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Save "Coyote Versus Acme," or See American Cinema Blow Up

Wile, we hardly knew you: "Coyote Versus Acme" is about to fall down a cliff. / Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Wile, we hardly knew you: "Coyote Versus Acme" is about to fall down a cliff. / Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

2023 should have been a blessed year for Samy Burch. The Hollywood veteran has been working as a Casting Director since 2013 while directing shorts and writing scripts on the side. This was the year when her career would jump to the next level. Todd Haynes’ movie of her “May December” script - cowritten with Alex Mechanic - opened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was snatched by Netflix for $11 million. The movie peppered many critic groups' Best of the Year lists. Burch managed to snatch the sole Oscar nomination for the contentious movie inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal. In my book, it is the Best American Movie of 2023. And I don't care what the Oscars say!

With the Art House safely in her pocket, Burch was ready to take the box office, too. Her first solo feature screenplay, “Coyote versus Acme,” was riding on high expectations at Warner Brothers. Word of mouth was positive for the animation & live-action hybrid. The movie was based on Ian Frazier’s comic essay, published on the February 26, 1990 edition. The long-time staff writer at The New Yorker wrote it as a Court of Justice record of a case brought by the beleaguered desert animal against Acme company for all the faulty equipment that contributed to derailing his never-ending hunt for the Road Runner. Anybody familiar with the classic cartoon could bring supportive testimony, with so many bombs, rockets, and devices that blew on his face and caused major bodily harm. Do read it. It might be the closest you will ever get to see the movie.

Wile E. Coyote and Will Forte get their day in court in "Coyote Versus Acme" / Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Wile E. Coyote and Will Forte get their day in court in "Coyote Versus Acme" / Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Don’t let the highfalutin source confuse you. The film adaptation was conceived as a piece of popular entertainment, with John Cena and SNL’s veteran Will Forte in starring roles, alternating with Willie E. Coyote and other classic Looney Tunes characters. Mixing humans with animated characters has been a popular conceit in Hollywood since before Gene Kelly danced with Jerry the Mouse in "Anchors Aweigh" (George Sidney, Hanna & Barbera, 1945). Two years have passed since “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” (Malcolm D. Lee, 2021). The underwhelming, belated sequel to “Space Jam” (Joe Pytka, 1996) switched Michael Jordan for LeBron James, but the update was not enough to entice audiences. The movie barely recouped its $150 million budget, amassing a bit over $163 million worldwide. I have no tears for them. Combining NBA athletes and Loony Tunes characters was a cash grab to begin with. Still, WB had great hopes for “Coyote Versus Acme.” Cena is a box-office draw, and the competitive release date of July 21, 2023, was reserved for it smack dab in the middle of the Summer season.

This is where Burch’s winning streak derails. In April 2022, Warner's parent company, AT&T, merged with Discovery Inc., growing into a multimedia mammoth under the leadership of CEO David Zaslav. Every switch of the guard tends to leave orphaned projects in the production pipeline. Those green-lit by the displaced bosses whiter in the vine or get underwhelming releases. It’s not uncommon to find limited theatrical releases, diminished promo budgets, or downright dumping to home video. An executive more in tune with cheap, ready-for-basic-cable reality TV, Zaslav turned out to be a game-changer for all the wrong reasons. He didn’t diminish the exhibition of a movie. He downright killed it. 

The David Zaslav Movie Massacre Begins

Consider the sad case of “Batgirl.” Very soon after taking the reigns of WB-Discovery, Zaslav nixed the superhero movie directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilal El Fallah. The two had proved their caped-crusaders bona fides with the well-received TV series “Ms. Marvel.” Actress Leslie Grace, fresh off the well-reviewed musical adaptation “In the Heights” (Jon M. Chu, 2021), seemed like a “get.” The cast was rounded up by J.K. Simmons, Brendan Fraser, and Michael Keaton returning to the Batman role. In April 2023, Zaslav killed the baby in the crib. The movie was scrapped before a final edit was locked, with some FX work pending. In Zaslav’s strategy, it was better to declare a complete loss of the $90 million budget instead of taking chances at the box office. In order for the movie to be accepted as a tax write-off, it could not be commercially distributed. The biggest courtesy awarded to the cast and crew was a screening of the unfinished cut before the suits hit “delete” on the DCP file.

