James Gunn spent his summer thinking about the future.
Three months before Tuesday’s shock announcement that he and longtime manager-turned-producer Peter Safran would take the reins at DC Films, the director showed up to July’s San Diego Comic-Con as a Disney employee, in town to give a first look at the sequel “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3.” As he walked the red carpet, Variety asked him there 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 gotta say, this is something that’s going to excite and delight me for the next two to three years … I don’t want to be bored,” said Gunn.
Boredom won’t be an option as Gunn and Safran now hold the titles of co-chairmen and chief executive officers of DC Studios, where they will control the creative direction of the company’s arsenal of comic book villains and heroes across film, TV, streaming, animation and beyond. The job is a massive one and success is far from assured despite Gunn and Safran’s impressive resumes. The two will have to find novel ways to compete with Marvel, the studio that propelled Gunn onto the A-list and created the gold standard for cinematic universes, while also finding ways to control costs at a time when DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, is increasingly focused on staying on budget.
Numerous Hollywood players Variety spoke with heralded the decision as “bold” on the part of David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, who has made it clear that he wanted nothing less than his own answer to Marvel guru Kevin Feige. In Gunn, he has found a renegade (and, at one point, incendiary) filmmaker who is steeped in geek culture and has demonstrated flair for coloring outside the lines without alienating mainstream audiences.
“If Marvel proves anything, you need someone with fanboy chops and producer chops. That’s what they seem to have here, for the first time, at DC,” said one powerbroker, speaking anonymously. Both Safran and Gunn will report to Zaslav, known as a demanding manager with little difficulty drilling down into minutiae.
Talks with Gunn and Safran began during the summer, according to insiders, and overlapped with discussions the studio was having with prolific producer Dan Lin. Gunn and Safran now rank among some of 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 package of $6 million to $8 million each in salary and incentives.
In Safran, DC gets an amiable executive with the charm and finesse needed to navigate the corporate world. Safran was described as “elegant” by one top talent representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and “solid as oak.” Raised in the U.K. and educated as a lawyer before he landed on an assistant’s desk at United Talent Agency, Safran spent years in leadership at the management company Brillstein-Grey (during that shop’s heyday, when clients included Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston). He cut his teeth building out James Wan’s “The Conjuring” universe, which has become one of Warners’ most profitable film franchises, and then showed he could handle superhero tentpoles by producing “Shazam!” and “Aquaman.” Gunn and Safran worked together on “The Suicide Squad,” which was a critical success, but a box office failure — though many attribute that to the studio’s decision to launch it simultaneously on HBO Max. The pair scored a hit with “Peacemaker,” a spin-off series that demonstrated the kind of multi-platform approach, one in which movies feed streaming shows and vice versa, that Zaslav been eager to see more of at the studio.
But Zaslav and company will need patience. The two men begin work on Nov. 1, but it takes months, even years to build up a slate. They will inherit stewardship of several projects left over from the previous regime of Walter Hamada, the well-liked DC executive who left after Zaslav shelved “Batgirl” in favor of a tax write-off, and Toby Emmerich, the former Warner Bros. chief. These include “The Flash,” which has wrapped, and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” which is currently in post-production. Michael De Luca, who pushed for Gunn’s hire and made the introductions to Zaslav, according to insiders, and Pamela Abdy, the new heads of Warner Bros. film group, greenlit “Joker: Folie à Deux,” But that movie will exist outside of any cinematic universe that Gunn and Safran will be building out. Also on deck are a sequel to “The Batman,” but writer and director Matt Reeves has yet to deliver a finished script, so that movie will not hit theaters until 2025 at the earliest. There’s also lingering questions about what to do with the Man of Steel, with a Chuck Roven-produced Superman sequel currently soliciting pitches from writers. Henry Cavill recently announced he planned to don Superman’s cape once more.
So what will this mean for Gunn and Safran? Several top executives and dealmakers said they were curious to see how incoming filmmakers will view Gunn, a brash and distinctive voice who will now be cutting checks and stepping into edit rooms.
“Imagine if Todd Philips was going in tomorrow to pitch ‘Joker,’” said one producer, “Is he going to want to work for James Gunn?” Other players with knowledge of the studio said that specific scenario is where Safran would ideally be most effective, and speculated that De Luca and Abdy could serve as important ambassadors. Under the four-year deal, DC can still get Gunn behind the camera. The pact just means that he will no longer be able to take his particular set of skills across the street in Burbank to Marvel.
Gunn’s hire also loudly signals that Zaslav is willing to bet on style over four-quadrant safety. Gunn’s voice is distinctly adult-facing, and never afraid to be mocking or meta. After all, “The Suicide Squad” ended with the team impaling a giant starfish — that’s a move into the rococo that seems far afield from Thanos and his infinity gauntlet.
Gunn rose to prominence as the maker of slyly subversive genre fare such as “Slither” and “Super,” movies made with a rebel yell, and ones crafted outside of the creative constraints of the blockbuster business. But with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” he also showed a talent for retaining some of that flavor while servicing the needs of a corporate behemoth that needs to make movies that spawn toy lines and theme park rides.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing in space. After all, Gunn was fired from the “Guardians” franchise in 2018, following backlash to social media dispatches in which the director made light of pedophilia, AIDS patients, the Holocaust and sexual assault. Alan Horn himself, a beloved elder statesman of the industry who ironically now advises Zaslav and Warner Bros. Discovery, decried Gunn’s jokes as “indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values.” Gunn apologized, and spent his time in Disney jail making “The Suicide Squad” for DC Films. In 2019, Gunn was reinstated as director of the third “Guardians” film following statements of support from key talent like Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Karen Gillan, and Pom Klementieff. Those who know him said he was chastened by the experience and grateful to have been given a second chance.
Ultimately, Gunn and Safran will be judged by their ability to keep introducing new heroes, while keeping the old ones relevant. But for today, at least, both Gunn and Safran are winners, having emerged from one of the mostly closed watched job auditions in recent Hollywood history with the keys to the DC kingdom.