James Gunn spent his summer contemplating the future.
Three months before the surprise announcement on Tuesday that he and longtime manager-turned-producer Peter Safran would take over DC Films, the director attended the San Diego Comic-Con as a Disney employee, in town to give a first look at the sequel “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3.” Variety asked him on the red carpet about expanding his Marvel superhero purview beyond Chris Pratt and company’s galactic misadventures.
“All I care about is that when I take on a project, I know it’s going to excite and delight me for the next two to three years… “I don’t want to be bored,” Gunn stated.
Boredom will not be an option now that Gunn and Safran are co-chairmen and CEOs of DC Studios, where they will direct the creative direction of the company’s arsenal of comic book villains and heroes across film, TV, streaming, animation, and beyond. Despite Gunn and Safran’s impressive resumes, the job is massive, and success is far from guaranteed.
The two will have to come up with new ways to compete with Marvel, the studio that propelled Gunn to the A-list and established the gold standard for cinematic universes, while also finding ways to keep costs under control at a time when DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, is increasingly focused on staying within budget.
Numerous Hollywood figures Variety spoke with praised David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, who has made it clear that he wants nothing less than his own answer to Marvel guru Kevin Feige. He has found in Gunn a renegade (and, at times, incendiary) filmmaker steeped in geek culture and with a flair for coloring outside the lines without alienating mainstream audiences.
“If Marvel demonstrates anything, it’s that you need someone with fanboy chops as well as producer chops.” That’s what they appear to have here in DC for the first time,” said one powerbroker, who requested anonymity. Both Safran and Gunn will report to Zaslav, who is known for being a demanding manager who isn’t afraid to get into the weeds.
According to insiders, discussions with Gunn and Safran began during the summer and overlapped with discussions the studio was having with prolific producer Dan Lin. Gunn and Safran are now among Hollywood’s most powerful figures.
Although the pair’s compensation package is currently unknown, industry insiders speculated that a job of this size would command a salary and incentive package of $6 million to $8 million each.
DC gains an amiable executive with the charm and finesse required to navigate the corporate world in Safran. One top talent representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described Safran as “elegant” and “solid as oak.” Before landing on an assistant’s desk at United Talent Agency,
Safran spent years in leadership at the management firm Brillstein-Grey (during that shop’s heyday, when clients included Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston).
He made his name by expanding James Wan’s “The Conjuring” universe, which has grown into one of Warner Bros.’s most profitable film franchises, and then proving he could handle superhero tentpoles by producing “Shazam!” and “Aquaman.”
Gunn and Safran collaborated on “The Suicide Squad,” which was a critical success but a box office failure — a failure that many attributes to the studio’s decision to release it simultaneously on HBO Max and HBO.
The pair had a hit with “Peacemaker,” a spin-off series that demonstrated the kind of multi-platform approach, in which movies feed streaming shows and vice versa, that Zaslav had hoped to see more of at the studio.
But Zaslav and the company will have to be patient. The two men start work on November 1, but it takes months, if not years, to build a slate. They will take over the management of several projects left over from the previous regimes of Walter Hamada, the well-liked DC executive who left after Zaslav shelved “Batgirl” for a tax write-off, and Toby Emmerich, the former Warner Bros. chief.
These include “The Flash,” which has completed production, and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” which is in post-production. According to insiders, Michael De Luca, who pushed for Gunn’s hiring and made introductions to Zaslav, and Pamela Abdy, the new heads of Warner Bros. film group, greenlit “Joker: Folie à Deux.”
However, that film will exist independently of any cinematic universe created by Gunn and Safran. A sequel to “The Batman” is also in the works, but writer and director Matt Reeves have yet to deliver a finished script, so that film will not hit theaters until at least 2025.
There are also unanswered questions about what to do with the Man of Steel, with a Chuck Roven-produced Superman sequel currently seeking writer pitches. Henry Cavill recently announced that he would be resuming his role as Superman.
So, how does this affect Gunn and Safran? Several top executives and dealmakers expressed interest in seeing how incoming filmmakers perceive Gunn, a brash and distinctive voice who will now be cutting checks and entering edit rooms.
“Imagine if Todd Philips came in tomorrow to pitch ‘Joker,'” one producer speculated, “would he want to work for James Gunn?” Other studio insiders speculated that that specific scenario is where Safran would be most effective, and that De Luca and Abdy could serve as important ambassadors.
Under the terms of the four-year contract, DC can still get Gunn behind the camera. The pact simply states that he will no longer be able to take his unique set of skills across the street to Marvel in Burbank.
Gunn’s hiring also indicates that Zaslav is willing to put style ahead of four-quadrant safety. Gunn’s tone is decidedly adult-oriented, and he is never afraid to be mocking or meta. After all, “The Suicide Squad” ended with the team impaling a giant starfish, which seems far removed from Thanos and his infinity gauntlet.
Gunn rose to prominence as the creator of subversively subversive genre films like “Slither” and “Super,” films made with a rebel yell and crafted outside of the creative constraints of the blockbuster business.
But, with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” he demonstrated an ability to retain some of that flavor while catering to the needs of a corporate behemoth that needs to make movies that spawn toy lines and theme park rides.
It was not all plain sailing in space. After all, Gunn was fired from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise in 2018 due to backlash over social media posts in which the director made light of pedophilia, AIDS patients, the Holocaust, and sexual assault.
Alan Horn, a beloved industry elder statesman who now advises Zaslav and Warner Bros. Discovery, called Gunn’s jokes “indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values.”
Gunn apologized and spent his time in Disney jail working on DC Films’ “The Suicide Squad.” Following statements of support from key talents such as Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Karen Gillan, and Pom Klementieff, Gunn was reinstated as director of the third “Guardians” film in 2019. Those who knew him said he was humbled by the experience and grateful for the second chance.
Gunn and Safran will ultimately be judged on their ability to introduce new heroes while keeping the old ones relevant. But, for now, both Gunn and Safran are winners, having emerged from one of Hollywood’s most closely-watched job auditions in recent memory with the keys to the DC kingdom.
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