately,” said Miramax’s Mr. Sands from the Cannes Film Festival.

Paul Brooks, the president of Gold Circle Films-which, with Playtone, marketed My Big Fat Greek Wedding -described himself as “one of many people that has an opinion and has chatted generally with [Warner Bros.]” about the developing division. He told The Observer that the deliberation period hasn’t surprised him.

“The reason that they’re taking so long is that they are just very careful in terms of how they do business and how they set things up,” said Mr. Brooks.

If taking their time means that Warner Bros. is taking the project very seriously, it may be good news for directors of Mr. Soderbergh’s ilk.

“Warner’s is the studio that historically let Stanley Kubrick do whatever he wanted,” said one producer. “Here’s an opportunity for them to let another generation of filmmakers take risks with them.”