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As Warner Bros. Discovery Cuts and Cancels HBO Max Titles, Are Execs Damaging the Company’s Premium Brand?

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO Davis Zaslav is quickly developing a reputation as a content grim reaper as he has recently been on a streak of axing high-profile projects, mostly from HBO Max, as he remakes the newly combined company in his image and likeness. Most recently, the executive canceled the $90 million “Batgirl” movie, despite the film being nearly complete.

This will likely not be the last DC-related cut to come under Zaslav’s watch as he is seemingly rolling back as many of the plans put in place by the now-ousted Warner Media executives as possible. However, the comic book-related cancelations are seemingly just part of Zaslav’s larger goals to trim $3 billion from the WBD budget. As part of that plan, the CEO is also moving the premium streamer away from young adult live-action fare.

Earlier this week, WBD canceled teen-centric comedy “Gordita Chronicles” despite a relatively impressive rollout. Reports indicate that Zaslav prefers animated content for kids as it is cheaper and quicker to produce.

News of the “Batgirl” cancellation has already angered and confused DC fans. Both “Aquaman 2” and “The Flash” film are still (presumably) working towards a release despite multiple setbacks, especially recent legal issues for “Flash” star Ezra Miller, who has been arrested multiple times in recent months.

“Batgirl” was initially conceived as an HBO Max original film, but had the potential for a theatrical release as well. The movie was to star Leslie Grace as the first Latinx woman to play the role, and she would be mentored by Michael Keaton, reprising his original Batman/Bruce Wayne persona.

Now, the film will not only not make it to theaters, but it will not land on streaming either, despite reportedly costing $90 million and being practically finished.

The Warner Bros./DC films have been a rollercoaster of successes and failures over the past few years, and the decision to kick “Batgirl” to the curb may be motivated by simple finances. While it was closing out its post-production run, Zaslav was apparently uninterested in pumping more money into the advertising budget for a film that he has little faith in.

Similarly, the studio recently canceled “Scoob!: Holiday Haunt,” an animated Scooby-Doo feature with a decidedly lower budget. “Batgirl” was initially approved for a production budget of $70 million, but Zaslav only wants WBD to focus on moving blockbuster films to theaters. By not releasing either film, WBD will likely use them as tax write-downs, sacrificing the money already spent and the work already done for an accounting maneuver designed to help the company balance its books.

In general, Zaslav doesn't see much value in spending large sums of money just to provide a never-ending supply of content to subscribers. Based on his time overseeing Discovery’s lifestyle channels, WBD’s CEO prefers frugality when it comes to content spending. While other streamers were touting their ballooning content spends, even before Warner Media and Discovery merged, the exec was warning that the new company would not be interested in getting into an arms race. Instead, it would want to focus on fewer, cheaper programs to fill out its streaming libraries.

“If you say we do 600 hours on Food Network and they like it and we make $400 million, for example, if we did another 400 hours of content, maybe audiences would be a little happier, but we would make no money,” he said. “Our goal is to compete with the leading streaming services, not to win the spending war.”

Zaslav’s desire to scrimp and save is not limited to cutting projects before they make it to the air as a number of HBO Max Original films have recently — and silently — been removed from the streaming service. As Variety noted, this is likely part of an effort to eliminate mandatory payments to actors and creators that the studio must pay as long as the title is available for audiences to stream as part of their subscription.

Many of the titles are still available for rental and purchase on various VOD platforms, but despite debuting on the service, “Moonshot,” “Superintelligence,” “The Witches,” “American Pickle,” “Locked Down,” and “Charm City Kings” are no longer available on HBO Max. Since they all underachieved in terms of finding an audience, Zaslav apparently doesn’t see the value in paying artists to keep the titles streaming.

The question now becomes whether or not Zaslav’s penny-pinching will undermine the goodwill that HBO — and by extension HBO Max — has built up over decades as the home for premium, high-quality programming. Warner Bros. Discovery will report its second quarter 2022 earnings on Thursday, Aug. 4 and will reveal the latest global subscriber numbers for HBO Max. Following the Q1, the streamer hit 76.8 million subscribers, and while that number will likely increase, it will be informative to note if any potential blowback from Zaslav’s content decisions end up hurting subscriber totals moving forward.

If the new executive team continues to erode the faith that consumers have in the service, especially with a planned merger with discovery+ on the horizon, this could prove to be a monumental misstep for an executive who has taken a big leap up in the streaming world.

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