Head of Warner Bros. Discovery David Zaslav dumps the nearly-completed $90-million movie “Batgirl” that was destined for HBO Max. Zaslav scrapped the performance of Leslie Grace, who would have been the first Latina to play this titular role. The film was budgeted at $75 million, but pandemic-related delays pushed the cost up. Kim Masters and Matt Belloni, founding partner of Puck News, discuss what Zaslav’s move means for the company’s future.
Zaslav “really shocked the town”
Kim: Can you remember a studio saying we're going to take the write down on this nearly-completed film because we're not doing this anymore.
Matt: I can remember films that have been unreleasable, or have kind of languished in legal limbo or whatever. But the difference here is that this is not just a major studio movie, this is based on the most valuable IP – DC Comics.
This was coming after “The Flash” movie that is coming out in March [and] was continuing the story of that movie. It was part of the strategy to have these continuing sagas just like Marvel does. And this is a pretty stunning move, and especially since they said, “We're doing this for tax purposes.” No creator wants to hear, “You put your heart and soul into a movie, but we think we can get a tax benefit by just not releasing it.”
Kim: This is a change of philosophy from Jason Kilar, who was previously running what was then Warner Media. He didn't care about theatricals. He made [it] very clear by putting all the 2021 movies on the HBO Max platform, to the shock of Hollywood. He was this guy who thought, “Everything can stream.”
David Zaslav is seeing this differently. The movies for HBO Max are going to be cheaper, and he's not spending that kind of money. This movie was simply not good enough to justify the expense of a theatrical release. And, if I were management at DC right now, I would be nervous because this seems like a very harsh judgment.
“Batgirl” - made for streaming
Kim: My colleagues at the Hollywood Reporter are reporting that this movie isn't very good.
Matt: I spoke to someone who saw the test screening and said it was very TV. It played like a TV pilot. Stakes were very low. The effects and action sequences were pretty minimal. [It] wasn't terrible, it was just not very good and not very theatrical. And that was by design. It was supposed to be for streaming, but they had this $90-million price tag attached to it, and in the Zaslav era, you just can't do that.
They have $3 billion to cut that they have promised to save at this company, and an easy way to do it is to just eliminate a big expense here.
A perception problem
Kim: Some of this is creating a perception problem, because this was the first Latina going to be fronting this movie. They cut the “Gordita Chronicles.” Some people who are being affected by this are people of color, or people who are in need of more representation.
Not enhancing the DC brand
Kim: However, he is a bottom line guy, David Zaslav, and you could argue that they truly felt that [“Batgirl”] was mediocre, it doesn't enhance the DC brand, which has been struggling to establish itself as a competitor to Marvel.
Matt: And Zaslav sees DC as a theatrical brand. He wants these movies to be able to play big in theaters like the Marvel movies do, and then they will have a separate, mostly television strategy for the streaming service.
“Batgirl” was in “no man’s land”
Matt: [“Batgirl”] was in the middle. It was in this no man's land. It was too expensive for streaming, it was not big or good enough for theatrical, and it's not a television series. So where do you put it? Nowhere.
Kim: It is obviously just crushing for the talent. Making a movie is hard – and the two directors were celebrating one of them getting married – and to find this out, it's just absolutely devastating.
I'm sure other creators are nervous. It'll be a challenge for Zaslav and his team to make it clear to the creative community that they will treat people with respect.