Let’s take a closer look at what these changes mean for the DC line and HBO Max as a whole, and why Warner Bros. Discovery seems to be making one mistake after another with its key franchises.
DC Changes Direction…Again
Regardless of what camp you fall under in the eternal Marvel vs. DC conflict, there’s no denying that Warner Bros. has struggled to achieve the same level of success with the DCEU that Disney has enjoyed with the MCU. Warners has often seemed of the best way to go about building a shared universe, first mimicking the MCU model with early films like Batman v Superman and Justice League and then pivoting to emphasize a multiverse of films and shows that aren’t all necessarily connected .
The DC line had begun carving a niche for itself with more standalone, director-driven fare like Todd Phillips’ Joker, Matt Reeves’ The Batman, and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker spinoff, the former two not being connected at all to the larger DCEU. But that all appears to be changing in the wake of the Warner Bros. Discovery merger. As early as May 2021, Variety reported that CEO David Zaslav is seeking a return to a more unified, MCU-style approach to DC’s movies, to the point that Zaslav is reportedly seeking out a Kevin Feige figure to oversee the DC brand.
That mentality seems to be at the root of why the Batgirl movie was cancelled. Batgirl was originally conceived as a relatively lower-budget DC movie that would head directly to HBO Max. It’s a smaller-scale film that clashes with Zaslav’s vision of what DC’s movie line should offer.
An industry insider told The Wrap, “It wasn’t considered to be a big enough film to justify a theatrical release… and it was an increasing risk just to get its budget back.”
Because of that, the risk-averse Warner Bros. Discovery has decided that it’s safer to take a tax write-down on the film than spend more money on a theatrical release and marketing campaign. That appears to be the same thinking that tanked The Wonder Twins shortly before production began, as well as possibly the planned Supergirl movie starring Sasha Calle.
DC fans are now afraid any number of previously announced movies and shows may be on the chopping block next. If WBD canceled the nearly finished Batgirl, is Blue Beetle (which is currently in the midst of filming) going to be next? Will The Batman spinoffs like Penguin and the Arkham series still happen? Is any DC series on HBO Max – Doom Patrol, Titans, Young Justice, Harley Quinn – safe right now? Heck, can we even be sure The Batman 2 will still move forward?
It’s been nearly 10 years since 2013’s Man of Steel kicked off the DCEU, and there’s more uncertainty surrounding the DC line than ever before. At this point, the problem is less any one, particular strategy to building the DC cinematic universe than the simple fact that there never seems to be a consistent strategy. The many shakeups within both DC and the larger WarnerMedia corporate structure have prevented any sort of long-term, cohesive approach to the DCEU. And while it’s still very early in the new Warner Bros. Discovery was, there’s no indication so far that the new status quo is going to be any less chaotic.
The 10-Year Plan for DC
There are some silver linings to be found amid the stormy situation at DC. For one thing, the long-rumored Joker sequel now has a 2024 release date, suggesting WBD isn’t entirely averse to the idea of standalone movies set outside the confines of the DCEU. For another, the company has hinted at a decade-long roadmap for restructuring the DC line.
“We have done a reset,” Zaslov said during Warner Bros. Discovery’s Q2 earnings call. “We’ve restructured the business where we’re going to focus [on], where there will be a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC. It’s very similar to the structure that Alan Horn and Bob Iger put together very effectively with Kevin Feige at Disney. We think that we could build a long-term, much stronger sustainable growth business out of DC. And as part of that, we’re going to focus on quality.”
Zaslov’s comments confirm earlier reports that the company is looking directly to Marvel for inspiration in how to reshape its superhero universe. The hope is that, even though the strategy for DC’s movies is being up-ended once again, at least a consistent plan is finally being put in place.
That being said, following the Marvel model is hardly a guarantee of success. Every studio and streamer wants its own MCU, but actually crafting a cinematic universe and maintaining a dedicated audience is far easier said than done. Just look at Universal’s failed attempt at the Dark Universe line of monster movies, or Paramount’s ongoing struggles to expand the Transformers franchise. After so many years of fighting to gain ground against Marvel, can DC really turn the tide simply by replicating Marvel’s strategy? It’s possible, especially if the studio makes good on its pledge to focus on quality above meeting release dates. But it could also prove to be an extremely expensive exercise in futility.
