WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff says that the release of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” will complete the director’s superhero trilogy, reinforcing the studio’s desire to move past the social media campaign to hand back control of the DC film universe to the filmmaker.
Instead, Sarnoff believes that the future of DC is more than just movies. She’s excited about a multi-platform future, one that sees Batman, Superman, the Flash, and other Justice League members popping up on streaming shows, video games, television spinoffs, and big screen outings. It’s a vision that echoes what Marvel has been doing with its Avengers characters, taking superheroes like the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and Loki, who have previously appeared only in movies, and giving them streaming shows of their own. The WarnerMedia Studios chief is also excited about the diverse range of creators she’s been enlisting to tell some of these stories, which includes tapping “Between the World and Me” author Ta-Nehisi Coates to write a Superman film or developing “Blue Beetle,” which marks the company’s first Latinx superhero movie.
But Sarnoff may have to deal with an unruly and emboldened fanbase, one that successfully pushed WarnerMedia to release a four-hour, R-rated version of “Justice League,” which was truer to Snyder’s darker vision for the characters. Sarnoff spoke to Variety on Sunday, five days after the Snyder Cut started streaming on HBO Max, about catering to DC’s fanbase, the future of DC, and actor Ray Fisher’s allegations of misconduct and racial bias during the shooting of “Justice League.”
Why did you decide to release the “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”?
We wanted to give Zack the opportunity to complete his vision in a four-hour movie, which is impossible to do in theaters. We’re happy that we have HBO Max to let the rope out as it were and allow the fans to see all four-hours of Zack’s vision.
What are your plans going forward for DC?
We’ve got an incredible group of creators — television series creators, Max series creators, feature film creators — who are basically broadening the base of the talent that we work with on DC because we’re so excited about the potential to build out the DC multiverse. It’s one of the reasons why I was hired almost two years ago. The before-and-after was it was a very siloed organization with no connectivity between the businesses. DC was being developed, but in a kind of monolithic way in each division. My mantra coming in was to make it bigger and broader and we really want to surprise and delight the fans with more connective tissue across the various media and platforms. I’m talking movies, HBO Max, television and our games division.
The Snyder Cut came about because of a fan campaign online. Do you feel like you need to strike a balance between being responsive to fans and charting your own course as a company? How responsive do you believe DC should be?
We’re always going to listen to our fans, but we are in service of the broadest fanbase and we owe them an integrated, holistic strategy. We are the shepherds of the franchise and hopefully when the fans see what we’ve got in store they’ll know that DC is in good hands across many different platforms with many different creators. We want different voices in the mix. For certain fans that want singular voices, they may be disappointed, but we would ask them to be patient and see what we’ve got in store because perhaps the newer voices in the mix will have just as compelling stories to tell. On balance, you of course want to listen to your fans, but we do want to stay true to our vision and our mission for DC and build that out.
We have weekly meetings with our key execs in every division. Last August, I was made head of studios and networks and I now have all of the creative groups underneath me, so now around that table it’s not just Warner Bros. film, Warner Bros. television, and Warner Bros. games, but it includes HBO and HBO Max and the Turner networks, Adult Swim, and the Kids and Family networks. We are involving all of those people in our plans going forward and that means the media is going to be more connected, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in more overt ways. Like opposite “The Suicide Squad” we’re spinning out “Peacemaker” with James Gunn and Jon Cena passionately developing that for HBO Max. It’s my job to make sure we super serve our fans across all demos and all fanbases.
There’s also been a toxic side to the fandom, with reports that critics and some of your executives have received threats for not endorsing the Snyder Cut or for being perceived as standing in the way of its release. What’s your reaction to that behavior?
We’re not tolerating any of that. That behavior is reprehensible no matter what franchise you’re talking about or what business you’re talking about. It’s completely unacceptable. I’m very disappointed in the fans that have chosen to go to that negative place with regard to DC, with regard to some of our executives. It’s just disappointing because we want this to be a safe place to be. We want DC to be a fandom that feels safe and inclusive. We want people to be able to speak up for the things they love, but we don’t want it to be a culture of cancelling things that any small faction isn’t happy with. We are not about that. We are about positivity and celebration.
The campaign for #ReleaseTheSnyderCut has moved into a new phase. It’s now #RestoreTheSnyderVerse. What’s your reaction to this new campaign?
I appreciate that they love Zack’s work and we are very thankful for his many contributions to DC. We’re just so happy that he could bring his cut of the “Justice League” to life because that wasn’t in the plan until about a year ago. With that comes the completion of his trilogy. We’re very happy we’ve done this, but we’re very excited about the plans we have for all the multi-dimensional DC characters that are being developed right now.
Will there be more of these director’s cuts? Will we see David Ayer’s cut of “Suicide Squad”?
We won’t be developing David Ayer’s cut.
Looking at the DC slate, there seems to be an emphasis on creating opportunities for diverse creators and and characters. You’ve got a Latino superhero movie with “Blue Beetle,” Sasha Calle becoming the first Latinx actress to portray Supergirl, and Ta-Nehisi Coates writing a Superman movie. Is there a concerted effort to take the brand in a more inclusive direction?
