The bust-out of Warner Bros.

Industrial-scale film distribution dates back to before World War I. In the bad old days with no way to transmit information digitally, movies had to be physically carried from Southern California outward, a supply chain that wound its way across the developed world, staying at every town as long as tickets were selling, always taking around two years to reach the end of the line in New Zealand, where they were to be burned. As Tarantino fans will know, film stock in those days was flammable enough that it was dangerous to store, and there was a meaningful amount of silver in the reels, so the economic thing to do was just burn it somewhere safe and pocket the silver.

In their infancy, movies weren’t a centralizing cultural force or a revolutionary means of artistic expression, they were just picture shows. At best, they were cheap, mechanized stageplays. Burning them out for as much cash as they were worth wasn’t just something you did at the end of the line, it was the entire point. Marshall McLuhan wouldn’t coin the phrase “The medium is the message” until 1964, but back in the ‘20s, the medium was still very much the message, and that medium was always meant to be burned off for scrap metal.

Fortunately, that’s not always what happened. Many New Zealand exhibitors recognized the historical value of what they’d been told to destroy, so they built specialized museums and preserved as much as they could. Film preservation remains a part of New Zealand’s national identity to this day. Archivists are working against the clock right now to restore and transfer as much film to digital media as they can before it deteriorates.

Thanks to their work, we still have a lot of windows into that period of time, but not everything. The Library of Congress estimates that 75% of silent-era films and about half of talkies made before 1950 are gone forever.

Images courtesy Warner Bros.

It was a big night March 3, 2022 when Paul and I went to see The Batman at the AMC Clearview Palace 12 in Metaire, Louisiana, a run-down theater that couldn’t afford a single poster for its main attraction perched on top of a mall that’s a veritable ghost town early on a Thursday afternoon. After a muddy 2021 filled with day-and-date releases, especially from Warner Bros., but pushed into optimism by the outrageous success of Spider-Man: No Way Home that stretched into January, this was going to be the first normal post-pandemic blockbuster. Spider-Man broke the dam, and this was the water that would come through.

It was also a huge moment for Warner Bros. specifically. After several years of tying to match Marvel beat-for-beat with their competing superhero properties and failing at every turn, they were rebooting their biggest comic book character outside the DCEU continuity, a step that tacitly acknowledged the failure of the only shared-continuity franchise that might once have compared to Disney’s eight-headed culture monster. By the time the DCEU got rolling, Disney had already moved to announcing its movies in massive slates of “phases” leading up to the next big crossover movie, and a lot of what we know about the scope and pettiness of Warner Bros.’ ambition – and the scale of its failure – comes from when they tried to make similar announcements too, trying to posture their series as already the MCU’s equal.

Their 2016 and 2017 slates of films, Aquaman and Shazam! released on schedule, but 60% is a very poor showing. The biggest of missing movies is The Flash, announced for March 23, 2018, which has gone through four directors and six writers and is reportedly finally complete and scheduled for next March, six years to the day late, and could still get canceled entirely if star Ezra Miller can’t hold it together. Justice League was horribly received and there will only be a sequel if director/producer Zack Snyder’s fans are abusive enough to force another production, and seemingly no attempt has been made at shooting the stand-alone Cyborg or Green Lantern movies.

This is also the studio’s first exclusive theatrical release since September 2020’s Tenet, a film helmed by a director, Christopher Nolan, still famous for his Batman movies from a decade ago and starring the new Batman actor, Robert Pattinson, after the studio had decided without telling anyone that all of its 2021 films would release day-and-date on its streaming platform, HBOmax, a move that alienated a lot of the studio’s talent, especially Nolan.

We pre-purchased nice back-and-center seats in their big, chunky IMAX house, and the place fills up, great crowd for such a toilet, and a theater never looks that bad once you’re in the dark. There’s a considerable buzz in the room despite a lack of pre-trailer material, so there’s a tangible confusion when the lights go down and this blasts onto the screen-

Starting with and heavily leaning on footage from the movie we were all so excited to see, there’s a real alarm in the moment, but we appear to have been treated to a trailer for DC as a concept, and, well, here we are again.

This trailer announces four movies, one of which we’re about to see, but for the rest of them, this is their first public footage, and this is 2022, when movies can have completed footage and still be a long way from finished. Even as Warner Bros. is selling continuity and stability, the organizational problems are right there on the screen – they didn’t have this thing completed until less than a month before The Batman’s release, and the other projects they’re promising for this calendar year are so far from done they don’t even have trailers yet. Black Adam, which had already been pushed back from December 2021, would be pushed back from July 2022 to next week to give animators more time to finish it. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has been pushed all the way back to Christmas 2023, and the less said about The Flash the better.

This trailer for Black Adam would eventually drop June 8-

Well. Here we are again.

Black Adam sets itself up as yet another retread of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the widely hated icon of the DCEU as it’s existed to this point advertising many of the same plot points and cuing viewers to prepare for many of the same problems. In the trailer, Black Adam is directly addressed as being able to choose between “the destroyer of this world or its savior,” reflecting Superman’s mopey, out-of-character ennui in Batman v. Superman – “You don’t owe this world a thing” – as well as an open debate about whether or not heroes kill, both of which are big parts of why the series has been so poorly received so far. The line is also repeated almost verbatim from April’s Morbius, of all things.

In a series littered with instances of desperate creators aping the MCU, the very series it desperately wants to stand in contrast against, when they can’t figure out what else might work, well, here we are again. As Batman v. Superman agonized to backfill members of the Justice League as a way to catch up to Marvel and legitimize the series, Black Adam is advertising its introduction of the Justice… Society! a totally different organization that also happens to be a rich mine for potential future solo movies, if audiences are interested, and the members of the Justice… Society! all appear to be direct rip-offs of second-tier MCU characters.

