In the world of moviemaking, it’s generally considered good business to release the movies you make. After all, they can cost tens of millions of dollars to produce, and (pardon me for getting overly technical here) selling tickets for the general public to view them can help recoup that cost. Streaming TV has changed that calculation a little. Now films are sometimes made not to sell tickets but just to beef up entertainment libraries for monthly subscribers. At that point, the economics get hazy enough that strange decisions start getting made—decisions like Warner Bros.’ choice to entirely shelve Batgirl, a superhero adventure that cost at least $70 million to make and was intended to debut on HBO Max this year.
Why would a Hollywood studio want to throw away a comic-book movie? This one features a big brand-name heroine played by an actress of color (In the Heights’ Leslie Grace); the return of Michael Keaton as the Batman he played in Tim Burton’s hit movies; and a villain played by Brendan Fraser, a beloved actor in the middle of a feel-good comeback moment. The reported reasons for Batgirl’s sudden cancellation have varied, but the most logical (and dullest) one involves taxes. Because Batgirl was made under the previous Warner Bros. regime, before the company was merged by AT&T with Discovery, the movie can essentially be put in the vault and written off as part of a “purchase accounting” maneuver that’s available for only a limited time. Still, there might be something fundamentally wrong with your business strategy when not releasing a movie is more financially advisable than releasing it.
Rumors immediately started to swirl that Batgirl had tested so poorly with audiences that it was considered unsalvageable, nixing the idea of the studio pouring millions more into reshoots to make it more big-screen-worthy. But then Deadline reported that the film’s one test screening hadn’t been “that bad, considering that the cut had temporary visual effects.” Indeed, nothing about the film seems particularly radioactive—its directors are Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who did a strong job with 2020’s Bad Boys for Life and the pilot and finale of Ms. Marvel on Disney+. The duo expressed total dismay at the news, which they apparently learned just before the press did.
The deeper thing that’s going on, as much as I can discern from reporting thus far on the decision, is a drastic change in corporate strategy: shifting away from streaming and back toward an emphasis on big theatrical releases. Warner Bros. was run by the upstart CEO Jason Kilar from April 2020 to April 2022, and he was the one who made the dramatic choice, mid-pandemic, to release the studio’s entire 2021 slate on HBO Max at the same time as theaters. That meant epics such as Dune and The Matrix Resurrections debuted partly on the small screen; the move angered filmmakers such as Denis Villeneuve and broke Warner Bros.’ long collaboration with Christopher Nolan, who is now making his next movie for rival Universal.
It also probably helped put HBO Max on the map. The service is an undoubted success, topping company forecasts for subscriptions and earning praise for its extensive film and TV library. But Kilar’s successor, David Zaslav, has the opposite philosophy. According to Deadline, Zaslav has no interest in Kilar’s notion of making several films a year as HBO Max exclusives. Along with Batgirl, a new Scooby-Doo cartoon was canceled, and six other “Max Originals,” including Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of The Witches, were pulled from the site (though they are available to purchase and rent elsewhere). Again, there are murky financial reasons for these decisions, but that’s not of particular comfort to subscribers or to the people who worked hard making these projects.
It’s a fascinating, abrupt corporate pivot, perhaps just as extreme as the one Kilar made, and it reflects a growing realization within Hollywood that banking on streaming services to generate massive profits is a very dangerous game. The recent stock trouble shaking Netflix, which has seemingly topped out its subscriber base, is serving as a teaching moment for every other studio that spent the past few years building out its own streaming archives. Filling out those online catalogs costs money, and pumping in new content like Batgirl is enormously expensive when there are no theatrical grosses to help offset the investment. Beyond that, Zaslav seems to have decided that putting out a straight-to-streaming DC Comics movie would hurt the epic feeling of that superhero brand, which is probably the studio’s most important property.
And just as the economics of streaming have started to look wobblier, the theatrical box office has gotten more robust, with hits such as Top Gun: Maverick displaying a real surge in enthusiasm from ticket buyers of all generations after a long pandemic lull. Zaslav’s desire to return to the business that has made his studio money for almost 100 years is a perfectly logical one. But it is leaving behind some very strange casualties, and some understandably unhappy artists and viewers.