Once upon a time, former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar had a dream: build HBO Max into a streaming service that could rival Netflix and Disney+. It was the goalpost that determined as many decisions during his tenure, which began in May 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence the rush to release the entire 2021 Warner Bros. film slate simultaneously on HBO Max (which certainly left money on the table with Dune), and the choice to
pillage explore WarnerMedia’s entire library for streaming content. Like Game of Thrones? Want a spinoff? How about six?
But perhaps nothing in the Warner catalog is of greater value for streaming or otherwise than DC Comics and its rich stable of familiar intellectual property, from Superman to Batgirl. Disney already beat WB to this ground, too, by spinning off popular characters into streaming TV shows like Loki and WandaVision. But Kilar and WarnerMedia were going to try something that neither Disney nor Netflix ever attempted: make expensive superhero movies for streaming. Which explains Leslie Grace’s debut in Batgirl, a mid-budget superhero adventure due out on HBO Max sometime later this year.
Or is it?
Kilar might have dreamed of placing all of WarnerMedia’s eggs in the HBO Max basket, but Kilar is gone, and the influence of his predecessor John Stankey (who left WarnerMedia to run then-parent company AT&T) is also receding as WarnerMedia, as of 17 days ago, is dead. Long live Warner Bros. Discovery. And with the change of leadership, a shift in thinking about how to release Batgirl is rumored to be underway at Warner Bros., as per a new eyebrow-raising report from Matthew Belloni’s Puck News.
Normally, we’re not ones to run unconfirmed gossip but when it’s Belloni, a former editor of The Hollywood Reporter, who alleges the Warners team is considering a pivot for Batgirl to theatrical, with possibly some additional action set-pieces and added CGI, it’s not so easy to ignore.
Obviously, there are a variety of reasons Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, Kilar’s replacement, should think twice on betting the company’s entire future on just a streaming service. Not least of which is that the apple of Kilar and Wall Street’s eyes, Netflix, suddenly looks a lot less golden after last week.
On April 19, Netflix revealed to investors that the service lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2022 and could lose as many as two million subscribers in the year’s second quarter. Meanwhile another streaming service, CNN+, died an ignominious death in the same week. As it turns out, streaming is not a road paved only in gold.
Now, Netflix’s own singular financial issues are distinct from Warners or, for that matter, Disney. Unlike those brands, Netflix doesn’t have a deep roster of familiar intellectual property, either created by the company’s legacy or acquisitions. In other words, Netflix does not have a Batgirl to push only toward streaming, even as it greenlit original movie content for its service for nearly every week of 2022.
Nevertheless, unlike Netflix’s serialized output, which has come to dominate Emmys award ceremonies each year, the company’s original film productions speak to a larger issue with the economics of releasing original movies directly to streaming, particularly of such inconsistent quality. Unlike a TV series that might build a rapport with its audience over hours of content being binged across days or weeks, movies released directly on a streaming platform seem to have an exceedingly short shelf life in the zeitgeist before vanishing into the algorithm aether.
Netflix can crow until the end of time that Red Notice was one of the most globally watched films of the last decade, but if most folks had it on in the background while scrolling TikTok during that one week Netflix put it on everyone’s homepage… well, it’s not going to leave the same kind of cultural footprint as, say, a Batman movie.
Indeed, The Batman’s rollout likely figures prominently in conversations about switching Batgirl to a theatrical release. The Robert Pattinson-starring superhero movie was released in theaters in March. Under WarnerMedia’s previous management, its exclusive theatrical window (as well as that of other WB films this year) wass greatly diminished—just 45 days. Even so, The Batman has so far grossed an impressive $755 million and would’ve likely run that score up for a few more weeks ahead of Marvel’s release of Doctor Strange into the Multiverse if it didn’t premiere quite so quickly on HBO Max.
Nonetheless, Warner Bros. Discovery gets to double dip on that film’s popularity, first at the box office and again on home media and HBO Max simultaneously. One might even note that if the studio had spaced out the HBO Max release by even a month and just released the film on Blu-ray and VOD on April 18, the studio could triple-dip into the project by getting audiences to pay for it two to three times between theaters, home media, and keeping (or getting) their HBO Max subscriptions.
Additionally, and according to Puck News, The Batman is still posting huge numbers on HBO Max views despite already grossing three-quarters of a billion dollars in theaters. Imagine how much more money the studio could’ve made off Dune if for the first 45 days it also was only available theatrically?
Such is the sudden realization about releasing superhero movies straight to streaming. While the concept will inevitably be tried at some point, and HBO Max has had some success with their offbeat superhero TV series Peacemaker, Batgirl is adjacent to the most popular brand in the DC stable—Batman. Her movie also may mark the return of Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight for the first time in 30 years, assuming of course that Batgirl isn’t delayed like The Flash, the troubled movie that’s supposed to explain how Keaton became the “DC Extended Universe” Batman in the first place.
Further, the studio has already spent a fairly pricey $70 million for a movie intended only for streaming. Admittedly, that figure is low for superhero movies, existing in the strange no man’s land of “mid-budget” that has largely gone extinct in the last decade where everything is either four-quadrant blockbusters that cost north of $150 million or “micro-budgets” operating anywhere between $2 million and $10 million. And frankly, the underperformance this weekend of Robert Eggers’ stunning The Northman (which was greenlit with a $70 million price tag) and the clever Nicolas Cage comedy, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (which reportedly cost $30 million to make), continues to speak grimly about the future of mid-budget movies.
However, as well-reviewed and as of high a quality as The Northman and The Unbearable Weight are, they’re also R-rated movies not based on intellectual property. And despite comment section declarations to the contrary, general audiences post-pandemic increasingly seem ambivalent about seeing “original stories” based on the box office runs of movies like those or Last Night in Soho and The Last Duel.
Luckily, Batgirl isn’t an original, non-IP movie. It’s a spinoff of WB’s most popular cinematic brand as of right now, and one that will indulge audience nostalgia with Keaton in the same way that recent Star Wars and Jurassic World movies have, except now in the indisputably most popular genre of the early 21st century: superheroes. Consider the first Deadpool and Logan were also both mid-budget superhero flicks that grossed $782 million and $619 million, respectively. And unlike those, Batgirl will almost certainly be PG-13.
It checks a lot of boxes, and a $70 million budget would mean less pressure to recoup its cost at the box office. And either way, it can still be just as valuable to HBO Max when it premieres on the service 45 days later as opposed to a day-and-date release.
The truth is streaming releases fail to generate the same level of pop culture awareness and penetration as a theatrical rollout. The cinema experience moves in waves, weekend to weekend, during its run as more people see it or pay to see it again, generating a literal investment of their time and money into the experience. It then enjoys several more waves before reaching its eventual streaming service port of call. The viability of this model, at least for IP with a built-in audience, has yet to be shaken. Disney tried with Black Widow and Cruella, and now all their live-action blockbusters have gone back to enjoying exclusive theatrical windows.
Surely Barbara Gordon deserves the same.