For the record: Warner Bros. has no intention of asking Morgan Freeman to avoid making controversial political statements while stumping for July's The Dark Knight Rises.
The subject came up Tuesday during Time Warner’s annual shareholder’s meeting at the Steven J. Ross Theater on the WB studio lot in Burbank. An attendee there as a proxy for David Ridenour, a shareholder who runs a conservative think tank, complained that Freeman said on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight that, in the words of the attendee, “the tea party movement – and, by association, the Republican party – is racist and wants to screw the country.”
Freeman expressed those sentiments in September just before the opening of Dolphin Tale, a WB movie in which he appeared, and the attendee cited a poll published in The Hollywood Reporter as evidence that Freeman’s political musings may have discouraged some potential moviegoers from buying tickets. The poll, conducted by research firm Penn Schoen Berland, indicated that 35 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats will consider avoiding movies that star an actor whose political values clash with their own.
The attendee accused WB of allowing Freeman to co-opt the press tour for Dolphin Tale in order to push his political agenda rather than the movie, and he asked: “What specific steps will Time Warner take to ensure that Mr. Freeman avoids such divisive and insulting words while promoting his next Warner Bros. film, The Dark Knight Rises?”
After lightheartedly determining that the attendee, Oscar Murdock, is not related to News Corp's. Rupert Murdoch, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes responded that actors sometimes say things that “causes people to boycott -- if it does -- the film or the show that they're in.
“What can we do about it? Is that the question? Not much,” Bewkes said to a smattering of applause.
Bewkes expressed “some sympathy” for insulted consumers, but he’s not worried about it from a business perspective because “it doesn’t usually have a significant commercial effect on the success of the film.”
The think tank, called the National Center for Public Policy Research, later posted on YouTube audio of the question and answer, which is embedded below.
Another shareholder complained of poor timing in the release of Dark Shadows, a vampire movie directed by Tim Burton that has earned less than $30 million its opening weekend as Disney/Marvel's The Avengers broke a box office record in its second week.
Warner Bros. Pictures Group president Jeff Robinov explained that the studio was anxious to open Dark Shadows ahead of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which Burton co-produced for 20th Century Fox and which is set for June 22. He also said the studio timed the release to where Burton would be available to help market the film.
There were the customary grumblings about extravagant CEO compensation, in particular the $25.9 million that Bewkes earned in 2011, which one shareholder said makes him the eighth highest-paid CEO among S&P 500 companies.
All of the initiatives promoted by the board, though, including executive compensation, were approved by shareholders, and the 11 directors were reelected. A proposal called “shareholder action by written consent” that was not recommended by the board was defeated.
Bewkes boasted that in 2011, Time Warner grew revenue by 8 percent, its highest growth since 2003, and that earnings per share surged 20 percent. He also said the company returned $5.6 billion to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock repurchases.
Since 2008, TW has generated $8 billion in free cash flow and raised its dividend three times, he said, and 2011 marked the third straight year that the film studio broke the $4-billion mark globally, the first studio able to make that claim.
Bewkes also explained to the shareholders what he called “the future of movie ownership,” which involves three initiatives: UtraViolet, Walmart’s Vudu disc-to-digital service and Flixter, a social-movie site used by 25 million people a month that Time Warner bought last year and is using to encourage digital ownership among consumers.
The CEO acknowledged “ratings challenges” at its CNN cable network and added, “We have to address that,” but mostly the 100-minute event was filled with praise for the myriad products coming from TW and, of course, there was lots of video.
“We’re in a movie theater in Hollywood. We ought to watch something,” Bewkes said before showing clips from upcoming TV shows The Newsroom (HBO), Dallas (TNT) and Perception (TNT), along with movie trailers for The Dark Knight Rises and The Hobbit.