Creative leaders: Josh Berger

Born into a showbusiness family, it's no surprise that Josh Berger was drawn to the creative and cinematic powerhouse of Warner Bros. James Swift was granted a rare interview with the studio's UK president.

Creative leaders: Josh Berger

Warner Bros Entertainment’s UK, Ireland and Spain president, Josh Berger, doesn’t grant interviews often. He prefers to leave that to others – or let the company’s films, TV shows and games do the talking. Nonetheless, he made an exception and agreed to meet Campaign at Warner Bros’ Holborn offices. Perhaps the box-office success of his studio’s new Superman film, Man Of Steel, which reportedly took more than $100 million in its opening weekend, made him feel like taking on all-comers. Who knows?

But just as the high-stakes gamble on Man Of Steel looks to be paying off, two industry legends warned that the apocalypse could be just around the corner for studios. Speaking at the opening of a media centre at the University of Southern California, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas told students that relying on big-budget projects to draw in punters meant two or three misses could bring any one of the industry giants to its knees.

Berger, for his part, isn’t having it. "I don’t think that’s such a revelation," he says. "It’s just numbers, really. If you’re going to spend X a year, you’re going to need to make sure X returns Y. It’s just a question of making sure that you make enough money to cover for the misses, and, if you don’t, make sure you’ve got a film library that’s going to cover it. If that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be a problem. The bets are getting bigger but they’ve been getting bigger for years – ’twas ever thus."

What attracted you to working in the creative industries?
I was brought up in and around the creative industries, although it obviously wasn’t called that in the 60s and 70s. I was born and raised in Los Angeles in a showbusiness family; the music business particularly, but also film and TV. My father was a manager at Motown Records [Berger’s godfather is the Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr] and managed artists such as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and The Four Tops, and my mother was an agent and worked with actors. I suppose it’s no different from discovering it in later life, but when you say "how did you get into it", you could say it got into me.

Who has had the greatest influence on your views on creativity?
Gordy, for sure. I learned a lot about creative instincts from him, and my father, too. Of course you learn it intellectually, but it’s not an intellectual thing, understanding creativity. Gordy always used to say: "You know a hit record when you hear it." And they used to have a famous process [at Motown] where they would all sit around and play a record and vote whether it was a hit or not.

What forms of creativity inspire you?
Music, art and writing, for sure. I’m still a bit stuck in the past with my musical tastes, though. I haven’t evolved my tastes a great deal but I do try to listen to Capital FM with my kids because that’s all they listen to.

How has the industry changed since you started working in it in the late 80s?
I started in the TV distribution business in Europe, basically dealing with state broadcasters. Privately owned TV was just beginning, so each country only had a few channels and it was a real dictatorship in terms of what people saw and when.

The focus on content and on the behaviour of the viewer – and therefore consumers – has evolved enormously since then. You now have unlimited channels and content, and competition is generally a good thing for business and for creativity. It’s hard to argue with the fact that creativity in our business is at a high – in TV and in movies, too.

Part of that is down to competition and the digitisation of media, which changes how we reach and market to consumers. The creativity you see in digital media is astounding as well, and we’re at the beginning of it. In 20 years, we’ll look back and say things were so unevolved now.

What do you think about the state of the creative industries in the UK?
I’m pretty positive about creativity in Britain. I know that sounds a bit platitude-like but I think this is an immensely creative country. I have thought to myself "what drives this?", but it’s the work of a doctoral thesis, really.

I think the existence of the BBC is definitely a contributor to the UK’s strength in TV, and Channel 4 to some extent as well. It’s probably not as important today, of course, but if you’re talking historically, the BBC was a real contributor because the brief was always to look for strong points of view in TV and the BBC was a huge devourer of content, which meant that you took a lot of shots on goal. That’s really important in creativity. For every person who is trying to create a TV programme or a song, there are many, many others who are trying to do the same and who won’t reach their audience and it won’t be a success, at least in commercial terms. In creative terms, anybody could argue anything is good, but the market at least helps us measure commercial success. Creative success is defined in many ways. It’s generally ascribed to critics and I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.

What part of your job allows you to exercise the most creativity?
Getting close to one of the creative endeavours; whether it’s a film or film-maker or the marketing, and dealing with creative people. For instance, talking to Guy Ritchie about Sherlock Holmes as he’s trying to figure out the story. I don’t profess to be making any substantial contribution to that because it’s not what I do. But I do think there’s a way to be a part of the conversation when someone is in a creative process and I love that – even if it’s just talking about the business side of the job.

