Friday Night Dinners: What’s Going On With Warner Brothers?

You know, it’s funny. A few months ago I started working on a massive, multi-part look at the implosion of Netflix. While writing it, I thought to myself, “Man, there’s just no way any studio bungles everything so badly like this ever again.” Turns out, I was wrong. Over the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed a series of shocking, unprecedented decisions coming out of the newly formed Warner Brothers Discovery, the merged corporation at the head of Warner Bros. and Discovery Inc., home of Food Network, HGTV, and Animal Planet.

There have been lots of rumors floating around, ranging from “bad” to “cataclysmic.” The best-case scenario makes it look like Jack Donaghy wandered onto the set of Succession and successfully pitched the Roys on his crazy schemes. But I want to take a step back, remove the legal jargon, and answer the key questions surrounding this mess: what’s happened, who’s responsible, what they say is going to happen, and only then can we discuss the lasting ramifications.

What Happened?

Batgirl and Scoob

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact day when it was clear something major was happening over at Warner Brothers Discovery. Technically speaking, the evidence goes back a few months – and we’ll get to all that – but if there’s a specific moment people realized something wasn’t right, it was around August 2nd, when WB Discovery announced they were canceling the upcoming Batgirl and Scoob! Holiday Haunt films.

Obviously, these announcements hurt for a lot of reasons – Batgirl was supposed to be the big break for actress Leslie Grace, not to mention the first big comeback of Michael Keaton as Batman. But while the announcement stung, it wasn’t until a series of details that just didn’t make a whole lotta sense began coming out that things went off the rails. Specifically, the fact that both films were completed, meaning that not releasing them (with costs upwards of $90 million) was more costly than just releasing them outright – especially since it costs nothing to release these films on their streaming service, where people are already paying for content.

Initially, WB Discovery brushed things off by telling the New York Post (no, I’m not linking to that smut) that it was “solely based on test screenings.” Fair enough. But then the testers revealed that the “unwatchable” Batgirl was ranging in the 60s – around the same as the $700 million hit It, and just a few points behind The Flash – a film Discovery confirmed was their guiding star going forward, despite starring literal psychopath and wanted fugitive Ezra Miller.

It then came out that the films were scrapped not because they were bad, but because CEO David Zaslav (don’t worry, we’ll get to him) found out he could get a $20 million tax write-off by scrapping the films (never mind that their individual budgets were $90 million…). And when people were angered by the news that art was getting sidelined for a literal tax break, Zaslav rushed out the news that Joker 2 would be in theaters in 2024. You know, because those are the same audiences.

Scorched Earth

As the dust began to settle over the Batgirl news, a few eagle-eyed sleuths began noticing a recent trend in WB programming. You see, over the last few months, a series of heavy hitters and niche favorites had found themselves suddenly and surprisingly canceled. The largest name here was Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, which was no longer the heavy hitter it once was, but certainly wasn’t a ratings flop by any means. Meanwhile, young shows trying to build a niche audience like TBS’ Chad, HBO Max’s Close Enough, Adult Swim’s Three Busy Debras, and one of my personal favorite shows, Joe Pera Talks with You, had all gotten the axe, to the blindside of the creators.

Meanwhile, while this was being uncovered, other Internet sleuths began noticing that several HBO Max original films – which can only be seen on the service, and cost nothing now that they’re out there – were removed from the service. When prompted, Discovery claimed that it was only “low performing HBO Max programs,” but it was soon discovered that this, too, was a lie, and several HBO Originals had disappeared as well.

To date, these titles include Robert ZemeckisThe Witches, Melissa McCarthy’sMoonshot, Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle, Anne Hathaway’s Locked Down, Sundance darling Charm City Kings and Moonshot, a teen rom-com released two months ago. The HBO titles include Martin Scorsese’s Vinyl, Jennifer Garner’s Camping, and the beloved Mrs. Fletcher. It was a shocking rebuke of Max’s mission statement: to provide a little bit of everything to everyone, where it will be readily available. And it also served as a sobering reminder that digital media is nowhere near as safe or secure as physical media.

Now, here’s where things get tricky. Several pundits seeking to capitalize on the chaos began to leak false information, either knowingly or naively. I’m talking, of course, about Grace Randolph, the infamous hack. Many of the more insane stories surrounding this deal came from her – specifically, that HBO Max would be shut down altogether, the entire staff would be laid off, and that a select few hit HBO and Warner Brothers properties would become a singular tab on the Discovery+ website.

As legitimate news began to emerge that Discovery would be shutting down more films in the days to come, it became harder to delineate fact from fiction. However, while many of the more extreme stories turned out to be true, there was enough legitimate evidence to fear for the worst: that a corporate raid had been executed, with Discovery looking to strip Warner Brothers for parts, profit off its most popular properties, and leave the legendary studio’s carcass to rot.

Who’s Responsible?

So, who’s the Kendall Roy at the head of all this nonsense? Well, let’s take a quick moment to meet David Zaslav, the new CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery and the clear villain of this story.

