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The Ultimate Power Move: the Killing of Batgirl

Can DC Comics ever catch a break? A few days after the trailer for Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever almost broke the internet, the entertainment news cycle brims with reports that Warner Brothers is shelving Batgirla 90-million dollar film directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the duo behind the Will Smith vehicle Bad Boys For Life (2020) and the recent series Ms. Marvel. Leslie Grace took on the lead role, fresh off the critical success of In The Heights (Jon M. Chu, 2021). J.K. Simmons and Brendan Fraser signed up for supporting roles. Somehow, they roped in Michael Keaton to appear as Bruce Wayne, 30 years after his last foray into the bat cave in Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992). It is a casting coup to make fanboys dream.

As confusing as it could be to have three active Batmen on duty, I would love to see that, and I pretty much had it with superhero movies. Robert Pattinson just took on the role under the orders of director Matt Reeves, and Ben Affleck will reprise the role in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, which will premiere in 2023. Keaton fans are in luck. He will appear as Wayne in The Flash, which also credits Ben Affleck - I guess a multiverse situation is in the cards. The movie will be released in June next year if the ever-evolving Ezra Miller melt-down does not doom the project.

But I digress. Batgirl will not even be available on the streaming platform HBOMax. The actual state of the project is unclear. According to IMDB, the movie is still in post-production, but The New York Post reported disastrous test screenings. In a recent Instagram post, the directors say the film was far from finished. A similar fate is in store for Scoob: Holiday Haunt, a sequel to the surprise streaming hit Scoob (Tony Cervone, 2020), which rebooted the classic Hanna-Barbera characters for a new generation. Both movies were green-lighted as a strategy to produce original content aiming to bring new subscribers to the streamer. Theatrical distribution was not in the plan. And now, they will not be seen at all, anywhere.

Rarely a high-profile movie is killed off for being bad. The usual M.O. is this: studios hide it from critics, adjust the number of screens, and open it crossing fingers, hoping they can recoup their investment before negative word-of-mouth spreads. International box-office and licensing also factor in. Furthermore, superhero action movies and animated movies for kids are the bread and butter of the industry. They are surprisingly resistant to bad reviews. At 90 million dollars, Batgirl is on the lower end of super budgets. It is not hard to see it earning that back. 

Here is the official story: Warner wants to concentrate on theatrical features, and these two titles are streaming exclusives. I do not see how dropping two finished movies on the streaming platform hinders theatrical distribution, but it is a gamble Warned Brothers is not willing to take. According to many analysts, the studio could be aiming to register the two productions as tax write-offs. By claiming they are losses, they get a tax deduction. And to do so, they cannot monetize the products in any way. That means no streaming, no video rentals, and no selling it to another company that would release it.

As dramatic as it is, the fall of Batgirl and Scoob 2 falls in line with a long Hollywood tradition: movies that become orphans under a change of guards. When a studio head passes the reins, the projects left in the production pipeline tend to suffer. The new honcho needs to sell stuff he might not have green-lighted him or herself. When the whole company is sold or merged with another, the same phenomenon happens on a massive scale. When Disney absorbed 20th Century Fox, high-profile movies like Deep Water (Adrian Lyne, 2022), an erotic thriller starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, were sent straight to Hulu. The same destiny awaits Prey (Dan Tratchenberg, 2022). The surprise prequel to the 80s franchise Predator met with enthusiastic advanced reviews. Most of them ask, why is this movie not premiering in theaters? Why, indeed.

You can blame these changes on the rise of streaming as a way to access movies and how the pandemic powered it up. Studios and media conglomerates struggle to develop this relatively new market without chipping at theatrical distribution. The unceremonious killing of Batgirl happens within the context of a change of guard. Warner Media and Discovery Plus recently completed a merger. Drastic pruning is a go-to move in the playbook of CEO David Zaslav. Without blinking, he killed off CNN+. The streaming service would strengthen the footprint of the news brand to the tune of 500 million dollars spent on developing an app and hiring top-tier personnel. The project would spend 1 billion dollars within the next four years. To discard a couple of movies totaling 130 million dollars seems like an easy decision. The talent and the fans get burned, but the balance sheet survives.

Looking beyond the drama, we can see this is the 21st-century manifestation of a hallowed Hollywood tradition. Shelving movies is practically a pastime in Hollywood. In the heyday of Miramax, maligned honcho Harvey Weinstein was famous for shelving movies indefinitely. Maybe it was a movie he bought to spite the competition. Or a foreign film bought to be remade, and the stars never aligned for it to happen. For whatever reason, intriguing titles would languish in a vault for months or years, losing whatever momentum they had in the first place. Perhaps the most high-profile victim was Les Amants du Pont Neuf. The romantic drama by visionary director Leos Carax starring Juliette Binoche premiered at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. It was the most expensive French film to date. Weinstein kept it on the shelf for eight years. American audiences finally saw Lovers on the Bridge in 1999, in a limited release.  

If we can learn anything from the Batgirl and Scoob 2 fiasco is this: the only way you can protect your creative work is if you own it. His Purple Majesty, Prince, showed us the way when he broke off with Warner Music and eventually won ownership of his master tapes. Granted, this is easier said than done if you work in an expensive medium such as film. If your vision fits a human scale and you are lucky, you might keep things indie all the way to theatrical exhibition. If your creative inspiration leads you to big spectacle, superheroes, and intellectual property owned by conglomerates - no shame in that - your fate will end up in the hands of the suits. 

Owning your movie gives you the ultimate power move: to shelve it. Take the case of The Day the Clown Cried. Jerry Lewis directed and starred in this legendary film maudit. He plays a clown trapped in a nazi concentration camp, recruited to lead the children into the gas chambers. He hated the finished product so much that he decided no one would see it. If somebody must kill your movie, let it be you.    

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