Hollywood lore is rife with shelved movies and projects that dissipate due to creative differences, conflicting schedules, and suddenly spooked financiers. Zaslav’s disheartening innovation is that the movie is pretty much finished. Most of the creative work was done, and audience anticipation has been whipped up. All for naught. In November 2023, news of a similar fate in store for “Coyote versus Acme” arrived. The online uproar of critics and movie fans seemed to grant it a second lease on life. Warner-Discovery agreed to offer it to other studios willing to take it off their hands. Big names like Netflix and Paramount circled around, but this was a game with marked cards. No offer was seriously considered. In full pillager mode, Warned demanded up to $80 million or kill the movie for a $40 million tax write-off. More than interest to save the movie, the move reeks of unchecked avarice. Check out Drew Taylor’s detailed reporting on the story, published in The Wrap.

Invisible hero: Leslie Grace starred in the never-to-be-released "Batgirl" / Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Invisible hero: Leslie Grace starred in the never-to-be-released "Batgirl" / Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Granted, both “Batgirl” and “Coyote Versus Acme” were green-lit as straight-to-streaming movies for HBO-Max - now just Max, killing HBO was another Zaslav flourish -. In the past, this was a lesser station for movies. In the foggy months of the shutdown, it seemed like theatrical distribution would not survive COVID-19. Maybe, just maybe, straight-to-streaming would be upgraded in the post-pandemic world. But it didn’t happen. Movies intentionally green-lit for cable were overnight turned into casualties of the new-found interest in the theatrical experience. The irony is rich, considering expensive super-productions like “The Flash” (Andy Muschietti, 2023) died at the box office. “Batgirl” flew away largely unchecked. We only have a promo still of Grace in costume, hinting at a colorful design more in line with the late ‘60s TV series than darkened XXI-Century Batman. At least, there have been some screenings of “Coyote Versus Acme,” and the word of mouth was strong. Just don’t ask Zaslav. According to many reports, he has not even watched the movie he is so eager to erase forever. Will the current uproar change the movie’s fortune? Unlikely.

The history of cinema is full of lost movies. The early silent films were largely considered disposable and not quite recognized as an art form worth preserving. Flammable material made them prone to ignite and go in smoke. As the industry moved to more stable celluloid, natural or man-made disasters could extinguish it. In the heyday of the Late XX Century Art House, Harvey Weinstein could buy a movie and shelve it forever, out of spite towards talent or other distributors, or just to protect an eventual remake that maybe never happened. Unfortunate and sad events, but never such a wanton and wilfully act of total extinction, like Zaslav write-off for dollars. Low budget movies may lack the resources of studio-funded film production, but they are looking mighty attractive in light of these recent events. Totally indie movies come with the ultimate perk: the right to exist.

A Brave New Future of Disappearing Movies

Welcome to the Age of the Executive as an All-Powerful Gatekeeper, creatives! Like the honey badger in the classic viral video, he doesn’t give a f*** if you killed yourself doing a movie. Your time, inspiration, and artistry are only worth the amount of dollars the studio spent. Artists and audiences be dammed. At heart lies the question of ownership of artistic work. Because yes, even if “Batgirl” and “Coyote Versus Acme” come from the most commercial impulses of American cinema, they are artistic products. By now, we all have reconciled those two concepts, “art” and “product.” Money-men like Zaslav have not. It has always been and always will be a product.

It’s unlikely that Zaslav will change his mind before the end of the quarter. He won’t get any blowback if he goes forward with the killing of “Coyote Versus Acme.” Stockholders care about their investment first, not necessarily the artistic value of the things their company peddles. Besides, there is another Looney Tunes movie down the pipeline. How artists will react is a whole different game. If other companies jump into the modus operandi, it will become common practice, and no one will be safe. There is a recent precedent of an artist walking off a studio lot when he does not feel his work respected. After a long and fruitful collaboration with Warner Bros., Christopher Nolan went to Universal for “Oppenheimer.” With the adult biographical drama as the second biggest box-office hit of 2022 and the most Oscar nominations, there’s egg on the face of the guys who told Nolan “no.” A-list directors and stars can gamble on their names and push Warner and other studios to abandon this terrible practice. They work into their contract clauses that protect the finished product from annihilation. Will they do it? They should. If not, one day, their movies might be the ones going up in smoke, like those bombs Acme sold poor Willie E. Coyote.

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