Formerly the CEO of Discovery, Inc., Zaslav made a name for himself by famously coming into corporations, stripping them for parts, and leaving a string of laid-off overworked employees in his wake. It’s what he did when he first came into Discovery, and it’s what he famously did to Scripps Networks in 2018, offering them a “merger,” slowly stripping them for parts, and then after eliminating the partners altogether, rebranding the deal as an “acquisition.” Had we paid attention at the time, it would have been clear that Zaslav was about to be a thorn in WB’s side.

Shortly after taking over, Zaslav made a series of decisions both strategically and needlessly hurtful. In his first few weeks, he ended incentives for diverse hiring, claiming he would “hire the best people for the job, regardless of gender.” He then proceeded to fire his Warner Bros. counterpart, Ann Sarnoff, and left her position unfilled, per the Wall Street Journal.

With no one from the WB side of things to check his power, Zaslav proceeded to create new positions to fulfill Sarnoff’s job, hiring 13 of his close friends – all of them white men, and leaving no one to check Zaslav’s power. While firing Sarnoff is the only relevant piece of information to the swindle, it’s worth noting that over 90% of those eliminated and canceled films and shows were created by or starred women.

All of this, however, sounds like your typical corporate scumbag – every company’s got one, so why should this matter? Well, it’s not so much who Zaslav is as much as what Zaslav does. Zaslav has a much-storied history of hating and eliminating scripted content. His entire M.O is focused on the now, with no concern for word of mouth, legacy, or any semblance of audience interest. If there’s not a clear chart or algorithm explaining the path forward (as if all humans operate by the same logical thinking), then there’s no point in making it.

This certainly explains Zaslav’s idiotic thinking surrounding those test screenings of Batgirl, but it goes deeper than that. One of the most chilling anecdotes I found in researching this piece involved a meeting shortly after the Discovery merger took place. The story comes from the Wall Street Journal and Indiewire. According to corporate minutes, Zaslav angrily asked WB executives why they were spending so much money on Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho. Westerns historically didn’t do very well, and “Eastwood’s not a star anymore,” so there was no economic upside.

WB executives carefully explained that Eastwood had a track record of making hit films, as well as winning them Oscars. With such a legendary career loyal to the studio, they felt inclined to fund his relatively-cheap passion project, as repayment for the goodwill. Zaslav responded, “It’s not show friends. It’s show business.” When no one responded, he clarified that it was a quote from Jerry Maguire – a line uttered by Jay Mohr’s Bob Sugar, the villain of the film. It’s a moment that sums up Zaslav perfectly: an unaware assh*le who doesn’t realize he’s the villain of the story, and puts his faith only in stats, not people. Cry Macho, for what it’s worth, was a modest hit by pandemic standards.

Yet the result here is abundantly clear: Zaslav’s only interest is in unscripted programming, and he considers both scripted works and art a waste of resources. I’m sure you can see the inherent flaw here, and its inevitable conclusion. If you’re only interested in the bottom line of a project, and you only look at charts and graphs to judge trends, then the only way forward is with unscripted programming. It’s far less to throw a camera on some hick with a hammer or some Kardashian than to pay writers, directors, actors, and beyond.

The Shareholders’ Meeting And Beyond

After three days of rumors and gossip and chaos, things finally culminated in the Quarterly Shareholders Meeting, where Warner Bros. Discovery had to explain their decisions and their actions to the shareholders. And while they hired the best writers and the best lawyers to make everything sound smart, cool, and commanding, anyone capable of reading between the lines could tell that everything was a series of lies, half-truths, and poorly-made decisions – in no particular order.

Starting with the positives, Zaslav and his team did their best to dispel the myths surrounding the changes. As could be expected, most of Randolph’s more extreme bits of “breaking news” were, at best, exaggerations, if not outright made up. HBO Max currently isn’t going anywhere (at least not entirely), and at the time, it was claimed that layoffs wouldn’t occur (more on this in a minute). Most of their updates had to do with moving away from buying movies and shows exclusively for HBO Max, and focusing on prioritizing theatrical releases – both of which make sense, although they created at least twelve graphs to make sure of this. However, it is here that the logical choices seem to plateau, if not freefall entirely.

Zaslav kicked things off with a defense of why he’s been cutting shows. Actually, “defense” is a generous word. When asked point blank why he canned a completed film and is cutting a variety of niche, but well-liked shows, Zaslav unveiled his new content strategy: “We only want to release things that are good.” This may be the dumbest corporate doublespeak I’ve ever heard. It’s like something from this recent season of Barry – ironically released on HBO. Maybe Bill Hader had met with Zaslav and saw the writing on the wall?

Meanwhile, much of the remaining time was spent trying to equalize the two platforms, arguably the funniest part of the show. The board went out of its way to make it seem as though Discovery+ had the same level of success as HBO Max. This resulted in a quote that has been burned into my brain for three weeks now: “Think of the art we have ushered in over the years. Think of the historic franchises. Batman, Superman, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Shark Week, 90 Day Fiancée, and the incomparable legacy of Chip and Joanna Gaines.”

