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In all the hubbub surrounding this week’s Warner Bros. Discovery streaming updates, no one bothered to notice that we’ve been here before. This isn’t the first time that some version of the company — or at least some version of it — has killed a completed project in favor of a write-down with no regard for its creators.
Of course, it’s hard to look to the past when there’s so much to brood over in the present: Batgirl won’t come out, but the scandalous Flash somehow will; older HBO Max titles have been quietly booted from the service; Executives on the conference call expressed confidence in plans to merge two vastly different streaming services into an informal new entity that doesn’t yet have a name.
But let’s step back for a moment and recall recent history: Remember HBO Go?
Launched in the primeval streaming war era of 2010 (USA Today: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO – on your computer”), HBO Go quietly morphed into HBO Max in the summer of 2020. The internet has long since evolved: The HBO Go site redirects to HBO Max and a link to the defunct Asian version of the service appears even before the Wikipedia entry, with a quote from none other than Jon Snow announcing its fate.
The failure of HBO Go was telling on many fronts, least of which was that it competed with, rather than integrated, the popular hit HBO program. It was an experiment that dragged out several promising filmmakers just to keep their work in the same limbo that Batgirl is in now. The playing field has not been democratized, but it has been leveled: everyone is vulnerable to erasures.
Given the shock that a large studio can stamp out a massive creative endeavor, in the interests of this column’s focus on filmmaking, it’s worth noting the pattern here: Disruptive business ventures are riskiest for those who have the most to lose – these are the creative ones.
Ten years ago, when Lena Dunham’s “Girls” became a smash hit after the 26-year-old’s acclaimed “Tiny Furniture” broke out at SXSW, HBO decided to use its fledgling service to court more young, talented storytellers to to experiment with a small scale. These so-called “HBO Digitals” were the brainchild of former HBO exec Nick Hall (who now heads the creative department for A24’s TV division) and have recruited a number of promising young artists to create short-form content in the 10-15 minute range to develop (hi, Quibi!). The episodes did not go to HBO’s linear channel; They were exclusive to HBO Go and designed to attract curious viewers while nurturing new talent from within.
Some results were underwhelming, like The Boring Life of Jacqueline, which starred Sundance Award-winner Sebastián Silva and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, but never rose above the level of a lo-fi college movie. “Single Long,” a web series spin-off about Chicago hipsters, was a total dud. Produced by Zach Galifianakis, Brody Stevens: Enjoy It presented its eponymous self-destructive comedian as a single, drawn-out punch line. But Garfunkel and Oates, which starred quirky musical duo Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, boasted charming Flight of the Conchords energy in four- to six-minute bursts. All of these programs went bust, but not before I got a chance to see one in action.
In 2012, filmmaker Alex Ross Perry invited me to the set of The Traditions, his HBO Digital production, which he envisioned as an 85-minute feature film broken up into 12-15 minute chunks. Perry’s black-and-white cringe comedy The Color Wheel was a recent festival hit, making its unique blend of sarcastic humor and cinephilia an instant trademark. The jump from The Color Wheel to The Traditions wasn’t as bold as Dunham’s move from microbudget filmmaking to Girls, but it was an opportunity to experiment with studio pennies.
Perry had a good time on set directing and starring opposite Kate Lyn Shiel in an observation comedy about a young couple who moves to a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. The show—or mini-movie, if you will—consisted of passive-aggressive exchanges, improvisational chatter, and satirical asides that poked fun at the insular world of a small-town university. He drove from his home in Brooklyn to the shoot in upstate New York that day and was beaming at the opportunity.
“It’s pretty amazing not having to explain to members of my extended family or friends of friends at weddings what I do and why they might want to care,” he said. “HBO means you care when someone talks to you, and that’s pretty nice.”
Within a year, The Traditions, along with other HBO Digital projects, was wiped out before the industry had time to take notice. That’s when House of Cards took off and everyone wanted more original streaming blockbusters than shoddy sketches. Perry returned to feature films with 2014’s Sundance hit “Listen Up Philip,” continuing to expand his oeuvre of anxious character studies in the familiar feature film path.
If there is a teachable moment in these latest developments, it may be the same as before. “They looked at the cost and decided that this program doesn’t work and takes too much work to make $100,000 nothing,” Perry wrote to me this week, noting the parallel to his experience with HBO Digitals. “Odd… same story we’re hearing now, but with $100 million.”
The industry will always struggle to adapt and restart, and aspiring directors and producers should always view disruption with caution. Nobody wants to be a Hollywood lab rat. Rather than picking up the experimental scraps on the studio lot, they strive for the same opportunities that the great filmmakers already have—the familiar paths that form the backbone of the corporate ecosystem. Out-the-box deals sound exciting on paper, but they’re the most vulnerable to cold capitalism in action.
Developed under the dubious rubric of a “streaming movie” that could never survive the box office metrics, Batgirl had red flags from the start. There was no long-term future in separating quality between “streaming” and “non-streaming.” Sure, limited film supplies inspired Jean-Luc Godard to invent the jump cut for Breathless (or so they say), but the bottom bar for streaming movies delivers more sloppy storytelling than aesthetic accomplishments. That doesn’t look like a tent pole, and it’s now clear 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 strides in running our business as a team,” said David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, on this week’s conference call.
The change from risk-tolerant to risk-averse is a historical necessity. That means no more radical swings like “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” a $70 million multi-episode director’s cut made solely for streaming and to appease internet trolls. It probably made Zaslav puke if he even bothered to watch all four hours (although parts are quite entertaining and sure work a lot better than the puffy theatrical version), and this isn’t an isolated case. It’s hard to imagine Netflix greenlighting the two-and-a-half-hour Season 3 finale of Stranger Things after the recent stock market crash.
There is a silver lining; Even executives committed to the bottom line now recognize that they must produce work that bears the mark of quality according to an elusive audience metric. “It’s not about how much,” Zaslav told investors. “It’s about how good.” And the best route to that outcome requires storytelling talents who can deliver the goods.
WBD might want to take a look at Universal’s recent moves. A few months ago, I advocated more first-look deals similar to what Universal is having with Jordan Peele. These provide a basis for supporting filmmakers to continue honing their skills rather than fighting between projects, and offer studios a cost-effective investment in original intellectual property. Universal returned to that strategy by signing a five-year first look with director duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – aka Daniels – following their smashing A24 hit Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Courtesy of the Everett Collection
The Daniels, who told me earlier this year that they missed the opportunity to direct Loki for Disney+ to develop their own original multiverse project, now have a chance to enter the commercial arena on their own terms to keep growing. Chances are they’ll continue to do crazy, unclassifiable stuff that will add to their already impressive following (pressure’s on, boys!). Whatever the results, it’s a safe bet that it will be unforgettable and many people will want to see it. As WBD tries to untangle its mess of DC real estate with one hand, it might consider using the other to secure a few deals like this.
Filmmakers now want to make sure they back up their work to private hard drives: even the people who make final-cut masterpieces in the studios don’t own the end result, and they never will.
Email me with feedback on this week’s column or your own take on what this week’s news means for filmmakers trying to navigate the uncertainty of the studio system: firstname.lastname@example.org
Browse previous columns here.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/08/filmmakers-react-batgirl-cancelled-impact-hollywood-1234748692/ Filmmakers Respond to Batgirl Cancellation: Its Impact on Hollywood
Filmmakers Respond to Batgirl Cancellation: Its Impact on Hollywood – World Time Todays
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