'Batgirl' Cancellation Reveals a Bigger Movie Problem

There was a big shake-up in the movie world when it was revealed Warner Bros. Discovery was dropping the almost completed Batgirl straight into the trash after it had a poorly received test screening. It was shocking the studio not only shelved a picture with so much anticipation, but the bigger surprise was the Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Bad Boys for Life, Ms. Marvel) helmed and Leslie Grace (In the Heights) starring movie had reportedly cost the studio 90 million to make. 

While reasons for the picture being pulled have been vague, some recent moves point to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO and President David Zaslav making major decisions to aggressively move away from the initiatives made by the old regime. In 2020 with the pandemic forcing everyone to stay home, streaming looked like the future of entertainment, and former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar went all in on HBO Max. He made the decision to have all 2021 theatrical releases go day and date on HBO Max with the idea to bolster subscribers, but it severely damaged relations with blindsided movie theatres, filmmakers, and creative partners. 

One of the first promises made by Zaslav when he took power was to prioritize theatrical releases, and maximize the potential monetization of their movies and entertainment. The streaming bubble has burst with theatres and various entertainment venues opening again, so the rise in subscribers have slowed down and Netflix is a good example that the streaming euphoria is over. The change in Warner Bros. Discovery's focus led to what were planned to be HBO Max exclusives getting scrapped in the aforementioned Batgirl and the sequel to the recent animated Scooby Doo movie in Scoob: Holiday Haunt. Now, neither will ever be commercially or legally screened in what looks both will be  tax write-offs

The lack of interest in providing HBO Max original movies is extending to works that were already on the service. After the announcement of the two movies being shelved, it has also been discovered that at least six HBO Max exclusive movies including the Seth Rogen' starring American Pickle, the Lana Condor romantic comedy Moonshot and the star-studded Roald Dahl adaptation of The Witches have all been pulled from the streaming service. Apparently, the reasoning is there are still costs connected with these pictures, and so likely, the studio will try to get returns through possible rentals or selling them to other studios. 

Or they could be thrown into the abyss along with Batgirl and Holiday Haunt to never be seen again.

Zaslav has a reputation of being a penny-pincher, and his focus is on how he can make Warner Bros. Discovery far more profitable while saving it a bunch too. It has become clear in the last several months that streaming services weren't the magical pot of gold at the end of the media rainbow, and it isn't completely shocking with his mindset that he is trimming down the service by cutting out most of the entertainment that was designed to be exclusives. HBO Max will slide further away from its premium scripted roots when it is eventually merged with the company's other streaming service, Discovery +.

Financially it makes sense to turn it into one streaming service, but it makes it a Frankenstein monster with two very contrasting focuses of entertainment trying to mesh as one. There will be major job losses and cuts, and this means the curation of entertainment will smaller with one service, and their priorities may lean towards one form or style of entertainment. Remember when I said Zaslav is focused on saving money, and Reality TV is cheaper than premium scripted entertainment. 

I should pause here to also clarify that HBO Max is slightly different than the HBO cable channel. I am not entirely sure of the differences as we don't have the service here in Canada. Our equivalent is Crave, which was formerly known as The Movie Network and before that First Choice. In Canada, Crave is a premium cable channel that is also available for cord cutters in streaming service form. HBO Max is a pure streaming service for cord cutters, but I believe is offered as a bonus for those that subscribe to the premium cable channels. My best guess is that HBO Max will start being more like Crave where it is just the channel in streaming form with limited exclusives.

The word is the restructuring of HBO Max will save the company hundred billions of dollars, so it clearly is a smart financial move. The argument is that all that saved money will finance more creative endeavours and bring forth a plethora of entertainment. These cancellations and shifts are good the industry, right?


This is a gut punch for those rooting for a healthy, creative, and diverse movie industry. Yes, I can hear you in the back screaming that such a sentence is hyperbole. For decades, Warner Bros, was known as a filmmaker-friendly studios and was viewed as auteur driven. Zaslav still tried to pitch that in one of his original addresses when he stated he is intent on fixing relations with movie theatres and being a positive environment for creators and artists.

Tell that to Arbi and Fallah who found out about the shelving of Batgirl the same time as the public, and were never given a chance to make the picture more 'cinematic' but rather just had their work tossed aside. I know there are claims that the movie was horrible and unsalvageable, but these claims are also coming from the studio that just made this decision. While I have never made a feature film, I have heard many times from some of the greatest directors that a movie is often made in the editing room. It is disappointing that they were never given a chance to recut it or have time to reshoot it to raise it to a level where it could work in the theatre. It was originally made with the plan to be a straight to streaming movie, and even at $90 million, that is a low budget for a theatrical DC picture, so it is hard for me to believe that it couldn't have been saved if Warner Bros. really cared about it.

This reminds me of a statement several weeks back where Zaslav said he wanted to overhaul the DC and refocus on a cinematic universe. I interpreted that as trying to build to another Justice League movie to get some of that sweet, sweet, sweet Avengers money. His stance was that DC movies needed an overhaul and a renewed direction, but creatively, I would say that DC has actually been in great shape the past few years. 

In recent years DC pictures have been auteur driven with less interest in crafting interconnected stories but rather allowing the filmmaker to explore the stories that they are passionate about. It has led to unique pictures like The Joker, Birds of Prey, The Suicide Squad and The Batman. Not every movie has been a critical hit and I haven't even liked all of them post Justice League, but I appreciated a vision that put more control with the filmmakers rather than just a bunch of feature length teases towards an eventual bigger movie

The issue is that no one has been able to repeat the MCU success, and even now, there are signs that MCU may be losing steam and momentum. It takes a great creative visionary and an incredible leader to pull off what was done with the MCU building to AvengersEndgame. The Kevin Feige run Marvel Studios currently is the only one that has proven they can pull it off, and it may have been one of those once-in-a-lifetime achievements in cinema. My fear is the new DCEU objective is almost entirely financial rather than one from crafting better movies for the fans, because from my perspective, the current direction has been a creative success even if there are no signs of a future Justice League: Checkmate.

