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Warner Bros. Discovery Boss Literally Pounds Table, Demands More Franchise Films, Talks Removed HBO Max Titles

Ben Bowman

David Zaslav has no time for artsy experimentation. The Warner Bros. Discovery CEO sounded like Alec Baldwin's “Glengarry Glen Ross” character in yesterday’s Q3 earnings call. He literally pounded the table, demanded more franchise films, and dismissed the smaller titles he drop-kicked off HBO Max.

ABF: Always Be Franchising

“We haven’t had a Superman movie in 13 years. We haven’t done a Harry Potter movie in 15 years,” Zaslav complained, ignoring the “Fantastic Beasts” Potter spin-off films (one of which debuted this year) and Superman’s recent appearances in the two versions of “Justice League” (2017 and 2021).

“We have a lot of (franchises),” Zaslav crowed. “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.”

While Zaslav is correct about the value of some of their intellectual property, he’s also not considering franchise fatigue. Consider Disney’s theatrical headaches with the Star Wars franchise.

Star Wars Film Year Box Office (Domestic Only) Box Office (Total)
The Force Awakens 2015 $936M $2.069B
Rogue One 2016 $533M $1.058B
The Last Jedi 2017 $620M $1.332B
Solo 2018 $213M $392M
The Rise of Skywalker 2019 $515M $1.074B

Since “The Rise of Skywalker” pulled in half of what “The Force Awakens” did just four years earlier, Disney has put the rest of its theatrical Star Wars films into various levels of development hell, choosing to use the franchise as a feeder for Disney+ with good (“The Mandalorian”), bad (“The Book of Boba Fett”), and mixed results (“Obi-Wan Kenobi”). Without careful stewardship, it is very easy to exhaust a fanbase.

And it’s not as if the DC Comics properties haven’t been churning out plenty of content already. Within the last decade, three different actors have played Batman on the big screen, while Michael Keaton returns to the role next year. Margot Robbie played Harley Quinn in three different films over the last six years. Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” has created a splinter universe all its own. On TV, you have “Peacemaker,” “The Flash,” “Titans,” “Doom Patrol,” “Superman & Lois,” “Pennyworth: The Origin of Batman's Butler,” and the much-loved animated “Harley Quinn” HBO Max show. There’s an upcoming show based on The Penguin.

The point is, these titles are already being squeezed pretty hard. This year, the company even spat out “DC League of Super-Pets.” And Zaslav thinks there’s still gold in them thar hills?

‘The Money’s Out There - You Pick It Up, It’s Yours’

Zaslav believes HBO Max shouldn’t be the exclusive home for the Warner library shows, so those are likely to appear on other platforms, perhaps licensed to other SVOD players or FAST services.

“We’ve looked at what people are watching on Pluto TV and on Tubi. It’s very different (than HBO Max). They’re loving 'Rawhide' and 'Bonanza'. They’re not watching old series like 'Dynasty' on Max,” Zaslav said.

“A lot of that stuff we might keep on (HBO Max), but we don’t need it to be exclusive. It could also be on AVOD. We could sell it to someone else because no one is subscribing or staying on one of our services because it’s there. And so I think what we’re really trying to understand is what has worked on the platform and what hasn’t. And then based on that, we’ll determine how to operate going forward.”

The takeaway? Expect the HBO Max library to shrink, while some shows appear on other platforms - possibly multiple streamers at once.

‘Third Place is You’re Fired’

Zaslav declared big-budget streaming-only movies are dead. “The movies that we launched in the theater do significantly better, and launching a 2-hour or an hour and 40-minute movie direct to streaming has done almost nothing for HBO Max in terms of viewership, retention, or love of the service,” he said.

HBO Max subscribers have grumbled in recent months as shows have disappeared from the platform entirely. Animated shows bore the worst of the cuts. “Infinity Train” creator Owen Dennis unloaded in a Substack post after his show was dumped.

“I think the way that Discovery went about this is incredibly unprofessional, rude, and just straight up slimy,” Dennis wrote. “I think most everyone who makes anything feels this way. Across the industry, talent is mad, agents are mad, lawyers and managers are mad, even execs at these companies are mad. I can’t think of a single person who works in animation and entertainment that, when you bring this all up, doesn’t say ‘What the f*** are they doing? How do they plan to have anyone ever want to work with them again?’”

Zaslav pushed back repeatedly on the WBD earnings call. “Let me be very clear, we did not get rid of any show that is helping us. And we got rid of those shows that we could focus on producing new content that will and using everything we learned on each platform to make new choices,” Zaslav said. “It’s a business of failure, but we’d rather take that money and spend it again and have a chance of having to show that will engage and delight on either our traditional platforms or our subscription platforms.”

In the end, Zaslav is putting every new show against the performance of comfort food reruns. “If a repeat of ‘Two and a Half Men’ or ‘Big Bang’ does 3x the rating of a brand-new show that’s costing us $7.5 million, we’re going to cancel that show,” Zaslav said. “And we’re going to try and get another scripted series that has a chance to really deliver and delight and engage an audience. But we are being deliberate about measuring how are the shows doing.”

Circling back to Zaslav’s love of franchises, the first-ever episode of “Game of Thrones” got just 2.22 million viewers back in 2011. It didn’t top 10 million viewers until its seventh season. The leaders of the old HBO were rewarded for their patience, even if the show’s 2011 debut was a far cry from “The Big Bang Theory’s” audience of 15 million that same year.

All of this is to say future HBO Max projects need to deliver and deliver fast. Fail to bring an audience and you’ll be thrown overboard. For the long-time Discovery boss, every week is Shark Week, and art is chum.


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