It’s super important to me and it’s in line with what we want to do. We want to branch out and let creators interpret parts of the universe in unique and special ways. Ta-Nehisi working on Superman is incredibly exciting, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with, and [director] Andy Muschietti on “The Flash” or Patty Jenkins. Matt Reeves just finished filming “The Batman” against the odds of COVID. We’re so excited to finish that movie and have people see it, because Matt’s take on Batman is different than other takes. Even familiar characters have lots of possibilities.
You talked about breaking down silos in the company. What does that mean for DC?
Creators want to have franchises that are larger than life, but oftentimes you start working with a company and that company has discrete divisions, so you become a film creator, you become a television creator and never the twain shall meet. My role is to pull people together towards a vision that can make the whole more than the sum of the parts. One of the key aspects of that is having a long-range plan. These movies and TV series can take two-plus years to make, so if you’re not planning out and bringing other people into the plan that further accentuates the silos. It’s having the plan and then it’s having the strategy where all of the various businesses work in harmony to create the plan. It seems logical, but it’s very rarely done well. One of the things that I said to the group early was never let your fans see your org chart and boy could the fans see our org chart in 2019.
How did viewers and fans see the org charts when it came to DC?
They saw this character in movies and it had nothing to do with that character in TV. Creating that more unified vision, which is coming together with Peacemaker spinning off of “The Suicide Squad” and you’ll see a lot more of that going forward. You’ll also see original things in businesses that don’t relate, and that’s okay too, but we’re in charge of that decisionmaking about whether to connect dots or not.
We don’t want to be predictable. We want fans to spot Easter Eggs at the end of the movie that relate to a movie or show coming up or a show about to launch on HBO Max. We can harken back to something that was said in “The Flash” movie or there could be a cameo appearance of one of the actors from one movie into a current show.
Ray Fisher has accused Warner Bros. executives of racially biased behavior and of trying to impede an investigation into alleged misconduct on the set of “Justice League.” Did your investigation corroborate any of his claims of racism on the part of your employees?
No. Our investigator, Judge Katherine Forrest, has issued statements specifically about [DC Films president] Walter Hamada, saying that there was no evidence of interference by Walter in the investigation. She said that the cuts made in the Joss Whedon version of “Justice League” were not racially motivated. We took it very seriously, so we hired one of the top investigators out there and gave her a tremendous amount of leeway.
Ray Fisher has previously stated that because of a non-disclosure agreement he can’t share specifics about the abusive behavior he endured on the set of “Justice League.” Is there an NDA that would prevent him from publicly sharing all the details of what transpired on “Justice League”?
Not that I know of. No.
Walter Hamada has been on the receiving end of a lot of fan criticism. What was his involvement in the production of “Justice League”?
Walter had nothing to do with “Justice League.” He was not running DC Films in 2017 when “Justice League” was completed and released. He wasn’t put in charge of DC Films until the following year. About a year ago, Walter, [Warner Bros. Pictures Group head] Toby Emmerich, me, [former WarnerMedia chairman] Bob Greenblatt, [former HBO Max content chief] Kevin Reilly, and [HBO Max original programming head] Sarah Aubrey sat around the table with Zack and greenlit the Snyder cut. That cut includes Ray Fisher’s entire story as Cyborg, which is something that he had been disappointed had been cut from the Justice League movie three years ago. Perhaps we’ve lost the plot a little bit which is that Toby and Walter were part of the green-lighting that allowed Zack’s vision to come to life, which includes sharing the full story about Ray’s character. There really was nothing that Walter did against Ray, in fact he offered him a role in the Flash movie.
Walter was promoted recently. I am fully supportive of Toby and Walter and their visions. I truly believe they are great executives. Walter happens to be a person of color, so he knows what that feels like. He is bringing in diverse voices at an accelerated pace, more than anyone has in the past.
You talked about enlisting a broad range of voices when it comes to charting the future of DC. Is there one person calling the shots?
The connective tissue in the middle is Jim Lee, who oversees DC Comics. Jim lives and breathes the canon of DC and he works with all of the divisions to make sure the storylines are true to the canon. He helps them come up with ideas for new storylines. Jim is very much in the middle of everything. But the group together helps spur on new ideas. But there’s not one person calling the shots, because I want all the voices in the room to offer their expertise and knowledge of their formats.
As superheroes pop up in movies, on television, streaming shows, and games, how do you make sure there’s not too much of a good thing. Couldn’t that lead to oversaturation?
One of the reasons, I’m excited about our strategy going forward is it is multidimensional. We’re not just serving the same fanbase with the same creative vision, we’re trying to expand it. Not every fan has to love every piece of what we’re doing, but we’re putting out more tentacles to be able to reach people with different stories on different platforms, so there isn’t fatigue. It’s not just the same cadence. We’re going to mix things up. We’ll have a slate of DC movies but it will be richer and more multi-dimensional with a broader array of characters. That will help reduce the fatigue, because you’ll see a whole story about the Flash and then you’ll see sequels like “Aquaman 2,” or new takes on Superman, or Shazam which plays to a family audience. There would be fatigue if we stayed on a more singular path, but because we are broadening, we’ll have much more potential to grow the franchise across various demos and various types of fans.