Christopher Nolan and the Importance of Creator Relationships
2021 was nothing if not an experimental year for WarnerMedia, with the company’s entire 2021 movie lineup releasing on HBO Max and in theaters on the same day. It was a move that no doubt bolstered subscriber numbers for the fledgling HBO Max. However, it was also one that came at a considerable cost, both literally and in terms of WarnerMedia’s relationships with theatrical chains and filmmakers.
“Clearly, Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidize its HBO Max startup,” said AMC Theaters CEO Adam Aron. “As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense. We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business.”
That release strategy also caused a very public falling-out between WarnerMedia and director Christopher Nolan, who wrote, “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”
While labeling HBO Max as “the worst streaming service” is pretty harsh, the fact that those words came from someone of Nolan’s stature is telling. Nolan has since cut ties with Warner Bros. His upcoming biopic Oppenheimer will instead be distributed by Universal Pictures. Considering that Nolan has been responsible for some of Warners’ most critically and commercially successful blockbusters over the past two decades, his departure from him is no small loss for the studio.
Zaslav has shown signs he intends to make amends with creatives put off by WarnerMedia’s previous HBO Max strategy. During a May 2021 conference call, he noted that building relationships with filmmakers and creatives is his “number one priority” going forward.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see how any creatives will be reassured by the surprise Batgirl cancellation. Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah seem as shocked as anyone to learn their film is never going to see the light of day. We can only assume other directors and actors are now anxiously wondering whether their projects may be next on the chopping block.
This move sends a clear message that the bottom line is all that matters to the heads of Warner Bros. Discovery. Entire films can and will be sacrificed if there’s more money to be made in tax write-downs than box office returns. This can only have a negative effect on Warner Bros. Discovery’s film and TV lineup. How many directors and producers will look at the Batgirl cancellation and second-guess whether their passion project is safe at Warner Bros? How many more Christopher Nolans will the studio lose in the years to come?
HBO vs. Discovery: A Clash of Philosophies
Few in the industry would have predicted WarnerMedia’s streaming service would emphasize it the HBO branding, but it’s obvious enough why they did. The HBO name has built up a lot of cache over the years. Shows like Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire and Game of Thrones have earned the premium network piles of awards and a reputation for quality. HBO helped pave the way for the era of Peak TV, with networks and streamers spending ever larger amounts of money on prestige shows. By calling the service HBO Max, WarnerMedia clearly hoped to build on that reputation and rely on big-budget projects like House of the Dragon and The Last of Us to win the streaming wars.
That’s anything but the strategy Zaslav has employed at Discovery over the years. Those networks emphasize unscripted content like nature documentaries, home improvement shows and various types of reality TV. With that in mind, the idea of merging WarnerMedia and Discovery into one company has always seemed a bit strange. How can two companies with such opposite approaches to content fuse into a cohesive whole? Can Zaslav embrace the need for expensive prestige television alongside the familiar Discovery fare?
In this new climate, even major tentpoles like House of the Dragon are facing an uncertain future. Like the original Game of Thrones, this prequel series is shaping up to be one of the most expensive TV productions in Hollywood history. How supportive will the new regime be of this massive undertaking? With the lines between cable and streaming blurring more and more, what metrics is WBD using to determine whether these shows are justifying their immense budgets? Should we expect a new wave of cancellations to hit HBO tentpoles like Euphoria and Our Flag Means Death?
There are already troubling signs developing as Warner Bros. Discovery begins building towards its unification of HBO Max and Discovery+ into one service. The company looks poised to slash resources for HBO Max’s animation content, that previously key franchises like Adventure Time are no longer a priority (while also casting further doubt on the future of DC shows like Young Justice and Harley Quinn). And as Discussing Film points out, this tone-deaf slide from the company’s earnings call doesn’t paint a particularly flattering picture of those in charge:
Warner Bros Discovery highlight what they think the differences are between HBO Max and Discovery+ pic.twitter.com/sKkSp8Dc6i
— DiscussingFilm (@DiscussingFilm) August 4, 2022
We’re not entirely sure what a “genredom” is, but it’s difficult to feel much optimism for the future of DC and HBO Max when “women don’t like scripted television” appears to be a guiding principle. The HBO name carries a lot of weight, but that could very quickly change if Warner Bros. Discovery loses sight of what made the network and its streaming sibling special in the first place.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.