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Warner Bros. Discovery New Bosses Gut Original Programing And Remove Content From Services

In a series of surprising and somewhat confusing moves, new leadership at Warner Bros. Discovery are gutting original programing across platforms and removing content from the new HBO Max streaming service. Most scripted content is cancelled at TNT, TBS, and HBO Max, while a number of existing films and series were deleted from HBO Max — including original content released on HBO Max months ago, as well as HBO cable service content that featured on the new service but which is now M.I.A. Here are some thoughts on what it means and how it could all shake out.

This is my assessment and reaction to recent news concerning WBD, HBO Max, and their plans for the future. Much remains unknown, much remains to be seen, but for now we’ve seen and heard enough to have some initial thoughts about what it means and where it will lead.

Yesterday, WBD leadership announced that HBO Max and Discovery+ will wind up merged into a single streaming entity next year, with a goal of raising their subscriber rate from its current 92 million level to 130 million by 2025. The studio also stated a commitment to reducing expenses, increasing spending on productions, maintaining and growing streaming content, and focusing on theatrical release ahead of streaming.

Once again, the studio will try to stop and restart their DCEU plans mid-stream, with a 10-year plan to get overseers who can deliver Marvel-like planning and success, similar to the two previous aborted efforts over the past decade. This time is expected to have a different outcome, but we’ll have to wait to see what the plan actually is before we judge its odds of success. And someone has to be hired to come up with the plan.

What we know for sure is they’re putting the breaks on current DC plans and want to remake the DCEU somehow. They even suggested they might make additional changes to next year’s DCEU tentpoles The Flash, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and Black Adam. That would be a big spend for artistic changes dictated for corporate purposes, the sort of rethinking and tinkering that sank Batman v Superman and Justice League, starting the whole problem for Warner and the DCEU in the first place.

This all comes on the heels of word earlier this week that WBD decided to just shelve some branded IP films including Batgirl because they can use it as a tax write-off (which they believe is worth more money than a branded superhero movie featuring Batman). Word is the studio likes the film and everyone involved, but felt it wasn’t big-budget enough to release theatrically, and they are determined not to release big branded IP on streaming where the lower budgets don’t achieve the level of cinematic spectacle WBD’s new leadership thinks is necessary for DC properties.

It’s odd to see WBD cancel Batgirl and insist it’s not worth putting more money into boosting the visuals and promoting it, but then suggest they’re open to spending more money to make additional changes to The Flash and commit to its theatrical release despite a much larger ballooning budget and constant new reports and accusations regarding lead Ezra Miller.

Warner Bros. Discovery has DC Comics, Harry Potter and the “Wizarding World,” The Matrix, Mad Max, Looney Tunes, Hanna Barbera, The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, Game of Thrones, the “Monsterverse,” and a lot of other major brands and franchises. Marshaling their investments and licensing to maximize development of theatrical projects for the studio’s biggest IP, if done right, would fill out their annual slate for multiplexes and theoretically generate massive revenue streams.

Streaming output would be relegated to HBO original programming and Discovery+ programming, combined on a single streaming platform starting next year (because if there was one thing Warner needed in addition to everything else, it’s going through the building and launching a new streaming service again), with all of Warner’s major IP reserved for big-budget theatrical investments, leaving the streaming/TV side of things to Discovery and HBO.

However, this could push aside original content and mid-range/low budgeted projects at Warner, while reducing funding for original content on streaming. It could also prioritize profit margins and merchandising considerations over things like artistic vision, working relationships, and whether filmmakers can be confident their work will ever be seen by an audience rather than be deemed more valuable as a tax write-off.

It also ignores certain realities — such as a global plague with no end in sight that frequently disrupts theatrical performance, and the fact streaming is the dominant form of content consumption by audiences (which is why, for example, most other studios are trying to create successful streaming platforms) — which could hinder a theatrical-focused approach that restrains the streaming services.

It risks all of WBD’s big branded IP being held hostage to public health and international markets (some of which, like China, are closing to Hollywood), while other studios get extra years to increase their lead in streaming or catch up and pass HBO Max just as the latter was getting praise as one of the best streamers.

It’s also hard not to also point out that executive meddling in creative decisions rarely goes well, and one glaring example of this danger is the potential fallout for Matt Reeves’ recently minted Batman reboot. Ten years after Christopher Nolan ended his Dark Knight Trilogy, we are finally back at the spot so many people felt we should’ve remained in the first place, with the equivalent of a reset to the end of Nolan’s Batman and a spiritual successor that picks up roughly where we might’ve expected the story to go after The Dark Knight (but before the finality of The Dark Knight Rises).

So Warner finally has a chance to get back to that moment and make the choice to keep it alive, so to speak. Instead, we might see Reeves’ plans upended, his streaming spinoffs cancelled or shelved, his intentions subject to corporate tinkering to turn it into something different. Whether Reeves would agree or not, we don’t yet know, but he’d be fully within his rights to walk away, even if that would break many fans’ hearts (mine included).

If that’s what happens, if the studio ruins their shot at an ongoing idealized Batman franchise because of corporate inability to recognize their own limitations and defer to artists with precisely the creative vision needed right now, then I’ll throw up my hands and lose faith in whatever plans the studio has. And at that point, I’ll just wait for whichever next set of owners and leadership arrive to reset things yet again.

So the Batman series is a canary in the coal mine, so to speak. Watch it closely.

It’s hard to do much with the claims that WBD will somehow manage to increase spending, produce more films and streaming shows, focus on theatrical, grow streaming by 50% over two years, and control costs, all while making everything better quality and more financially successful. And for WBD, that starts with cancelling most scripted programming and most projects in development for most of the big branded IP, while removing shows and movies from the streaming service that they intend to fold into another service and then revert it back to its cable station origins.

This is a common approach by new owners of practically any company — slash spending and expenses, put everything from the previous leadership on hold, combine services, sell off what you can, and make sweeping optimistic statements about reigning in costs yet also spending money on better things for windfall profits.

It looks and sounds like positioning for acquisition by a bigger entity down the road, to be blunt. So is this all really just about streamlining WBD into a branded IP machine that can either be bought as is by an Amazon or Apple, or broken up into parts and sold off to the highest bidders for HBO, DC, Warner, Discovery, and so on?

Whichever is most efficient and makes the most money, that’s what will happen. And it will surely happen regardless of whether current leadership’s plans all come to fruition and/or work as intended. If WBD manages to rebuild their DC properties into a unified whole that achieves Marvel-level success, and develops other franchise IP to a similar degree of success, then box office dominance at that level alongside a streamlined and more efficient cable/streaming services could indeed be a tremendous longterm victory.

But what it takes to get there, and the risks if any part of the plan fails along the way, are significant costs that might wind up too high a price to pay. Worst of all, though, it might all have been unnecessary.

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