There was a time when being sent straight to video was about the most ignoble fate a would-be movie blockbuster could suffer: the vision of its makers confined to the dimensions of a television screen, never to be enjoyed by more than a sofa-full of people in one sitting. In the modern age, that fate became less tangible still: demoted to streaming, many good films even now float in a strange digital purgatory, sometimes connecting with sizeable audiences, yet rarely acquiring the tangible cultural currency of a hit in cinemas.
Still, such films – like Prey, for example, a surprisingly good Predator prequel that skipped cinemas to premiere last week on Disney Plus – can at least be seen, and widely so, by those inclined. Right about now, the creative team behind Warner Bros’ addled comic-book film Batgirl would gladly accept that outcome, after being dealt a far rarer and more egregious humiliation. Last week, it was announced that the near-complete film, having already racked up a budget of $90m, would not be released at all – not even on the Warner-owned streaming service HBO Max.
Also scrapped in the same announcement was the streaming-oriented animated Scooby-Doo prequel Scoob!: Holiday Haunt, though that unsurprisingly generated fewer headlines: in this age of superhero saturation, the industry was immediately abuzz with questions over how Batgirl’s wings could have been so brutally clipped. “Just how bad is it?” people asked, as reports of chilly test-screening reactions were dredged up. Trade rag the Wrap reported that Warner’s new management team, led by CEO David Zaslav, felt the film “simply didn’t work”: once conceived for HBO Max, then lined up for theatrical distribution, it was allegedly felt that the Batman spin-off didn’t have the event-movie heft the studio required of its DC Comics properties.
Others suggested the issue wasn’t one of quality but cold hard numbers, which weren’t tracking well enough to justify the expense of marketing and releasing the film at any level: taking a tax write-down on Batgirl and Scoob!: Holiday Haunt was, reported Variety, seen as the safest way to recoup their costs. “We are incredibly grateful to the film-makers and their respective casts and hope to collaborate with everyone again in the near future,” read the studio’s bland statement, though you have to wonder why the talent involved would follow up on that tentative invitation.
Batgirl’s directors, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah – a flashy Belgian-Moroccan duo who had a 2020 smash with Bad Boys for Life, and whose far smaller-scale arthouse provocation Rebel premiered at Cannes in the spring – have been vocal in their blindsided dismay; the film’s Latina star, Leslie Grace, has limited herself to thanking her fans and collaborators. Industry watchdogs, meanwhile, wonder whether the studio’s accounting gambit is worth the ugly optics of junking a superhero film made and headlined by people of colour. El Arbi, Fallah and Grace can’t even count themselves in especially distinguished or plentiful company: the list of major films produced but never released in any capacity is not a long one.
It is not the first superhero property, however, to be barred from release. In 1993, Hollywood B-movie maestro Roger Corman helped produce a bargain-basement adaptation of another Marvel comic, The Fantastic Four – a world apart from the vast, corporate Marvel machines filling multiplexes today. Made on a budget of $1m with a no-name cast, it was scheduled to premiere in 1994 and even had a trailer go out – before the studio abruptly cancelled all plans to screen it publicly and confiscated the negatives. The late Marvel chief Stan Lee fed rumours that a release was never planned, and the film was made solely for the purposes of retaining the rights to the property; Corman has insisted otherwise. Albeit at a very different price point from Batgirl, it seems the film was also ultimately scuppered in the name of bookkeeping, but bootleg leaks readily available on YouTube indicate that no great art was lost in the process.
Sometimes, a perfectly seaworthy film is simply sunk by the individuals involved. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many have had to change course because of toxic talent; some have given up entirely. Gore, a Gore Vidal biopic shot in 2017 with Kevin Spacey in the lead, was in post-production when Netflix pulled the plug on the entire project. (Spacey’s role in the expensive Ridley Scott drama All the Money in the World, on the other hand, was small enough to make a reshoot with a recast Christopher Plummer viable.)
Very occasionally, a film can be scotched even after it’s out in the world: Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy, a dark comedy hinging on a teenage girl’s seduction by a sixtysomething film-maker, had premiered, to some warm reviews at the 2017 Toronto film festival, when the indie distributor the Orchard dropped it a week before its scheduled cinema release, as sexual misconduct allegations against its director-star emerged. Louis CK bought back the distribution rights. Rose Byrne, one of its stars, stated, “It’ll be a while before the film can be seen, and I think that’s right” – though such sentiments didn’t stop the film popping up on torrent sites.
Here in the UK, the ill-fated Hippie Hippie Shake has become the ultimate cautionary tale for the vagaries of British film financing and production. Intended as a jaunty trip through the radical magazine publishing scene of the swinging 60s, the film was first announced in 1998 by Working Title Films – then in their post-Four Weddings and a Funeral glory days – before cycling through a procession of directors and additional writers; the cameras finally rolled in 2007 under director Beeban Kidron, with Cillian Murphy and Sienna Miller heading the cast. Nearly two years later, Kidron quit during post-production; a scheduled 2010 release date came and went before Working Title announced it would be shelved for ever. Reports vary among the few who have seen it as to how much of a misfire it is. But how the film, which was never going to be a blockbuster, could warrant such veil-drawing treatment remains an industry mystery.
If it’s hard to see on paper how Hippie Hippie Shake could be unreleasable, the same can’t be said for The Day the Clown Cried, for decades regarded with morbid fascination as a kind of white whale of old-guard cinema. The European-produced 1972 Holocaust drama was written and directed by goofball comic Jerry Lewis, who also stars as a German circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp and charged with leading children into the gas chambers. Aghast testimonies from the few who saw a rough cut at the time suggest it was every bit as misguided as it sounds; Lewis himself later admitted to being “embarrassed at [his] poor work”. In a rare case of a film being suspended by its own maker rather than by studio enforcement, it has been kept under lock and key for half a century, though Lewis donated the negative to the Library of Congress in 2015, two years before his death, requesting that it not be shown for at least a decade.
Will we eventually see the wreckage? Films buffs should be careful what they wish for. More often than not, even the most cursed productions eventually find their way to the light, and it is rarely for the best. Directed but disowned by David O Russell, the political satire Nailed had a troubled, disrupted shoot that eventually ran aground in 2008, leading to years of financial disputes. In 2014, an independent distributor bought it from its bankrupted studio, cobbled together a final cut and released it as Accidental Love, directed by one “Stephen Greene”; the result was not a film anyone would want their real name attached to.
The glowing exception, meanwhile, is Kenneth Lonergan’s sprawling, knotty, rather magnificent Manhattan morality drama Margaret, which sat in legal limbo for six years – with the director and studio Fox Searchlight locked in tortuous disagreement over a lengthy final cut – before it was finally freed in 2011, to critical acclaim that has only escalated over the years. At present, it seems unlikely that Batgirl – or, less likely still, Scoob!: Holiday Haunt – is in line for quite such a redemption. But such fairytales keep hope in a cutthroat industry alive.