Anghus Houvouras on Warner Bros.’ decision to cancel Batgirl and the ramifications for DC Films…
Streaming services are struggling as they try to steer their ships out of stormy seas. Subscriptions are down. Operating costs are up. Competition is at an all time high. Now executives are making difficult decisions that will impact the future of the entertainment industry.
The internet practically broke in half this week as the new bosses at Warner Bros. Discovery took a hatchet to a slate of programming that included DC projects like Batgirl and the animated Scoob! sequel Scoob! Holiday Haunt. It was a surprising move in a year that has seen the streaming bubble burst as Hollywood struggles to work out the math on content creation and profitability.
The knee-jerk reactions have been extremely unkind towards David Zaslav, the new CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, which makes complete sense. Who’s going to take the side of a massive corporation when filmmakers and creators are having their work cancelled or completely abandoned after completion?
But David Zaslav might be onto something.
The last few years has seen companies carving out a roadmap for streaming services that seems reliant on further erasing the lines between the cinema and home entertainment. Netflix has invested billions of dollars producing massive events like Red Notice, The Adam Project and The Gray Man in order to appeal to big screen blockbuster enthusiasts. Disney has added TV versions of their most fabled franchises so that you’re never more than 30 days away from the next Marvel or Star Wars content. Warner Bros. made the controversial decision to release some of their biggest movies in theaters and on streaming services simultaneously.
And if we’re being honest, none of those moves have made things better for the consumer or the industry.
Netflix believed they could spend their way to success. Disney has devalued the most profitable franchises in the history of film to the point of fan fatigue. And Warner Bros. alienated a number of creators with a marketing ploy that ended up doing precious little to increase viewership.
Hollywood is currently in a state of flux. Old paradigms are still being applied to new situations. Take for instance the ridiculous notion of ‘watched hours’ to try and convey the ‘success’ of a project on a streaming service. That number might mean something on services that show ads. More ‘watched hours’ mean more ad revenue. But on services like Netflix that are ad-free, ‘watched hours’ is nothing more than a meaningless marketing metric.
For ad-free services like Netflix, the only number that matters is subscriber volume. Does it matter if Stranger Things season 4 is the most watched show in the history of the platform if they’re losing subscribers every quarter? While having popular content doesn’t hurt the platform, the number of hours watched is ultimately irrelevant if they cannot figure out how to exist in a world where the number of subscribers has ultimately plateaued.
While we don’t know the complete plan for Warner Bros. Discovery at this point, there is some inherent logic in the path that Zaslav is charting. If the last few years for streaming services have been about making the theatrical and home experiences more interchangeable, clearly defining your brands & franchises and understanding their value becomes extremely important.
Under the previous administration, Warner Bros. went on a splurge with their various intellectual properties and set up a number of projects like the Batgirl movie, the Blue Beetle movie, and spin-off series like The Penguin and Arkham Asylum being spawned from Matt Reeves’ The Batman movie. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with making more modestly budgeted productions of these DC properties, you could argue that these productions continue to target the same audience and don’t help diversify the creative portfolio to bring in new subscribers.
Does a $90 million dollar Batgirl movie that will only show on a streaming service sound like a good investment? Is it going to bring in new subscribers? Or does it appeal to a fan base that is already subscribed to the service because of massive library of content that already exists within that service? The new owners of HBO Max have quickly figured out something that is now hampering Netflix: the overwhelming cost vs. return of creating content that will only exist on a streaming platform is prohibitive to long term financial solvency.
So for Zaslav and the new management at Warner Bros. Discovery to see value in compartmentalizing their triple A franchises and brands into separate buckets kind of makes sense. Why spend $90 million on a streaming-only Batgirl movie with no A-list marketable talent and no additional opportunities for generating revenue?
And please don’t @ me about the unfairness to creators and crews who have poured their heart and soul into making these projects. I’m totally sympathetic. I have worked on movies and TV shows and I’ve had projects I’ve labored on for years get cancelled days before filming was to begin. it’s not fun and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Having hard work reduced to a tax-write off is the opposite of ideal. But I don’t think Zaslav is to blame here, but the previous leadership who historically made a ton of questionable calls and created a lot of creative chaos within the company.
To me, the moves Zaslav is making feels a lot like what Tom Cruise did with Top Gun: Maverick. The pandemic caused a number of delays and there was a lot of speculation that the movie might just premiere on the Paramount+ streaming service. But Cruise knew what he had and understood the value of the film. He weathered the delays and Paramount was smart enough to be patient. The movie came out in theaters, as Cruise always wanted, and now it’s the biggest hit of the year making over a billion dollars and probably on its way to a Best Picture nomination. This isn’t surprising seeing how Cruise so passionately fosters his franchises like Mission: Impossible to critical and financial success.
Acknowledging the value of your franchises, brands and properties is smart business. Mitigating the muddying of these intellectual properties into an infinite number of perpetually premiering shows and films is the move of someone looking at the long game and not the kind of short-term decision making that led to a slate of half-baked projects, many of which never even materialized (Remember Ava DuVernay’s New Gods or the Aquaman spinoff Trench/Black Manta movie?). To compare, Marvel has had success because Kevin Feige meticulously mapped out a plan, whereas Star Wars has stumbled slightly because they famously did not.
Shelving the Batgirl movie might be the best move for the DC franchise going forward. It shows that the new management at Warner Bros. Discovery knows the potential of these characters and how valuable they are going forward if fostered favorably, instead of throwing everything against the wall in the hope that something sticks. Strip mining the deep well of intellectual properties at their disposal and releasing half-baked content without a long-term strategy is bad for the brand.
Don’t believe me? Here’s exhibit ‘A’ in this argument: Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
I’m guessing any DC fan who endured the excruciating saga of Justice League and the absolute dumpster fire that ensued and still simmers to this day is more than enough proof that a new direction was not only needed, but warranted. There are so many lessons to be learned from that debacle, from the treatment of creative talent to decisions being made solely for the financial benefit of those in charge, like the need to release 2017’s Justice League by the end of the calendar year and with a two hour runtime in order to meet bonus requirements for leadership.
This is a much needed intervention for a company that has made clear errors in judgment. Even the name ‘HBO Max’ was a bad decision. With everything Warner Bros. had at their disposal, they name the streaming service after a cable channel known primarily for smart, mature television content like Succession and Sex in the City? Why was this the brand used to market a much wider library of four-quadrant content?
People reacted poorly when in July, it was announced that live-action and animated family content would no longer be a priority for HBO Max. But why would they? Family content isn’t really what HBO was known for. This isn’t Warner Bros. Discovery saying family content isn’t a priority. It is the new management creating brackets for their brands.
Warner Bros’ attempt to use HBO as an umbrella for all of their content was a mistake. I understand why they made this decision. The HBO brand is highly recognizable in the entertainment industry and is known for quality content and winning awards. But to make it the overarching label where all Warners content would be housed.
Mistakes were made. This is all new territory being traversed. Recalibrations are essential. Pivots will be necessary. And based on what I’ve seen so far, once you get past the initial shock of seeing completed projects cancelled, there is sound logic behind some of these decisions. At least more sound than the decisions of those who steered HBO Max into these perilous waters in the first place.
There are a lot of armchair analysts out there screaming ‘the sky is falling’ but based on the last decade of Warner Bros. and their mismanagement of the DCEU, these decisions might me the best thing to happen to the DC Extended Universe.
What are your thoughts on the current state of DC Films? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…