The trailer is narrated by Pierce Brosnan as Doctor… Fate! who appears to use many of the same powers and even the same special effects as the MCU’s Doctor Strange. It also heavily features Hawkman, a black superhero with wings who is framed almost identically to the MCU’s Falcon, and has a couple shots of Atom Smasher doing Ant-Man’s giant-size gimmick. It’s worth noting that Cyclone, a member of the Society who does not appear to have a direct MCU counterpart, is barely shown. Also, Black Adam is framed flying between two fighter jets trying to take him down in a direct visual quote of the first Iron Man, which feels like a coincidence, but is so in line that it may not be.

The operative word here is “appear.” Doctor Fate is 23 years older than Doctor Strange and Hawkman is 29 years older than Falcon in terms of first comic appearances, but that’s not how it looks to a mainstream viewer, and that’s not how it’s meant to look. Modeling these characters after established-if-minor MCU heroes is a deliberate choice. Warner Bros. is asserting with its Black Adam trailer the same thing it asserted with its “The world needs heroes” video, the same thing it announced with its unrealized slate of films from 2015 – it’s announcing stability, continuity, potential for growth. It displays characters who look like painted-over characters from the MCU because it aspires to be a painted-over version of the MCU, if not in tone than in success and cultural dominance, but increasingly, yes, also in tone.  

It’s announcing, both of these trailers are announcing, that the days of canceled and long-delayed DCEU projects are over.

WarnerMedia, the parent company of HBO, CNN and Warner Bros., announced a merger with Discovery in June 2021 under the leadership of David Zaslav, Discovery’s CEO since 2006, who has since been on a cost-cutting mission that skipped right past ruthless and straight to needlessly cruel, first making headlines by shuttering the CNN+ streaming service April 28, less than a month after its March 29 debut. CNN had invested $100 million in the platform, planned exclusive content and hired hundreds of employees specifically for it. Much of this programming may be integrated into a combined streaming platform with HBO, Warner Bros. and Discovery materials sometime in 2023, but a lot of people need to make a lot of rent before that happens.

Zaslov followed this up with a purge of in-progress projects slated for distribution on HBOmax, some of which were almost completed, many of which were completed – 36 titles, including several HBOmax originals that had never played in theaters or on any other platform, were cut from the service in order to avoid paying any more money to their creators via residuals. Investment in the canceled projects was then reportedly presented as a tax write down, meaning they cannot be released anywhere for profit without paying those taxes back. From Zaslov’s position, you bring the inherited material in the front door and dump it out the back. Whatever initial investment the old boss made doesn’t matter. It’s all profit.

The center of this announcement is Batgirl, which, at a $90 million budget, is one of the largest canceled projects in cinematic history. The film was reportedly a gender-bent adaptation of beloved turn-of-the-century cartoon “Batman Beyond,” in which a new caped crusader is mentored by an older Bruce Wayne, with Michael Keaton reprising his role from the ‘90s Tim Burton films, something fans have been asking for from a Batman adaptation for years. Directors Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi claim that, in line with the intent to write the film off on tax documentation, Warner Bros. Discovery has deleted all footage for the project. 

In 2022, the new boss doesn’t just think a funnypicture that’s seen its time in the sun needs to be burned instead of stored, he thinks film is inherently worth less than the silver it’s printed on, so he’s going to go ahead and burn it all now. Finally, when there’s nothing left, when you can’t borrow another buck from the bank or buy another case of booze, you bust the joint out. You light a match.

The days of a film reel’s two-year adventure from Hollywood to New Zealand are long gone, and theories about how best to make money with visual media are changing rapidly in the 21st century. In the streaming era, Hollywood accounting is murkier than ever. Merchandising, social media buzz, the sale of streaming rights and streaming platform’s own algorithms all factor into a film’s bottom line. Everything’s on credit, so the longstanding truth is that return on any individual investment doesn’t matter nearly as much as the guarantee that audiences will keep spending, a reality that streaming both obscures and promotes from underlying truism to direct business model.

Disney+ and Apple TV+ launched in November 2019 just before the pandemic, and the streaming wars entered their trench phase, with media giants like HBO and Disney bringing their catalogues to the model and unrelated but large companies like Amazon and Apple throwing their hats in as well, essentially betting that they can beat Netflix at their own game with better business sense and deeper pockets. The lines are solid, and it will now take months of fighting, outdoing the opponents over multiple consecutive quarterly reports, to make inches of progress.

As they wound up, as Netflix harbingered several problems that streaming could introduce to the filmmaking process if it became the primary method of distribution, it seemed like this would ultimately be good for consumers and filmmakers. The amount of available content could only increase. Productions have gotten harder and paid out less, but Hollywood unions are strong, and there could only be more opportunity for new filmmakers. There might be more crap to sift through, but there will be more diamonds for consumers to find as well.

Now, that’s no longer the case. In this ultra-competitive environment, in which several companies are in a cutthroat battle to find the best way to extract money from visual media, Warner Bros. Discovery has found a way to make money by not releasing it, to make more, or what the company perceives as more, by producing less.

According to HBO’s data, I’m one of almost 10 million people who’ve been enjoying “House of the Dragon,” the “Game of Thrones” prequel series that premiered in September. That’s rare for me, I usually wait for television shows to finish their runs if I decide to watch them at all, but I love Matt Smith and I love Paddy Consadine and I think the wigs are perfectly fine.

Maybe when they cancel that for the tax write-off, it’ll finally be enough.

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1 Response to The bust-out of Warner Bros.

  1. Pingback: Chaotic, unwatchable ‘Black Adam’ finally launches onto screen, already burned out behind it | Reel Entropy

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