Holy Budget Cuts, Batman!

Arnell: Holy Budget Cuts, Batman!

As Warner Bros. Discovery send the Batgirl movie (permanently) back to the Batcave…


Last week witnessed what could be a sea-change in the streaming world, as Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav summarily dumped two original streaming movies, DCU entry Batgirl and planned eagerly awaited animated Scooby-Doo sequel Scoob! 2: Holiday Haunt.

Scoob! (2020) was originally intended as a theatrical release, but Covid forced the movie (the ‘Batman Begins’, if you will, of an intended franchise) to become a direct-to-streaming release.

WBD attempted to cover the binning of Batgirl by leaking rumours of poor audience test scores for an uncompleted cut of the picture, apparently considered “irredeemable” by studio insiders.

But, in reality, Zaslav decided that the movie made no economic sense as a streaming original and, one assumes, was best consigned to the vaults as a tax write-off, never to see the light of day.

Risk of alienating talent

Judging by the lousy Batwoman series (2019-2022) no great loss, but Batgirl had some decent talent attached to it, including Leslie Grace (the titular heroine), Michael Keaton, JK Simmons, Brendan Fraser with directing duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Ms Marvel, Bad Boys for Life).

But…in the warm and cuddly words of WBD’s recent SEC filing: “Content impairments and development write-offs resulted from a global strategic review of content following the Merger, employee terminations relate to cost reduction efforts and management changes. These charges resulted from activities to integrate WM and establish an efficient cost structure.”

Fair enough, but Zaslav’s blunt approach looks guaranteed to piss off prospective talent — behind the camera and in front of it.

The Batgirl team must have been paid, but most directors and performers would like to see their work shown in front of an audience – and have the prospect of sequels, increased salaries and even points.

Unless they’re Peter Cook, who, according to Jonathan Ross: “I asked Peter Cook if he wanted to make a non-broadcast pilot of an idea I had for a show. He suggested a non-broadcast series.”

Directors Edgar Wright, James Gunn and Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige have all expressed support for Batgirl’s directors.

DC Films head Walter Hamada was also apparently on the verge of walking out. But he didn’t, so not really an ‘Up Yours!’ to the new boss, more of a lower lip trembling, vaguely accusatory glance.

Fat lot of good that will do. Mr Zaslav appears to be something of a hard case — in terms of the business world, that is.

His reported comments regarding the box office underperformance of Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho (2021) and the actor/director’s long mutually successful relationship with Warner Bros certainly paints a picture of a philistinic worldview: “We don’t owe anyone any favours. It’s not show friends, it’s show business.”

Original sin

Can the WBD CEO’s injunction restricting original streaming movies to budgets with a $35m ceiling work out?

Possibly, but there may be a lesson from history in the performance of Columbia Pictures when Lord David Puttnam was Chair/CEO of the studio (briefly) in the 1980s.

Puttnam’s dislike of box offices turkeys such as Columbia’s own Ishtar (1987) and Leonard Part 6 (also 1987) led him to greenlight a slate of low/mid-budget ‘worthy’ pictures, which predictably no-one went to see. Feuding with the talent (Dustin Hoffman, Bill Cosby and Bill Murray) didn’t help matters either.

Puttnam’s films ended up losing more money than if just one of the high concept movies he stalled (Ghostbusters II, made after his swift exit) had been an international hit. But Puttnam did get to okay The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988), so not a total bust then.

Nevertheless, despite the troubles surrounding The Flash (the unhinged behaviour of star Ezra Miller) and Aquaman 2 (Amber Heard’s  legal wranglings with with ex-husband Johnny Depp), Zaslav’s Kevin Feige-style DCU 10-year plan does make sense.

But will subscribers be disappointed by the lack of Netflix/Amazon Prime style original blockbusters, meaning that series such as Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon will have to do the heavy lifting?

In which case, why bother with original streaming movies at all…

Stephen Arnell began his career at the BBC, moving to ITV where he launched and managed digital channels. He continues to consult for streamers and broadcasters on editorial strategy. He currently writes for 
The Spectator, The Independent, and The Guardian on film, TV and cultural issues. He is also a writer/producer (including Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime for Sky Arts) and novelist.

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