I'm a big admirer of the advertising industry here. Like TV and film, it seems to be another industry that boxes above its weight

How do you deal with creative types and get the most out of them?
It’s like anything – there’s a way of talking to anyone to get the most out of them, and you either have it or you don’t. There are certain people around here who I don’t think I would put in a room with Ben Affleck or Chris Nolan. It just wouldn’t work very well. Everyone’s got their strengths and some people are just brilliant at it. Our publicity team are brilliant at dealing with creatives and getting them to do things that they don’t want to do, like all-day press junkets and walking red carpets.

In ad agencies, you have your copywriters and art directors and they walk differently, talk differently and smoke differently from everybody else, and it’s the same in our world. Creative people are different from other people, but so are businessmen, lawyers and accountants. Every one of those professions has its own language. If you speak the language of creative people, you will find you excel; if you don’t, you will find that you won’t be doing it for much longer.

Do you think UK governments have done a good job supporting the creative industries?
I think successive governments have done really well, actually. The Labour government is more classically associated with being close to creative industries, since creative industries tend to be more liberal, so there’s that affinity. But having said that, this Conservative government has been incredibly supportive. There’s not that much they can do except support the industry financially and give it the space it needs – and, on that basis, they’ve done an awful lot. You have the tax credits, which are unquestionably part of the reason why film has done so well, and that’s now been extended to TV and high-end drama, kids programming and video games. Jeremy Hunt and Maria Miller are both supportive, and David Cameron and George Osborne directly engage on this stuff, too. Osborne is the guy that says yes to tax credits, and those were not easy laws to pass in a world where government is shrinking spending and cutting back in every department, including media and culture.

As president and managing director of the UK and Spain, what differences do you see between the creative industries in both countries?
The creative processes are not that dissimilar but there’s a massive difference between the health of the industries. Spain has just gone through an incredibly challenging time and it affects the creative community enormously. There’s huge concern and nervousness about the future, because we [Warner Bros] are the place where art meets commerce and you need both. In Spain, you have a lot of art but not much commerce. You still have the creative energy but it’s not finding an outlet easily and that’s a concern for everybody. We back a lot of Spanish films and will continue to in the hope that things turn around.

Where do you think Warner Bros could have done a better job staying ahead of the curve, in terms of new technologies?
I don’t think we saw the iPad coming, where people are watching things on them, but we realised that with digitisation came portability. Since the Walkman, we’d realised that people would be able to possess their own entertainment. I think we do a pretty good job of getting out in front of the trends, or at least not sitting back on our hands. We’ve had a good history with technology, whether it’s putting sound on film or the underlying patents in the DVD or, more recently, UltraViolet.

It couldn’t happen that we would have a big miss, because you’d miss it for a day or two, or five, and then you’d say: "Well, the iPad’s getting made, we better make our content available." Whatever happens with technology and consumption habits, we will be there.

How does Warner Bros ensure that it doesn’t fall behind in terms of creativity and stays relevant?
I think in pretty much the same way we’ve done it for the past 90 years, which is working with really talented creative men and women who have an idea, tell a story, film it and then make it available to people. I don’t think you can figure out what people’s tastes are because they don’t know what their tastes are.

Do you think Argo was their taste or do you think that Ben Affleck made it that?
Argo was an article in Wired magazine and then a few talented people said: "You know, this would make a good movie." What comes first? I think our taste responds to what people put in front of it and then we make popular what we like collectively. And I think we certainly have a role and a place in the whole discussion of taste around the world because we make global movies and TV shows and video games. When we make an Argo, or a Harry Potter or a Hobbit or a Dark Knight, that certainly affects people’s taste… generally positively.

What would you say the studio’s greatest successes have been, in terms of creativity and marketing?
Look at Batman, and I will not take credit for this because it’s a huge company effort, where so many different people created the Dark Knight trilogy in film, and produced games such as Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, which are brilliant. Then you’ve got the Lego Batman game, which is brilliant as well. Taking that comic-book character in its origin and then making these different executions were all huge creative achievements, I would argue, and then we marketed them really well.

What’s your opinion of the UK advertising industry?
I’m a big admirer of the advertising industry here. Like TV and film, it seems to be another industry that boxes above its weight. They achieve incredible things at the Cannes Lions and they make great ads. Creatively and commercially, the industry is hugely impressive, from where I sit at least.