Recently, rumors began circulating about a very ambitious film slate from Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) Warner Bros. studio following the release of 2016's Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. According to the rumor (which should be treated as just a rumor until it's officially confirmed or debunked by Warner), not only will Dawn of Justice be followed up the next year by a proper "Justice League" movie, there will also be solo movies for Captain Marvel (aka Shazam!) and Wonder Woman, a crossover film starring Green Lantern and the Flash, and the previously announced "Sandman" film ... all in 2016 and 2017. That would commit the studio to releases in May, July, and December, setting it up to outdo Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel Studios when it comes to release frequency.
I'm not going to get into whether these films would be hits or not. Instead, let's look at the business behind Warner's DC properties and see whether taking on an ambitious project like this is a good idea for the studio.
It's an 'Avengers' world
Obviously, Warner Bros. is feeling some pressure to catch up with Marvel Studios. The Avengers raked in over $1.5 billion in the worldwide box office (making it the third highest-grossing film of all time, not accounting for inflation), Iron Man 3 earned $1.2 billion (and is currently the sixth highest-grossing film), and other recent films such as Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have earned well north of $600 million in worldwide release on budgets of around $170 million. Comic-based properties are making a ton of money right now.
Warner Bros. has had a harder time getting its DC Comics properties off the ground. Green Lantern brought in only $219 million worldwide on a $200 million budget, while Jonah Hex earned only $10.9 million on a $47 million budget. Last year's Man of Steel found success with $668 million worldwide, of course, which is why it's the launching point for the new DC universe.
Taking on Disney on all fronts
Warner seems to be taking the fight right to Disney. Dawn of Justice is widely publicized as being locked in for the same date as the next "Captain America" sequel, while the rumored "Shazam!" movie would be pitted against an as-yet-unannounced Marvel Studios film (which may be "Doctor Strange"). Sandman may face off against Star Wars: Episode VII (from Disney's Lucasfilm). 2017's rumored slate would be similar, with releases aligning close to Marvel and Lucasfilm releases.
Is this a viable long-term strategy? Similar films that are released at the same time can split the viewerbase, potentially resulting in lower overall viewership for both films. This would be especially problematic during the summer blockbuster season, since there would be major releases in the surrounding weeks as well. It would be foolish of Warner to try and establish these direct conflicts as anything more than an initial stunt to show that it isn't afraid of Disney's major franchises.
A rush to production?
Would there even be enough time for Warner Bros. to take on an ambitious film slate like this? Technically, yes, provided that the studio gets things under way soon ... or is already working on them.
Marvel Studios gives us a good view of how long these films can take. Ant-Man, which only recently picked up a replacement director, is still scheduled to start production in August for a release next summer. Avengers: Age of Ultron began principal production earlier this year for a beginning-of-summer release in 2015. If all of the pieces are in place, a major superhero film can be produced and in theaters in roughly 12 to 18 months.
The "Justice League" film would likely be filmed back-to-back with Dawn of Justice, which would further reduce production times. Some of the more unexpected parts of the rumor (such as the "Shazam!" movie) may already be well into casting since there have been a few actors (such as the Rock) who have been in talks with Warner about unannounced roles. There's time to pull this off, though not a lot.
Should Warner do it?
There's enough time for Warner to undertake its rumored production schedule, and there's definitely a financial incentive, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea. Producing six connected films in the next three years (though Sandman may be a separate project) is a risky venture, especially when you consider how much trouble the studio has had with its non-Batman DC properties in recent years. It's understandable that Warner wants to beat the competition at its own game, but even Marvel Studios didn't fully settle in to its twice-a-year release schedule until after The Avengers was released.
If Warner Bros. does announce an ambitious release schedule at Comic-Con or another event this summer, it means that the studio has either weighed the risks or is simply content to try and beat Disney no matter what the cost. Dawn of Justice and the "Justice League" film will have strong appeal, but that may not be enough to fully carry so many releases (especially if the movies are going up against Marvel Studios releases and "Star Wars" films).
Studio heads and Time Warner investors will be watching the productions for signs of weakness since this would be the studio's most ambitious project in years. Even the "Harry Potter" franchise took Warner 10 years to release eight films, and this would call for almost as many films in under a third of that time.