Nobody took the time to mention that weve been here before in all of the streaming buzz around Warner Bros. Discoverys this week. This isnt the first time a version of the company or at least a version of it has been deactivated for the sake of a write-off without regard for its creators.
When there is to be pondered in the present, it's difficult to look back at the past: Batgirl wont be released, but the scandal-ridden Flash somehow will; older HBO Max titles have been quietly removed from the service; executives expressed confidence in plans to merge two vastly different streaming services into an amorphous new entity that has yet to be named.
Let's take a moment to think about some recent history: Remember HBO Go?
In the summer of 2020, HBO Go was quietly transformed into HBO Max, and a Wikipedia entry mentions the service's defunct Asian version.
The failure of HBO Go was instructive on many levels, the least of which being that it failed to match popular HBO programming rather than integrate it. It was an experiment that strung several promising filmmakers only to lock them in the same limbo as Batgirl now finds themselves. The playing field hasnt been democratized, but it has been leveled.
For the sake of this column's focus on filmmaking, it's worth noting the pattern here: Disruptive business enterprises are riskier for those who have the most to lose, that's the creatives.
Lena Dunhams Girls became a smash hit after the 26-year-olds acclaimed Tiny Furniture left the show at SXSW, and HBO decided to use its growing service to attract more young, creative storytellers to experiment on a small scale (hi, Quibi!). The series were created by former HBO executive Nick Hall, who now directs HBO's TV division.
The Boring Life of Jacqueline, a Sundance-winning director and cinematographer extraordinaire Jody Lee Lipes, was a total flop. Garfunkel and Oates, a quirky musical duo of Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, drew the attention of the Conchords in four-to-six-minute bursts.
The Color Wheel, Perry's black-and-white cringe comedy, was a recent festival sensation that transformed his unique blend of sarcastic humor and cinephilia into an instant brand. Though Dunham's transition from micro-budget filmmaking to Girls was a good opportunity to experiment on the studio dime.
Perry had a great time on set, directing and acting opposite Kate Lyn Shiel in an observational comedy about a young couple who relocates to a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. The show, or mini-movie, if you will, was all passive-aggressive exchanges, improvisatory chatter, and satirical asides that poked fun with the small-town university's insular world. Driving to the shoot that day from his home in Brooklyn,
I think it's nice to finally not have to explain to members of my extended family or friends-of-friends at weddings what I do and why they should maybe care about it, according to the speaker. HBO means you care when someone speaks to you, and that's quite nice.
Perry returned to feature filmmaking with the 2014 Sundance award Listen Up Philip, after the tradition of feature-length films was wiped out.
If there is a teachable moment in these latest developments, it might be the same one that happened before. Perry texted me this week, referencing the similarity with his HBO Digitals experience.
The industry will always be scrambled to adapt and rebuild, and newcomers should always assess change with care. Rather than discarding experimental scraps on the studio lot, aim for the same opportunities the major filmmakers have already, which form the backbone of the corporate ecosystem. Outside the box is a cautionary tale, but it is especially vulnerable to cold capitalism in action.
Batgirl, born under the ambiguous assumption that it would never be able to maintain its theatrical success, had red flags from the start. Sure, limited film stock inspired Jean-Luc Godard to invent the Breathless jump cut, but the lower standard for streaming movies produces poor artistic output, and it's clear now that WBD leadership wants to develop films and TV shows that all feel like part of the same equation. We are stronger together and will make significant improvements in operating our business as a team, Warner Bros
The shift from risk-averse to risk-averse is a historic event. No more profound swings like Zack Snyder's Justice League, a $70 million-dollar multi-episode director's cut designed exclusively for streaming, and to placate internet trolls. Zaslav would have laughed if he even took the time to watch all four hours (although parts are quite enjoyable) and this isnt an isolated incident.
All of this has a silver lining: even those who aren't interested in the bottom-line now realize they need to produce work that, by some elusive audience metric, bears the hallmark of quality. It's not about how much, Zaslav told investors. It's about how good. And the best route toward that goal requires storytelling talent that can produce the goods.
WBD may want to investigate Universals recent moves. A few months ago, I advocated for more first-look agreements similar to the one that Universal maintains with Jordan Peele. These provide a foundation for filmmakers to continue honing their skills rather than struggling between projects, while also providing studios with a cost-effective investment in original IP. In the wake of their stunning A24 film Everything All at Once, Universal has again turned to that strategy.
Courtesy Everett Collection
The Daniels, who told me earlier this year that they would not be able to direct Loki for Disney+ to develop their own original multiverse project, have the opportunity to continue to grow in the commercial arena on their own terms. (Plain pressure on, ladies!) Whatever the outcome, it's a safe bet that many people will want to see it.
Filmmakers are eager to start backing up their work on private hard drives: Even those who create final-cut masterpieces at the studios do not own the final product, and they never will.
Please send me your thoughts or suggestions about what this week's information implies for filmmakers attempting to navigate the studio system at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Explore previous columns here.