A Hero for Hollywood
Case Western Reserve alum and Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer talks about the economy, piracy and his strategy for saving the day
Barry Meyer is on a roll. In the midst of a worldwide financial crisis, the CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment is drawing moviegoers with films such as The Dark Knight and Gran Torino. The studio also had a hand in Slumdog Millionaire, which won this year’s Academy Award for best picture. While he says the box office has been resilient, he calls the idea of entertainment as a recession-proof industry a "myth."
But the 1967 Case Western Reserve University School of Law alum sees opportunity in tough times. His strategy for weathering an economic storm comes down to three essentials: quality content, technological innovation and superheroes.
In this age of government bailouts, the entertainment industry is almost unique in not asking for a rescue package. How is the industry doing?
There is this myth that the industry is recession proof. The thing is, entertainment companies are big, wide-ranging companies and we’re in a lot of different businesses from TV to movies to retail to the Internet. Some of these sectors will, for the most part, be immune from what is going on in the economy, while others will be more reflective of it. The goal is simply to make content that resonates with the public and hope that it will be something they won’t want to forgo because of finances.
And in this economy, how do you produce movies and TV shows that grab attention when people have so many ways to purchase and consume entertainment?
In certain ways, this is an opportunity for some of our businesses, because in very challenged economic times new businesses can develop. Take the start of digital delivery, for example. We’re looking for opportunities in this area both for existing product and newly produced content because it’s an efficient way to produce and distribute our product.
How else has technology changed the industry for you?
Consumers are moving more and more toward digital, but to make the technology valuable, you have to be producing content that people actually want to watch. That’s good news for companies like ours. In addition to being high quality, content has to be accessible, and you have to have the technology that will get it to people quickly and affordably.
Last year, Warner Bros. announced that it was backing Blu-ray discs over high-definition DVDs. What made the decision for you?
We initially supported both formats but determined we would go with the one best suited to long-term success, which we felt was Blu-ray. And we saw great success with it in the fourth quarter. The prices of Blu-ray came down dramatically, and The Dark Knight was a massive hit on the format, doing for Blu-ray what The Matrix did for DVD. The Matrix was the first DVD to sell more than 1 million units. And now, The Dark Knight has sold close to 2 million Blu-ray units.
When The Dark Knight, the most recent Batman movie, debuted, you had people in night goggles patrolling theaters to look for camcorders. You couldn’t even bring a DVD home to watch a rough cut, and the company put fake versions of the film on the Web to discourage downloads. How much money are you spending to fight piracy?
We do that routinely—and not just for The Dark Knight. Piracy is a real issue. The industry did a study a few years ago that said $6 billion was lost among Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) companies every year. My guess is that’s just a fraction of it. All this technology has a downside; the same things that allow you to distribute content also allow someone else to steal it. So we do everything we can to stop that. Each of the MPAA companies invests tens of millions of dollars a year to battle piracy on a global basis.
The Dark Knight was obviously a big hit. What are some other successes?
I’m very proud of Gran Torino. It’s a fantastic movie made by Clint Eastwood, who is a terrific person and great friend. And I’m also very proud of The Dark Knight. [Batman] was completely reinvented by director Christopher Nolan, and how many times do you see a movie that went from being a superhero movie to a real contender for a best picture award from the Academy? There’s Slumdog Millionaire, too. Unfortunately, we had to shut down the division that was going to market the movie, but we made a deal with Fox to get it out there. And I feel proud of the fact that we could do that because great movies like that can get buried unless you help them find a way into the market.
What’s next for Warner Bros. Entertainment?
You can expect more great movies and television series and you can expect a re-emphasis and refocus on all the DC Comics characters. There is a vast library of DC characters that we own, many of which have never been heard of beyond the world of serious comic fans. So you can expect to see these characters brought to life in the movies, on television and on the Internet.
Paige Bowers is an Atlanta-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in national publications such as the New York Times, TIME and People.