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After Pounding Table for More Franchise Content, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav Is Getting His Wish

David Satin

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav may not have taken any literal victory laps around his office in the last few weeks, but he’s certainly earned them.

Many streaming industry analysts questioned Zaslav’s moves after taking over the newly-merged company when Discovery acquired WarnerMedia in April 2022. Those moves included deep content cuts at WBD’s premium streaming service HBO Max, and the cancelation of content including a $90 million “Batgirl” film that was in the final stages of production.

Months later, however, Zaslav’s brash words and seemingly precipitate actions have had few, if any, ill effects on WBD. In fact, the company is reducing its streaming losses and transitioning toward profitability, a change many streaming outlets are struggling to achieve. Disney, for instance, is still reporting streaming losses of over $1 billion, and is now investigating drastic measures such as selling its majority share in Hulu to help improve its finances.

Disney and WBD do have one thing in common, however: an increased focus on franchise content going forward. Zaslav literally pounded the table for more franchise content in November 2022, during WBD’s conference call to discuss the results of its third-quarter earnings report.

“We have a lot of (franchises),” Zaslav said during the call. “Batman, Superman, Aquaman, if we can do something with J.K. on Harry Potter going forward, Lord of the Rings. What are we doing with Game of Thrones? What are we doing with a lot of the big franchises that we have? We’re focused on franchises.”

Since then, the company has acted on his words. The Harry Potter-themed video game “Hogwarts Legacy” has generated tons of buzz since its release. That’s due partly to the continuing controversy surrounding Potter author J.K. Rowling’s stance on the rights of trans people, but that controversy hasn’t stopped the game from becoming a huge hit for WBD, earning over $850 million so far.

The increased focus on franchises will be good news for operators of movie theaters. WBD has placed director James Gunn and producer Peter Safran in charge of developing new movies based on DC Comics, and the plan includes a heavy focus on theatrical releases for the most popular DC characters like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.

There will also be new Lord of the Rings movies to contend with from WBD. Zaslav announced in the company’s most recent earnings call that multiple new projects set in Middle-Earth were in a development phase, in conjunction with the Swedish Embracer Group, who acquired the movie rights to the franchise in 2022.

The increased focus on franchises will affect HBO Max, as well. WBD’s streamer will serve as host to a new show based on the “It” films recently adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name. The series, currently titled “Welcome to Derry,” is a prequel to the events of the films, and has already brought the movies’ creators Andy Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti aboard to direct episodes.

Zaslav is getting exactly what he wished for, but he must take care to ensure the implementation of the franchise strategy doesn’t alienate fans. Disney faces the same pitfalls, particularly as its Marvel and Star Wars streaming series have drawn complaints of heavy-handed fan service of late. Disney is pulling back on the number of Marvel series intended for streaming on Disney+ while it focuses on improving the quality of such content.

Judging by his words, Zaslav is aware of the risks involved in leaning into franchises.

“We believe in quality over quantity,” he said during the most recent earnings call. Will his actions follow that sentiment? Time will tell, but there can be no doubt that his wish for more franchise content from WBD is being fulfilled.


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