When word got out that DC’s production of Batgirl was cancelled, people were confused. Surely that can’t be right. The production had been shot and was well into post-production. It had reportedly been screen tested. Yet on Tuesday afternoon of August 3rd, 2022, the New York Post, of all publications, broke the story. The project, originally planned for streaming on HBOMAX, will not be released under any circumstances as far as we know. The studio had spent $90M on it, its original $70M budget having increased with reshoots and COVID protocol measures. Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) simply decided to toss it into the garbage bin. How could this be?
Welcome to the new production philosophy at WBD and DC, whether the public likes it or not.
Welcome to how things will operate under new WBD CEO David Zaslav.
David Zaslav. If that name meant nothing to casual movie buffs and DC aficionados over a week ago, it surely does now. 62 years old, hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Zaslav is a highly successful media executive who has carved a very comfortable spot for himself with some of the biggest brands and media companies in the United States. His career began in 1989 at NBC (where he helped launch CNBC), but he is mostly known for his time at Discovery, where he began in 2006. In the intervening years, Discovery, which was already a respected name at the time, grew into a global media powerhouse. We’ll let his bio on the Discovery website tell most of the details.
The Merger that Ended How Things Are Done
The merger Discovery between WarnerMedia was officially completed in April 2022. This was big news given how influential and powerful Discovery is, how lauded a Hollywood studio WB is, and, less impressively, how AT&T had partnered with WarnerMedia only a few years prior in 2018. But things didn’t run so smoothly, AT&T ran into significant debt, and in early 2021 was looking to “spin off” Warner Media to interested parties (there’s a term pop culture fans are familiar with but used in a completely different context!) Discovery came calling and took over. This granted AT&T $43B in cash, whilst the WBD assumed another $43B of debt, which totalled $156.6B at the end of 2021.
During the AT&T partnership, the WB film studio traversed some rocky waters with Toby Emmerich as its President and Chief Content Officer and Jason Kilar as CEO of WarnerMedia. The issues pertained to WB’s overall output and DC in particular. Birds of Prey, which was supposed to bank off the monetary success of 2016’s Suicide Squad, underperformed. Shazam! was well received but didn’t go gangbusters at the theatre. Aquaman performed surprisingly well, surpassing the $1B mark, although reviews were mixed.
The real controversies started in late 2020 during the pandemic. WarnerMedia, seeing that the writing was on the wall with regards to profitable theatrical releases globally, opted to provide the entirety of its 2021 slate “day and date”, in other words, simultaneously on HBOMAX and in theatres wherever possible. Even by Sept 2021, Jason Kilar admitted the decision was far too rushed. Talent working for WB was dismayed and blindsided. Many had to be paid compensation for the theatrical revenue guarantees their contracts stipulated. Heck, the decision is one of the main reasons Christopher Nolan’s next film, Oppenheimer, is with Universal. He had been with WB for years!
Wonder Woman 1984 made virtually no money and was not received nearly as well as its predecessor, and The Suicide Squad, while critically welcomed, was another box office bomb. A decision was eventually made to guarantee 45-day theatrical windows
Enter Discover and its CEO, David Zaslav.
Q2 Earnings Call
Changes needed to be made. Oftentimes, change hurts, especially when one begins the journey. Old habits can die hard. Toby Emmerich and Jason Kilar are not part of WBD. Furthermore, it was recently announced that films which open theatrically will not be guaranteed an HBOMAX release after a 45-day window. If a film performs well, why hurt its chances of earning more easy money? This flies in the face of what most other studios are doing, most notably Disney and Universal.
Listening to the WBD Earnings Conference Call on Thursday, August 4th (anybody can sign up for these calls. The info is supposed to be public anyways) several points were made clear, even though polite, business language was used to express them.
Number one, WBD believes in a strong theatrical release. It’s not that streaming is not important, it surely is, but when it comes to movie events like Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad, it makes no sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to merely plop them onto a streaming service at no extra cost. Fair enough.
Number two, on the topic of streaming services, come summer 2023 in the United States (other markets will be affected at later dates), HBOMAX, as it is known, will be no more. There will be a merger with Discovery+. What will its name be? How will the content be organized? To be determined.
Number three, and this is where the Batgirl debacle comes into play, WBD will only back projects it believes in. This has resulted in dramatic decisions made by the new brass since taking over. Case in point, CNN+, a pre-Discovery merger project, was axed a week after launch. The Wonder Twins never even had a chance to get off the ground.
What About Batgirl and the Future of DC?
Under WBD, DC, much like Marvel at Disney, is its own entity. It will of course require a leader, in the same vein as Kevin Feige. During the Earnings Call, Zaslav even briefly mentioned Marvel and Kevin Feige as templates. David Zaslav is not going to run it. He has other things to do. But choosing the right people to run the show will be critical. Until that happens, surprising turns on dimes have been performed, chief among them the Batgirl news. It is reported that WBD will use the project as a write-down for accounting purposes, thus reducing some of the loss. The bigger picture fans and pundits want to know is was the decision to completely cancel its release worth it?
With the previously made points in mind via the Q2 Earnings Call, it should be noted that WBD is no longer in the business of financing movies that cost almost $100M intended for streaming. But what of the quality? After all, Zaslav stated that DC is a cherished brand that should deliver the sort of movies that its fans deserve. That sounds very nice. So is Batgirl a trainwreck? That’s difficult to judge given that only a few people close to the studio have seen it and even then it was in the context of a test screening. On August 3rd The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the score from the test screening was in the low 60s. Nothing special, but not terrible either. Not “cancel this thing NOW!” bad.
WBD is staying the course with their message of shifting directions, of wanting to rebuild the DC brand with a different vision. There is even talk of a 10-year plan of DC projects, something with more cohesion than what fans have seen in the past few years.
Is this a Good Idea?
The answer to that, one equally simple as it is frustrating, is that only time will tell. Anyone arguing that DC films will come to look like production line Marvel projects can, for now, rest assured. A colourful teaser for Joker: Folie à Deux was released last week, and yes, it’s still a musical. Now it seems as if The Batman is also getting its sequel.
Who knows, maybe the next Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman films will be cinematic atrocities. WBD, DC and whoever leads that division will be lambasted for awful depictions of legendary characters. There is no way to tell until those movies come out. It’s easy to bemoan the Batgirl decision, but so few people have seen the movie. Those who have are the ones who should decide if it’s good enough for release in the first place. The results are…murky.
For whatever reason, the cancelled project does not fall in line with what WBD wants to do with DC going forward. The suspense surrounding DC’s cinematic future has people waiting impatiently. The real revelations will be made once Black Adam, Shazam! Fury of the Gods and The Flash are in the rear-view mirror. Yes, we know, an entire article could be written about The Flash.
This is a mystery not even Batman, the world’s greatest detective can solve. We’ll just have to stay tuned.