Gamblers and other types of investor are aware of the overwhelming need to avoid the “sunk cost fallacy”, to reject the irrational belief that even if a long-planned course of action is now clearly unworkable, you just have to keep on because you have sunk so much money and sweat into it. Ruthlessly cutting your losses is how executives demonstrate their virility. It’s what Rupert Murdoch did by closing the News of the World and it’s what Wayne Enterprises did in the DC Comics world by discarding the old merchant branches of its business in the 19th century.
But does that – should that – apply to movies?
Clearly, David Zaslav thinks so: the new CEO of the merged Warner Bros Discovery conglomerate has spectacularly pulled the plug on the $90m new Batgirl film during post-production. Even though “shelving” movie projects is common enough at early stages, actually throwing a finished film into the vault is rare. Zeslav had publicly made it his business to reverse Warner Bros’ existing strategy of prioritising streaming services, focusing instead on premiering prestige movies in movie theatres – only to find that Batgirl was not big enough to justify the additional promotional cost for a cinema rollout, yet somehow too big to dump on to the small screen. It’s a new iteration of the classic “mid-budget” nightmare that has been a perennial Hollywood problem. What to do with the mid-range movie that was once a solid bread-and-butter performer in 1970s and 80s cinemas, and still cleans up at awards season, but now falls between the two stools of blockbuster and indie?
Reportedly, Zaslav has strategically decided to “shelve” Batgirl for a tax write-down, call its budget a dead loss to reduce the company’s tax liability, and by that token enhance profits generally – a strategy that of course will be bolstered by this spectacular and much-publicised failure. Do we hear the ghostly sound of laughter from those legendary producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom …?
This is what happens when studios treat movies as pure, undifferentiated corporate “content”, a Gazprom pipeline of superhero mush which can be turned off when the accountants say that it makes sense to do so. Yet it can happen to even the most well-regarded and prestigious-seeming indie films. The industry still whispers about the disappearance of Hippie Hippie Shake, the indie British movie about the 60s counterculture and the Oz trial with Sienna Miller as Louise Ferrier, Richard Neville’s girlfriend – a film that became mired in legal and contractual disputes and has still not been seen aside from test screenings.
Batgirl may well finally emerge on precisely those screening services that Warner Bros Discovery had disavowed: like the much-discussed “Snyder Cut” of DC’s Justice League, it will probably emerge, after the lawsuits have been settled, to great fan excitement.
Cynics may smile at this latest demonstration of corporate philistinism and heartlessness with regard to the work of directors, writers, actors, cinematographers and other artists. But hasn’t Hollywood always been an unsentimental business? Do you think Harry Cohn or Jack Warner or Sam Goldwyn would have fainted with shock at the news of what Zaslav is doing? Or would they just shrug and say, OK, yes, it had to be done …?
Maybe. But treating movies as individual artworks isn’t simply a cinephile mannerism or quixotic romance. If you fail to keep the faith with the idea of films as artworks, that will hurt your bottom line. The public will sense the cynicism and the emptiness and they will turn away from these films: there will be a colossal crisis, a kind of colony collapse disorder in the cinema.
So Batgirl should be released, on streaming services if need be. And Zaslav and his executives had better show the courage of their management convictions and see all their planned movies through to completion and distribution.
• This article and a photo caption were amended on 3 August 2022. Sienna Miller was cast as Louise Ferrier, not Germaine Greer, in the unreleased film Hippie Hippie Shake.