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Why wouldn’t Warner Bros. just release Batgirl on HBO Max?

Cancellation is a sign of Hollywood turning its back on direct-to-streaming movies

Leslie Grace in costume as Batgirl in the now-canceled movie Image: Warner Bros.
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

The film world has reacted in shock to Warner Bros.’ decision to shelve its Batgirl movie, despite the film being in post-production and largely complete. Such moves are rare, and it seems inconceivable that any business would choose to just throw away a project that had cost a reported $90 million, no matter how bad it might be. In the past, it’s been more common for troubled projects to be quietly released on streaming or home video formats than for them never to see the light of day.

Why would Warner Bros. not choose to recoup some of its investment and just release the film on its streaming platform, HBO Max? In fact, Batgirl was originally conceived as an HBO Max streaming exclusive, and this was part of the reason for its downfall.

The New York Post, in its original scoop, presented the decision as one motivated solely by quality. In sensational terms, the movie was called “unspeakable,” “irredeemable,” and a “DC disaster” that would severely damage the brand. But further reporting suggests this is inaccurate, or at least an oversimplification.

Batgirl was directed by the well-regarded duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who made the hit 2020 action sequel Bad Boys for Life and were the lead directors on Ms. Marvel for Disney Plus. The cast featured In the Heights star Leslie Grace as well as the heavyweight acting trio of J.K. Simmons, Michael Keaton, and Brendan Fraser. Deadline reported that the film tested with audiences and the result “wasn’t that bad,” despite unfinished effects.

Variety’s sources agreed that the decision was not about the film’s quality. Instead they linked it to a strategic move at the newly merged Warner Bros. Discovery organization, led by new CEO David Zaslav, to ensure all DC movies are theatrical releases “at blockbuster scale.” Batgirl’s budget, though far from tiny, had been set with a streaming release in mind and would not have matched the scale of planned DC releases such as Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and The Flash.

Zaslav is said to be seeking an executive to oversee a newly centralized DC film division — to essentially play the role Kevin Feige does at Marvel Studios. In the meantime, the studio considered promoting Batgirl to a theatrical release, according to Puck, but it seems this idea fell out of favor.

Even a desire to reform the chaotic management of DC properties at Warner Bros. can’t quite account for the decision to can the film outright, however. The extremity of this move might be explained by two further factors: a quirk of accounting, and a philosophical shift within Hollywood.

The Deadline report, and a further follow-up by Variety, point the finger at studio accountants. Variety said the bean-counters decided a tax write-down was the most financially sound way to recoup the film’s costs, while Deadline reported that that the opportunity to write off the film’s losses was a temporary by-product of Warner Bros.’ merger with Discovery, and the window would close on such accounting maneuvers in mid-August. That would account for the suddenness, and the unusual nature, of the decision.

But the move also seems powered by an antipathy to streaming as the be-all and end-all of Hollywood entertainment that extends beyond mere DC brand management. Zaslav has openly disowned his predecessor Jason Kilar’s decision to release all Warner Bros. films, including Dune and The Matrix Resurrections, day-and-date on HBO Max during the pandemic. Kilar was aiming to boost HBO Max subscriber numbers, and his strategy worked, but the long-term value of those subscribers versus box office receipts is now being called into question.

Hollywood executives and Wall Street investors alike have noticed that streaming market leader Netflix’s focus on subscriber growth above all else looks shaky as soon as that growth stops. Meanwhile, Paramount proved the wisdom of sitting on Top Gun: Maverick for two years, despite having its own streaming service in Paramount Plus, when that film cleaned up at the box office to the tune of $1.3 billion.

Movie theaters clearly aren’t dead yet. Indeed, many within Hollywood are concluding that a theatrical release confers status on a streaming service when it arrives there; The Batman is said to have performed extremely well on HBO Max after making Warner Bros. $770 million in theaters. As Deadline puts it: “Companies have come around to philosophies espoused by the likes of Sony’s Tom Rothman and Universal’s Donna Langley, that films gain cultural relevance when they first debut in theaters with an appreciable theatrical spend. When they appear on streaming sites 45 days or so later, they are prized because they have cultural relevance.”

Viewing habits may have changed over the last few years, but money talks, and it’s clear that films can still make money in theaters as well as deliver subscriber growth. Direct-to-streaming movies are no longer in fashion. Batgirl’s cancellation may be a matter of accounting expediency, but it’s also a symbolic move that is surely not lost on investors and industry-watchers. This is Hollywood saying it won’t play that game anymore.