This leads to the bigger issue, because disparaging the auteur driven direction of DC pictures and throwing out the work of filmmakers are just a few of the signs that this is no longer a great place for talented directors and screenwriter to showcase the stories that move them creatively. The biggest sign of this shift was when Zaslav rebuked Warner Bros. executives for greenlighting Clint Eastwood's Cry Macho because Zaslav believed it never should have been given a wide release. I did not like the movie, but those words were very haunting and shows Zaslav's vision for the studio's future slate.

My interpretation is a smaller movie like Cry Macho doesn't fit his vision because he wants tentpoles and pictures that drive hundreds of millions of dollars. There is no room for small pictures in a company looking for maximum profits to appease shareholders. This is a departure from a studio that used to pride itself on its relations with its talented filmmakers. 

The term tentpoles come from many decades ago with the idea that a studio would have one or two huge movies a year with designs on a box office smash hit, and the grosses would prop up the rest of the studio slate to be genre pictures targeted at specific demographics or movies with a mid-budget that were telling important stories. Several decades ago, studios were interested in making a variety of movies. 

Clint Eastwood has made a lot of money for Warner Bros. Even in recent years with movies like The Mule he proved to have a loyal audience that would go out to see him, even if it didn't fall under the category of global blockbuster. Based off his smaller budget, his pictures probably had a higher percentage of profit against budget compared to many blockbusters. His demographic is one that would have been less likely to brave the theatre during Covid, which may be a reason Cry Macho only made a little over 10 million domestically. In the past, not every movie needed to be a hit and a blockbuster, and Warner Bros.is declaring a new approach to movies when signaling out Cry Macho rather than bigger budget disappointments.

It is a direction of putting the bottom line and the massive grosses over any creativity and storytelling.

I know, I know. The movie industry is a business. Warner Bros, needs to make money. But I should add that smaller mid-budget pictures have a long history of making money along with the most Clint Eastwood movies. They just don't make the money that makes an investor salivate, but they also have far less risk of causing mass layoffs if they flop.

Here is the part that worries me the most. Movie people once ran studios. Individuals who were embedded in the industry. Now, it is being run increasingly by business people that have very little experience in the creative process. And again. you may argue I am being insane here because the goal of any business is to make money and having a financially savvy figure on top is the smart move. 

The reality is movies are art, and art is drastically different than most other products. Movies are not toasters, smart phone, and t-shirts. They are not something that you can layout the formula and then churn out on an assembly line. An executive can not view, market, or definitely create movies in the same way.as a fridge or pop tart.

Art is personal. Successful art connects to the heart and soul. Art can make people feel, cry, laugh, cheer, scream, and sing. Art is about an emotional connection and taking each person on an individual journey. The experience with art can't be judged the same way as we can quantify the value of a washing machine's effectiveness in cleaning our clothes. Art is different to each person. It connects in various ways to different people. 

It is ignorant and misguided to compare movies to furniture or electronics. Creativity, passion, and innovation is mandatory for movies to thrive and be successful. Sure, it is a business, but you can't remove the importance of the creators and having stories they are passionate to tell. There are some signs that Warner Bros. steered itself into a fog when trying to right the ship financially.

Unlike electronics where a manufacturer knows they've created a TV or computer that will sell, there is no set formula in what will draw an audience with a movie. What worked before may become tiresome now. What seems sellable may lack that spark that makes an audience's imagination and emotions soar. The only effective strategy is having passionate artists crafting something they love, and the hope those emotions will splash and come alive on the big screen. 

This is why I try to avoid using words like content, franchise, intellectual property, brand, and product when talking abut movies. It turns the art form into a fast food hamburger or an instant pot cooker. You can't compare movies or any creative endeavour like novels, albums, or painting to things that are mass produced. The strategy can not be the same. The creator must be allowed to flourish, and while formula exists in storytelling, it works when blended with originality and taking creative risks, otherwise interest stagnates.

The counter is I am overreacting, because if Batgirl were truly bad then it could have tarnished the perception of DC. Because DC has never ever had a bad movie because we're pretending Catwoman and Superman 4: Quest for Peace never existed. Plus, we live in a world where several no-good Transformers sequels were massive box office hits, and many movies that some groups think are horrendous are cherished by many others. Did we forget what causes cult hits?

The issue is that Warner Bros, valued their filmmakers and they once didn't expect every movie to be a blockbuster. They accepted smaller returns because it was a creatively intriguing movies or served a certain demographic of fans/ This is how the movie business thrived for decades upon decades. Now, with moves like dropping a movie without even informing filmmakers or giving them a chance to rework it. we're moving into an era where movies are being viewed as product just like the latest line of soft drink that gets continued because sales dipped.

This is not how movies were viewed during some of the most creatively and financially fulfilling times in the history of cinemas. This is a scary future for those that love a variety of creative, personal, and passionate pictures. 

I have made predictions in the past where it was proven I was overreacting or misread the situation. I desperately hope that in the next few years I am proven wrong. I want to see Warner Bros. thrive and be the incredible movie studio it has been for almost a century.

What do you think of the recent moves made by Warner Bros. Discovery?