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Friday, May 24, 2024

The Impending Demise of HBO Max, the Best Streaming Service

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Maybe Batgirl was always cursed. Joss Whedon abandoned the movie in 2018, a year after he took the helm, saying he “really didn’t have a story.” Soon thereafter, Birds of Prey writer Christina Hodson signed on to pen a script. Then, finally, in 2021, Bad Boys for Life filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah took over directing and the movie finally went into production with In the Heights star Leslie Grace playing Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. Then, this week, Warner Bros. canned it.

Make no mistake, this was a multi-million-dollar movie, already fully shot and in postproduction, that the studio won’t even be sending straight to streaming. It was already intended as an HBO Max movie, not a theatrical release. Now, instead of debuting in either format—or in a hybrid release like the studio did with all of its movies last year—Batgirl will just … never see the light of day. Per the New York Post, one of the first outlets to report the movie’s demise on Tuesday, audiences at test screenings didn’t take to the film, and it was “irredeemable.” In an Instagram post, El Arbi and Fallah said they were “saddened and shocked by the news.” The duo added that it was critical to them that audiences see their work, and “maybe one day they will insha’Allah.”

Shortly after the news dropped, folks found out Batgirl was likely a casualty of the $43 billion Warner Bros.-Discovery merger, which closed in April. And it may not be the only one. After a year spent beefing up the content on HBO Max—and turning it into one of the best, most Emmy-nominated streaming services in the process—the newly formed outfit seems intent on taking a blowtorch to it. CEO David Zaslav is known as a cost-cutter, and as news of Batgirl’s demise spread, so did word that burying the film would allow the studio to take a tax write-down to recoup some of its production costs. So did word that the company wanted to focus on theatrical releases in the future—not HBO Max exclusives. As the week wore on, eagle-eyed fans noticed that other Max Originals, like Moonshot and The Witches disappeared from the platform.

On Thursday, during a quarterly earnings call with investors, Warner Bros. Discovery announced that, in summer 2023, it would be merging HBO Max and Discovery+ into one streaming service. Zaslav also spoke of wanting to emphasize quality over quantity in terms of programming, with a big emphasis on theatrical releases. 

A new focus on theatrical might thrill directors like Denis Villeneuve, but it doesn’t negate the fact that HBO Max has an extensive, impressive catalog of offerings big and small. Put more bluntly, it’s established itself as the streaming home of Crap You Love. If there is one thing that is ironic, if not baffling, about the shelving of Batgirl, it’s that Warner Bros.—the studio that pumped 70 million more dollars into Justice League to release the Snyder cut—somehow decided this was a movie not worth releasing. Zaslav said in his remarks that the company is putting new focus on making its DC films better, but up until now, they haven't all been hits. Having a more cohesive slate of DC movies is a worthy goal, but it seems unwise to offload something to save money when it could engender fan goodwill. Would everyone have loved Batgirl? Who knows, but HBO Max is full of a lot of things some people downright hate but that also have very loyal, ardent viewers. Unlike Netflix, which seemingly prides itself on what my colleague Jason Parham rightly calls Just OK TV, Max stands out by taking big swings on stuff that at least doesn’t look like it was made by an algorithm. Sometimes it’s a Sex and the City reboot, sometimes it’s Succession; sometimes it’s dumb, sometimes it’s Dune.

These comments also seem rich coming in conjunction with the announcement of the merger of HBO Max and Discovery+ into one streaming service. Whereas HBO Max has prestige TV and Crap You Love, Discovery+ practically invented the latter. The company all but admitted this in its quarterly presentation when it said that HBO Max is “appointment” viewing and Discovery+ is “comfort” viewing. If the company really wants to focus on making nothing but hits, does that mean it'll cull a portion of its same-y HGTV home-improvement shows (which I love, mind you)? Probably not, because the return on investment is higher. But HBO Max racked up some serious subscriber numbers thanks to putting real money behind smaller shows like Hacks and Max Originals now the institution that brought you Shark Week seems to be transforming it into something else. It feels like a move out of the Kabletown playbook, right down to the newfound interest in FBOY Island.

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It’s kind of a shame. After a somewhat underwhelming presentation at Comic-Con last month, the Batgirl news feels like the most free promo a DC movie has gotten in a long time. Unfortunately, it was the bad kind of buzz, the buzz that makes it look like the new Warner Bros. Discovery won’t care so much about the films and shows it makes—just their bottom line. Yes, all studios want to profit, but shelving content for tax benefits shows a grave misunderstanding of the company’s audience. Warner has released a lot of crap that lost money—every studio has—but they still released it. And some people are still attached to that crap. Barbara Gordon deserves the same shot the Joker got. Batgirl for life. Or not.

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