Commentary

Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.' Distribution Star, Is Retiring

Dan Fellman, who has played a leading supporting role in making boffo hits out of Warner Bros. movies for 37 years  — as president of domestic distribution since 1999 — is retiring at the end of the year. For real … though he’ll consult.

“While Dan’s role was to run domestic distribution for Warner Bros., he really helped shape and lead the entire theatrical distribution business,” said Warner Bros. chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara. 

“The move is notable because of the relationship-oriented nature of distribution. Fellman has maintained Warner's ties to filmmakers and the media as well as stars,” sums up Jason Aycock for Seeking Alpha. “And he's credited with the distribution strategy that helped make ‘American Sniper’ into a worldwide monster hit, as well as pioneering industry moves toward mass release of films.”

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Fellman discussed “a few of his favorite, seemingly risky, release decisions” with the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Fritz, who writes that he “started his career with the record-setting release of ‘Superman,’ which opened to $7.1 million in 501 theaters in 1978.” The risky moves include “The Matrix,” Gravity, “The Lego Movie” and the aforementioned “American Sniper,” directed by Clint Eastwood, which he scheduled to open not just in New York and Los Angeles but also Dallas.

“Traditionally, movies’ contention for Oscar attention start off building buzz in big coastal cities before expanding nationwide,” writes Fritz. “But Fellman bet that the patriotism-infused film needed to generate word-of-mouth in the South, where its main character, Chris Kyle, was from.”

Eastwood called Fellman, who is 72, “a close friend” in a statement, saying, “I look forward to working with him on my projects in the future,” reports Brooks Barnes for the New York Times

Fellman’s retirement has been a work in progress.

“To hear … Fellman describe his last few years at the studio, he sounds a bit like Michael Corleone, the guy who wanted out but kept being drawn back in,” writes Mike Fleming, Jr. for Deadline. “‘For me, this is the long goodbye,’” Fellman said, detailing some of the executive changes above him that resulted in his remaining several years after he had expected to call it a wrap.

“Fellman, who grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., got his start in distribution at Paramount Pictures, moving from one local office to the next: Dallas, Chicago, Cleveland,” writes the NYT’s Barnes. “When he started, a 500-theater release was considered big and now some Warner movies open in up to 4,000 domestic theaters. He was also an early proponent of IMAX, pushed exhibitors to adopt digital projection, and helped create a system of beaming movies to theaters by satellite.”

Fellman’s responsibilities for the strategy and oversight of distribution for the studio’s theatrical and non-theatrical motion picture releases in the U.S. and Canada will be assumed by Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and distribution at the Burbank-based studio, according to a Warner Bros. release. International distribution chief Veronika Kwan Vandenberg will handle Fellman’s day-to-day responsibilities as president, worldwide distribution.

“Entertainment is a global business, and combining domestic and international film distribution is the logical evolution of our operations,” said Warner Bros.’ Tsujihara. 

“The complete unification of the marketing and distribution functions under Kroll will put the company ‘in a very good place,’” Tsujihara tellsVariety’s Brent Lang and James Rainey. 

Lang and Rainey point out that “the leadership transition comes as Warner Bros. has suffered a series of box office disappointments including ‘Hot Pursuit,’ ‘Entourage,’ ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and ‘Jupiter Ascending.’”

But the studio “has topped $1 billion at the domestic box office for 15 consecutive years under Fellman,” writes Todd Cunningham for The Wrap. Other blockbusters distributed under his aegis include  “The Dark Knight” trilogy, the Harry Potter series, the “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” films, as well as Oscar Best Picture winners “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Departed,” Cunningham reports.

“Looking at the changes in the exhibition during his nearly four decades,” The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Ford writes, “Fellman noted that ‘theaters are not just theaters anymore. They are destination centers. I'm thrilled that exhibitors are healthy now, because we went through years when they weren't. But people are going to the movies.’”

Where, presumably, you’ll find Fellman more than ever now between his consulting gigs for Warner Bros. and Eastwood — with other projects in development, of course.

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