To further prove this point, they showed several slides of statistics and quotes from the New York Times praising HBO Max alongside praise for Discovery+ from “Apple Store Review.” Several slides tried to show statistics highlighting their similar successes, yet any eagle-eyed viewer would notice confirmed HBO Max’s dominating superiority financially and in usership over its newfound “equal.” And this all came amidst the backdrop of recent polls on user happiness clocking HBO Max at #1 with a 95% happiness rating, while Discovery+ came in second-to-last – and dropping.

In one highly-memed moment, Zaslav introduced the following chart breaking down what he viewed to be HBO Max’s strengths vs. Discovery+.

It’s been three weeks and I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of this chart’s contradictions and condescension. The closest I can come is that, in a form of Dave Chappelle-in-Nutty Professor “Women be shoppin’” style thinking, Zaslav and his team believes that “Men want art, women want something where they can kick their feet up.” Which is not only not the experience of most of the human beings I’ve encountered, it is also incredibly condescending.

This all built up to Zaslav’s largest point: that HBO Max and Discovery+ will merge next year, and will develop a tiered pay model similar to that of NBC’s Peacock. Now, it goes without saying that it is incredibly ironic that WB Discovery plans to not only create a free tier after canceling a bunch of movies for being a “waste of money,” as well as the fact that they will force their most-successful streaming service to mimic the only streaming service to rank worse than Discovery+. But none of this matters given how truly insidious the merging news truly is.

I’m not against the combining of these apps in theory. That makes sense. What truly bothers me is a key word that came during the announcement: one that gave away Zaslav’s entire scheme, his future ambitions, and the truly disgusting plans for HBO Max. When describing the new streaming service, Zaslav went out of his way to emphasize what made these apps so important. For Discovery+, he waxed poetic for several minutes about its content and its “success” and its franchises. However, when it came time for HBO Max, the only detail he praised was “the algorithm. And that’s what’s so disgusting here. They don’t care about HBO Max. They don’t care about the library. They know that their app is sh*t (it’s the only streaming service I’ve ever quit, because it is utterly useless), and they want to steal the code for the most beloved. It’s literally the plot of Silicon Valley.

So, what’s happened since Zaslav unveiled his big genius plan? Well, mostly just chaos. In the immediate aftermath of what Zaslav clearly thought was his coronation as the King of Streaming, the stock of WB Discovery plummeted, entering a freefall for several days. Almost immediately, Zaslav went back on his word, removing over 35 titles from HBO Max and laying off 15% of HBO Max employees.

And just when they thought their PR couldn’t get any worse, it came out that Ezra Miller – whose Flash movie was touted by Zaslav as “our guiding star going forward” – was arrested, and that they had been sheltered by Zaslav from authorities to do reshoots. This sparked a series of emergency meetings with the board, in which Zaslav was continuously outvoted on whether to shelve the project – as was done with Batgirl – or release it. Zaslav became so irate that his crown jewel was being threatened, he declared “I’d rather shelve every upcoming DC film than let The Flash die.” So, yeah. Things don’t look good over there.

What Comes Next?

So, having come to the end of several exhausting, complicated weeks, where do things stand for Warner Brothers and Warner Bros. Discovery? Well, they’re still alive…for now. But that’s the thing. While nothing bad is happening this week, Discovery has inadvertently shown its hand. We’ve now seen the incompetence and hatred behind the wheel. And while skeptics and kiss-asses try their best to calm the storm and distract from the burning building behind them, it is not impossible to imagine the worst-case scenario from these events.

Ponder, if you will, this future. HBO Max and Discovery+ launch their combined service, to dismal results. Without any real numbers from Zaslav, he writes it off as “expensive tentpoles that don’t bring in numbers anymore,” and announces plans to pivot to unscripted programming. HBO Max is shuttered, its algorithm rolled into Discovery+ its biggest hit shows (probably Gossip Girl and Hacks) move to HBO. Meanwhile, HBO’s most impressive names in the library – The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc. – move to a hard-to-find tab on Discovery+.

On the film side, Warner burns through the last of its key franchises to keep bringing in as much cash as possible, while all other properties are shelved for “reassessment.” This leaves The Flash, Joker 2, maybe Dune: Part II if it’s lucky, a handful of HBO shows (Euphoria seems safe, while Succession might be canceled for being too “blatantly about Zaslav,”), and maybe Rick and Morty. Everything else will be branded with the title “delayed indefinitely.”

Eventually, within ten years, there will be nothing left. A handful of Oscar-winning films and classic TV shows will be left on Discovery+ until they drop below a certain margin, and then will be locked away, never to see the light of day, whilst Chip and Joanna’s Grandkids Build Your Dream Home or whatever releases Season 23. And one of Hollywood’s oldest studios, with a legacy tracing back to 1923, will effectively be dead.

This is all, of course, conjecture. At the moment, there’s no need to panic. But at times like this, it’s important to remember: a studio is only as good as those who head it. And with Warner Bros. Discovery in such volatile hands, it’s certainly worth keeping an eye out. At the very least, it makes one nostalgic for the Costco founder, and his public-supporting remarks about hot dog prices, or actor Jared Gilman’s paraphrase of the great Orson Welles. Here’s hoping for a brighter future for streaming and theatrical releases.

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