Beware of Franchise Envy, Warner Brothers
The forever search for the next Kevin Feige-type only leads to disappointment and more mediocrity.
When the news broke Tuesday that Warner Brothers Discovery had cancelled the Batgirl film after its completion and scheduled release on HBO Max later this year. The film, starring Leslie Grace and directed by Bilal Fallah and Adil El Arbi was going to be the first HBOMax original film.
But, per Warner Discovery CEO David Zaslav, it did not meet the quality of other theatrical releases Shazaam 2, Aquaman 2, Black Adam and The Flash.
I’m sure it has nothing to do with the $57B debt that the company has to climb out of after the acquisition of Warner Brothers.
With that in mind, the reason that the theatrical films are moving forward is clear: Aquaman was a complete success financially so it would be crazy not to release the sequel. Black Adam has Dwayne Johnson who can bring in the audience and has been willing to PR the hell out of it. Shazaam, while performing moderately at the box office, was well-received critically and is tied to Black Adam. And The Flash is the gateway to a reset. Batgirl had no such cushion of support and could not even boast to be the only film to see Michael Keaton as Batman again (Keaton will appear in The Flash).
Batgirl was not the only completed project that got the rug pulled out from under them across WarnerMedia. Zaslov actually started with TBS and TNT shows early July. Chad, a series on TBS starring Nasim Pedrad had its completed season 2 premiere delayed and then the release was pulled altogether. And it was not a “quality” issue (the first season was well received by critics and ranked as 2021’s #1 new scripted cable comedy series). The reality series Big D, which had also completed production and set to premiere was also pulled (another series that is expected to be a tax right off). For Chad, WarnerBros seems to be actively looking for a new home for it but all of this comes down to one thing: capital. Capital to pull the company out of the enormous debt from mergers and begin to get into the black (Zaslov has millions of personal compensation at stake to raise the stock price).
Which brings us back to Batgirl and DC because, despite the quality over quantity talk it comes down to one thing: Making theatrical releases that can either hit $1B or get as close to it as possible, then get as much money for premium video on demand (PVOD), THEN make its way to the streaming service. Batgirl going straight to HBO Max would have done little to help the bottom line of the company and so that, as well as Scoob!: Holiday Haunt which was also a HBO Max exclusive, were shelved for tax rights-offs.
And Zaslav did not feel that Batgirl would bring in the audiences theatrically (which could have something to do with quality but quality as we know doesn’t necessarily correlate to box office). If it did, objectively, Shazaam would be one of the highest grossing DC films.
It is why Joker 2 is happening (getting announced a day after the news of Batgirl dropped), being the other recent DC film to hit $1B. And, most importantly, it is why Zaslov hired Alan Horn as a consultant and is reportedly seeking advice from Bob Iger.
“We’ve structured the business. There will be a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC. It’s very similar to the structure that Alan Horne and Bob Iger put together very effectively with Kevin Feige at Disney. We think we could build a long-term, much more sustainable growth business out of DC, and as part of that, we’re going to focus on quality.”
Ah, a tried and failed approach will be attempted again but with Alan Horn (who WB already forced into retirement before Iger brought him on at Disney). But there are a few reasons why this approach, and the framing of it, is pure bullshit.
While Zaslav has Alan Horn on the payroll, and might even be talking to Bob Iger, there is one important figure in the success of the MCU that is missing: Kevin. F*CKING. Feige. People can take the piss out of Marvel and Feige all they want but Feige took C-list Marvel characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America and built a multi-billion dollar empire that has become the most financially successful franchise in history. Yes, Marvel had Disney’s resource, but it was Kevin Feige and his team that planned, picked the projects, the creative talent involved, and new when to get out of the way. That last one is important. Because Zaslav has already inserted himself into what will get seen across WarnerMedia, will he be able to allow his Feige-light, whenever they are chosen, to have the kind of autonomy the Marvel head was ultimately given by Horn and Iger? Will this person even be able to get the necessary talent to create a successful roadmap or has the company burned too many bridges to recover?
“And as we look at the opportunities that we have, broadly, DC is one of the top of the list for us. We — when you look at Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, these are brands that are known everywhere in the world, the ability to drive those all over the world with great story is a big opportunity for us.”
Zaslav doesn’t really care about quality, he cares about the quantity of revenue. And having a good film helps this certainly but it is about the IP and the characters that will likely bring in the quantity of people to the theaters, and the quantity of purchases on PVOD. And that, in his mind, is Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and now to a certain extent Aquaman (remember that film is the ONLY DCEU film to hit 1B). We will see the fate of BlueBeetle and other films that have been announced but this is the main focus for DC moving forward: How much they can milk from their A-list characters while trying to create new ones. And the MCU has done this well, without their A-list (which they now have the rights to some with X-Men and Fantastic Four).
If successful, the same thing will just happen over at DC that is happening at Marvel: A continuous output of films and other content, some which will be good, great even, but others that will be mediocre. Star Wars has used parts of the Marvel formula even though Star Wars canon has always been connected. There is now the MandoVerse of series that take place around the same time as The Mandalorian (The Book of Boba Fett, Ahsoka, and the upcoming The Skeleton Crew). For Disney, it helps that the value of these shows come from merchandise and theme park opportunities, not just subscriptions. I suspect that a lot of attention will be given to The Wizarding World down the line once wounds are licked from the Fantastic Beast franchise failure.
But The Wizarding World could benefit from a reset and has nothing to loose now. If Warner Brothers Discovery manages to get quality films and the revenue over the course of ten years, they become another MCU (a content factory that, while feeding into a bigger story, is oversaturating the space). If they are not successful, it won’t be considered anything other than a failure for Zaslav. And maybe all those upcoming DC films are good enough to help bring Warner Brothers Discovery Inc. out of the financial hole.
If not, I guess there is always The 90 Day Fiancé Universe to catch him if he falls.