The death of “Batgirl” on Tuesday sent immediate shockwaves through Hollywood. The film — with a $75 million budget that grew to $90 million due to COVID-related overages — had finished shooting months ago and was in test screenings as directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (“Bad Boys for Life,” “Ms. Marvel”) worked through the post-production process. Star Leslie Grace (“In the Heights”) had given multiple interviews expressing her enthusiasm for landing the title role and working with co-stars Michael Keaton (as Batman), J.K. Simmons (as her character’s father, Commissioner Gordon) and Brendan Fraser (as the villain, Firefly).
In other words, the movie was nearly finished, and already building awareness among fans. Why would Warner Bros. Discovery throw all that away?
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, the most likely reason: taxes.
Several sources note that “Batgirl” was made under a different regime at Warner Bros., headed by Jason Kilar and Ann Sarnoff, that was singularly focused on building its streaming service, HBO Max. That effort included Kilar’s infamous decision to release the studio’s entire 2021 theatrical slate simultaneously on the streamer, which helped build the subscriber base but also jeopardized the studio’s reputation with top-tier talent (though many agents and stars privately came to appreciate the move when the company paid generous bonuses as a make-nice).
Even before David Zaslav took the reins of the newly formed Warner Bros. Discovery as CEO this spring, the exec went on a well-publicized listening tour designed to repair the company’s relationship with the creative community. As part of that effort, Zaslav has made no secret of reversing Kilar’s strategy and committing to releasing first-run feature films in theaters before putting them on HBO Max.
“Batgirl” found itself on the bad end of that decision, apparently neither big enough to feel worthy of a major theatrical release nor small enough to make economic sense in an increasingly cutthroat streaming landscape. Spending the money to expand the scope of “Batgirl” for theaters — plus the $30 million to $50 million needed to market it domestically and the tens of millions more needed for a global rollout — could have nearly doubled spending on the film, and insiders say that was a non-starter at a company newly focused on belt-tightening and the bottom line. (Spokespeople for Warner Bros. and Warner Bros. Discovery declined to comment for this story.)
Releasing the movie on HBO Max would seem to be the most obvious solution. Instead, the company has shelved “Batgirl” — along with the “Scoob!” sequel — and several sources say it will almost certainly take a tax write-down on both films, seen internally as the most financially sound way to recoup the costs (at least, on an accountant’s ledger). It could justify that by chalking it up to a post-merger change of strategy.
Doing so, however, would mean that Warner Bros. cannot monetize either movie — no HBO Max debut, no sale to another studio.
What the decision will cost the studio in creative capital, meanwhile, remains to be seen.