Editor’s Note: A Daily staffer is affiliated with Warner Bros., but they were not involved in the creation, production or publication of this piece.
On April 8, 2022, 153 days before the British Queen Regnant Elizabeth II’s death, AT&T’s WarnerMedia and Discovery combined and became Warner Bros. Discovery. As a consequence of the merger, Warner Bros. Discovery arranged a marriage between its streaming counterparts HBO Max — the illustrious home of Matt Smith’s rear filmed in cinematic 2:1 aspect ratio — and Discovery Plus, a ruthless unscripted cable TV swamp. However, the company shake-up has been dogged by controversy, internal leaks and disappointing cancellations. In an absurdly short period of time, the media company cornered its contracted artists into considering pirating their own work and became the latest battleground in a larger conversation regarding artists, ownership of art and corporatism.
No, all is not well with Warner Bros. Discovery.
Newly instated CEO David Zaslav cut his TV executive teeth on unscripted reality television like “90 Day Fiancé” and had a meteoric rise, uniting his much smaller Discovery Group with the gigantic WarnerMedia. Perhaps conscious of his unscripted reality TV pedigree, Zaslav initially attempted to create a narrative of himself as pro-artist and pro-creative. His recent profile in the Wall Street Journal includes quotes from Zaslav’s corporate peers testifying to his financial sensibility and support for artists. The exclusion of artists working with HBO Max and Discovery Plus alludes to Zaslav’s priorities. Namely: a $55 billion debt Zaslav inherited after the company merger.
In an opening salvo to defray the debt, Zaslav laid off 14% of company staff, the majority being HBO alums. That decision led to former executives accusing Zaslav of being anti-diversity, given the composition of the company’s leadership and the demographic of employees fired. But the round of layoffs was only one prong of many myopic cost-saving changes.
August 2022 was an emotionally crushing period for staff and creative teams working at Warner Bros. Discovery. Without any notice or communication, Zaslav began axing programming, secretly removing content from streaming services and deleting social media posts.
Most prominent among those revenue-driven decisions is the shelving of HBO’s nearly finished $90 million dollar Batgirl film. Variety reports that Zaslav did not believe the film would recoup production and advertising costs and made an unprecedented decision to bury the movie to claim a tax break. Effectively, if a company declares that it will stop profiting off of a piece of media, it can claim a tax break for its associated costs. To clarify, HBO had already invested roughly $90 million into a nearly complete product; fans and actors were excited about its release. Warner Bros. Discovery is not soft-releasing its product or sending it straight to streaming to save on advertising. Like a horrible remix of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” HBO has a fully filmed, exciting project that they’re burying alive.
Unless we are very, very lucky, “Batgirl,” starring Leslie Grace (“In the Heights”), will never see the light of day.
Batgirl’s directors, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, found out about their cancellation through the news cycle. In vain, they tried to pirate their own movie as a keepsake of the film. But the directors were circumvented and were locked out of the film’s servers. In what would become a pattern, El Arbi and Fallah released a video over Instagram Reels detailing their sense of betrayal and the scope of Warner Bros. Discovery’s lack of communication. At the end of the video, they encourage fans to watch their upcoming film “Rebel” to imagine what their “Batgirl” could have been.
But “Batgirl” is only one example of many. Overnight, fans found that their favorite shows vanished from HBO Max’s catalog and were unavailable elsewhere. Cartoon programming was unceremoniously shelved, causing a sharp outcry from fans. Animators from visually stunning and narratively ambitious projects in development, like “Driftwood” and “Bye Bye Bunny: A Looney Tunes Musical” were held in suspense for days, uncertain if their projects would move forward. Those animators are now looking for work.
To further the confusion, content related to the removed cartoon programming was deleted from HBOMax, Cartoon Network, HBOMax and Cartoon Network’s Twitter and YouTube accounts. Julia Pott, the creator of the popular cartoon “Summer Island Camp,” has a Twitter page eerily absent of prior statements and posts. She retweeted a post from Cartoon Network a week prior to the media purge, and now her retweet nestles in a gray box that says the content is no longer available. Fans are crowd-sourcing piracy links and taking stock of what was deleted.
Amidst the chaos, Pott took to Twitter to express her frustration and explain the situation to panicked fans. Similarly, Owen Dennis, the creator of “Infinity Train,” lauded for its innovative soundtrack and animation, updated fans in his Substack newsletter. In his letter, he notes that the disapproval is not limited to the creative teams and fans blindsided by the scrubbing. Dennis writes that “Cartoon Network warned (the company) not to do this as it would hurt relationships with creators and talent, but they clearly do not care what any of this looks like publicly, much less about how we feel about it.”
Quite aptly, John Oliver, host of an HBO talk show, commented during one of his television segments that “I do get the vague sense that (Warner Bros. Discovery is) burning down my network for the insurance money.”
And Oliver got it exactly right. At the heart of the bizarre, convoluted and ongoing story that is the WarnerMedia and Discovery Group merger is a financial policy that prioritizes marginal financial gains over arts and culture.
The mildest outrage involved in the merger is the leaked, sexist diagram from the company’s quarterly meeting where the company outlined the benefits of the HBO Max/Discovery Plus betrothal. According to them, HBO attracts male-oriented “fandom” while Discovery attracts female “genredom” — a term as bland as it is condescending and inaccurate. But the corporation’s sexist material reveals the scope of its ignorance. HBO as a streaming service has a responsibility to more entities than big-budget “House of the Dragon” and the “Harry Potter” movie collection. Warner Bros. Discovery made a miscalculation when it started burning bridges. In approaching TV shows and movies like sinking and rising stocks, the newly conjoined company bumbled onto an existential landmine.
Can corporations be responsible stewards of art and popular culture?
The response as of September 2022 is a resounding “no” from creatives and consumers.
“What is the point of making something, spending years working on it, putting in nights and weekends doing their terrible notes, losing sleep and not seeing our families, if it’s just going to be taken away and shot in the backyard? It’s so incredibly discouraging, and they’re definitely not going to be getting their best work out of whoever decides to stay. We’re working at the intersection of art and commerce, but the people in charge have clearly forgotten that they’ll have no commerce without the art,” writes Dennis in his Aug. 20 Substack letter.
From Zaslav’s Financial Times profile published in May, a peer offers a now haunting commentary on Zaslav’s Warner Bros. Discovery merger leadership: “a load of people in Hollywood are in shock that someone who is as gauche as (Zaslav) gets to run away with the crown jewels.”
Rest in Peace to all the Warner Bros. Discovery programs canceled or removed.
Daily Arts Writer Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.