Scoob! sequel and more scrapped amid money woes
Warner Bros. Discovery canceled HBO Max’s Batgirl and removed at least six other HBO Max Original streaming movies from the HBO Max platform in an effort to save billions of dollars of debt, according to multiple reports.
The news comes as WBD plans to announce its second-quarter earnings in a conference call Aug. 4 after markets close.
Rumors swirled that layoffs are coming at HBO Max, and other reporting implies WBD plans to axe more HBO Original shows from the service.
There are a lot of threads to follow here, so let’s break down what’s happening and why.
Batgirl, starring In The Heights’ Leslie Grace as Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, was supposed to be a part of Warner Bros.’ big push to make more shows and movies exclusively for HBO Max. Bad Boys for Life and Ms. Marvel duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah directed the film.
The film reportedly cost $90 million – more than the initially planned $75 million due to COVID, but still relatively cheap for a superhero film. (Justice League cost north of $300 million.) It also had J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Jim Gordon, Michael Keaton returning as Batman and Brendan Fraser as villain Firefly. El Arbi and Fallah recently enjoyed smash hits with Bad Boys For Life, one of the few box-office success stories of 2020, and the recent Disney+ release of Ms. Marvel. Batgirl had all the elements of a surefire hit, regardless of how it was released.
And then Warner Bros. unceremoniously canned it, saying the film wasn’t big enough to be a blockbuster in theaters. It won’t appear on any platform.
El Arbi and Fallah released a statement on Instagram Aug. 3 about the cancellation, saying in part: “We are saddened and shocked by the news. We still can’t believe it … we wish that fans all over the world would have had the opportunity to see and embrace the final film themselves. Maybe one day they will insha’Allah.”
Grace also expressed her sadness at the news.
“On the heels of the recent news about our movie Batgirl, I am proud of the love, hard work and intention all of our incredible cast and tireless crew put into this film over 7 months in Scotland,” she posted Aug. 3 on Instagram.
Obviously, this news dominated Film Twitter. Speculation that WBD would also get rid of what actually makes HBO Max great — its TCM, Criterion, Studio Ghibli sections and selections of older films — also took over Twitter.
Many speculated that Warner killed Batgirl because it featured a woman of color in the main role, but multiple outlets report that the real reason is much simpler. It’s all about the money.
Tax write-offs and content
In 2021, then-WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar’s strategy to ship all of Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate as day-and-date releases in theaters and HBO Max built the streamer’s subscriber base, but irked a lot of filmmakers and studio heads. The move was a COVID play to get more people to go back to theaters and also subscribe to HBO Max, where viewers could watch everything from Wonder Woman 1984 to Dune to the Matrix Resurrections from their couch.
Kilar also had a plan to release $70-million-budget original live-action and animated films exclusively for HBO Max, called HBO Max Originals.
Then came the merger.
When Discovery merged with WarnerMedia in April, creating Warner Bros. Discovery, the common expectation was that HBO Max and Discovery+ would also merge into one service. That appears to be what’s happening, as new WBD CEO David Zaslav seems to be doing everything he can to reverse what Kilar did. This means committing to releasing films theatrically. If Zaslav and company don’t think it’s worth it to fund, promote and release something like Batgirl, which they say won’t do “blockbuster” numbers at the box office, Batgirl gets slashed.
Batgirl is not the only loss in this maneuver. Scoob! Holiday Haunt, a sequel to Scoob! that the filmmakers say was basically finished, was also canceled, as well as CNN+, an early casualty of the merger. WBD has also been quietly removing some HBO Max Originals from the service that they say didn’t perform well. Eagle-eyed viewers noticed at least six removals so far, with more to come: Moonshot, Superintelligence, the 2020 remake of The Witches, An American Pickle, Locked Down and Charm City Kings. LeBron James’ remake of House Party, scheduled for a July 2022 release, was also scrubbed from the calendar.
All of these cancellations are a way to ease the debt WBD took on during the merger — $3 billion, according to Deadline. The fully merged WBD had a debt-to-equity ratio of around 4.6x after the deal, according to Variety. Since Batgirl, Scoob! and House Party are unreleased, WBD could be looking at using those as tax write-downs. Why it’s getting rid of already-made and distributed movies is a little more fuzzy.
No physical media
Where can fans watch the movies that are leaving HBO Max? Good question. Most are available through third-party video-on-demand services. But they’re harder to find on DVD or Blu-Ray, if they get a physical release at all. Most streaming services don’t release films or TV shows to physical media, even if they’re hits. There still is no DVD set for Stranger Things Season 3, and the only reason The Irishman has a Blu-Ray is because Criterion Collection distributed it.
There is no preservation of film on streamers, just content meant to serve a bottom line. But, as one Twitter user points out, if this doesn’t work, just wait a few years for the streaming tides to turn again.