It was the shot heard around the world – or at least in the halls of social media. This week, Warner Bros. put a bullet in the head of batgirl, canceling the film’s release as it was nearing completion. It was a decision without any real precedent. Nearly $100 million (£82 million) has already been poured into production; filming has been completed. Michael Keaton has been set to reprise the role of Batman for the first time in 30 years. Warner Bros attributed the decision to shelve it to a “strategic shift” in leadership; the pivot follows a considerable change in management in the upper echelons of the company. But what everyone actually heard, whether they knew it or not, was not a “bang” but a “pop”. For all intents and purposes, the big streaming bubble may have just burst.
The remarkable thing about batgirl, you see, it wasn’t that it was denied a theatrical release. Unfortunately, that’s the case all too often with movies now, even high-budget ones. If you’re worried that something is going to flop, go straight to streaming. (During the height of the pandemic, when the failure of theatrical releases was a certainty, direct-to-streaming or hybrid releases were particularly rampant — movies from Wonder Woman 1984 for Dune for The Matrix Resurrections all released immediately on streaming in the US). The thing is, Warner Bros. presumably decided there was more profit to be made from the tax write-offs that would result from abandoning the project altogether than there would be from dumping it on its HBO Max streaming service. And they are not wrong.
Did streaming really make any sense? I don’t mean technology, of course – the sheer convenience of watching movies and TV series over the internet means that most people will never accept returning to a world of physical heavy media. But financially, streaming has always been based on vibrations alone. It never made commercial sense for Netflix to release movies that would easily release $100 million in theaters directly on streaming – throwing away millions in hard cash in exchange for the nebulous allure of “brand building” and “streaming exclusivity”. You can’t build an entire business around exponential subscriber growth; eventually, as we saw earlier this year, you will simply run out of new customers.
The fact that Netflix has begun to pave the way for a new ad-supported subscriber level suggests that the company is having doubts about the sustainability of its business model. Advertising-supported TV has been the best and most profitable way to monetize home programming for nearly a century. Streaming has never been able to usurp this in the long run, any more than paid cable subscriptions in the late 20th century. With cinema, the most profitable way to distribute a film has been to give it a theatrical release; the dream scenario might see companies make billions from a movie that cost just a few hundred thousand to make and promote. Moving a feature to “direct to DVD” or “direct to video” was typically a sign that a studio had given up on its financial prospects. “Straight-to-streaming” doesn’t share the stigma of its physical media predecessors, but it’s hardly more useful for recouping an investment.
But going back to batgirl. The DC Comics adaptation was far from the only casualty of the senior management reshuffle at Warner Bros. Scooby! Festive Haunt – a sequel to the dark prequel to Scooby Doo Scooby! – was canceled at the same time, despite already being mostly animated. Several TV series have also been taken down by HBO Max in recent weeks – including created by wolves, Close enough, made for loveand Chronicles of Gordita. Variety noted that six HBO Max-exclusive original films – including Anne Hathaway’s remake of The witches and the Seth Rogen vehicle an american pickle — had been quietly removed over the past six weeks, something almost unheard of in the streaming world. The report suggested that the move could be designed to escape payment obligations for underperforming bonds, or carried out for tax purposes, as is intended with batgirl.
Perversely, those of us rooting for the survival of the “movie experience” might take heart from the fact that Warner Bros. is clearly prioritizing the very real financial potential of theatrical releases over the rise of the streaming brand. It could be a long time before the rest of the industry follows. But cancel projects like batgirl it’s not the way to go. You can’t help but feel for the cast, crew, directors – some of whom made heartbreaking statements after learning of the cancellation – and even the fans.
Ultimately, movie studios are opposed to artists. They are at the mercy of shareholders and board members – people who, ultimately, will inevitably follow the money. When there’s more profit in aborting a $90 million project than there is in streaming it, it’s clear that there’s something pretty rotten with the entire business model. Streaming as we know it will have to adapt or die – and soon.