David Zaslav Is HBO Max’s Public Enemy #1Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images Movies Features HBO Max
HBO Max is my favorite streaming service. If you’ve got it, it’s probably yours too. It has a massive library, bolstered by Warner Bros. films, HBO series and massive collections ranging from Studio Ghibli to Turner Classic Movies to Adult Swim. It has solid originals like Station Eleven, Navalny, Peacemaker and Our Flag Means Death, and gave new life to cable gems like South Side. It is a bastion of quality in a landscape where Netflix is spending the GDP of a small nation every month in order to create the most forgettable movies you’ve ever seen.
But that may all be changing soon.
When HBO Max’s corporate owner WarnerMedia and Discovery merged into the terrifyingly large company Warner Bros. Discovery earlier this year, former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar was booted in favor of David Zaslav. And Zaslav has been hard at work declaring himself Public Enemy #1 for the film and TV industry.
Kilar was a streaming savant (helping found Hulu, for example) and the major force behind the strategy that took HBO Max from being an endless source of confusing questions—Is that like HBO Go? What about HBO Now? And is all that bundled into my HBO subscription?—to being a must-have service. Kilar’s gamble allowed us to watch movies like Dune, The Matrix Resurrections and more without risking a theater in the middle of a pandemic. It also saw subscribers boom—something competitors like the dwindling Netflix can’t claim.
Zaslav? Well, he got paid $246 million for putting together the merger (a little more than the budget of Avatar, the single highest-grossing movie of all time) and seems to be a “strip it for parts” kind of guy. Yet another Jack Donaghy cutting costs and greenlighting MILF Islands. Kilar helped us see new (often good) movies safely at home. Zaslav quickly decided that his employees were coming back to the office while COVID still rages. Perhaps the quote that sums up his brief tenure is this: “From an employee that has been with Warner for over 20 years…this really feels like McDonald’s has bought a Michelin star restaurant and thinks they know how to run it.”
One of biggest signs that this Jack Warner wannabe was bad news came earlier this week, when it was announced that the HBO Max original movie Batgirl would be shelved forever. Not delayed, not sent straight to streaming, but creatively obliterated—legally constrained from ever being released on any platform. If movies could be murdered, then Batman would already be brooding over Batgirl’s grave.
Leslie Grace’s turn as Batgirl, directed by up-and-comers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (who made WB so, so much money with Bad Boys for Life), was killed, along with the animated Scoob!: Holiday Haunt, for a quintessentially corporate reason: Creative accounting.
It has nothing to do with the quality of the film. You can go on HBO Max right now and watch as much of Green Lantern as you can stomach if you need that point proven to you. See, if those movies (which are completed or nearly done) never come out, they can be written off on taxes. I’ll let IndieWire’s Tony Maglio explain in fancy terms:
“Content costs can be amortized—or assigned a cost that gets recognized by an entity across multiple years—over the program or film’s expected lifetime. If years on that timeline remain, a company can remove that asset from distribution and use its remaining cost balance to offset taxable income elsewhere.”
So, by never monetizing those movies, Warner Bros. Discovery can count them as big-time losses to save themselves a tiny bit of money elsewhere…at the cost of burning every bridge with every working filmmaker. Really, why would anyone spend their time and energy making a film for Warner Bros. Discovery if the number-crunchers can decide that it’s (somehow) more profitable to throw it in the landfill? Not to mention that Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah were blindsided by the news:
Definitely bad, especially with the optics surrounding an upcoming WB superhero movie heading to theaters that stars a performer who—to quote a great tweet—“is a target in six simultaneous manhunts, some of which are for crimes that don’t even have names yet.”
It signals that The Flash might make the hungry little robber baron at the head of Warner Bros. Discovery some cash, which means that it gets to see the light of day. In fact, the more light, the better! Meanwhile, Batgirl—a film starring Brendan Fraser’s villain, Michael Keaton’s returning Batman, Ivory Aquino as the first major trans character in a DC movie and an Afro-Latina lead—will die a silent death. To Zaslav, those enticing elements just didn’t seem likely to make money, except through the most insulting methods available. In fact, early estimates are that this move will net the company $15-20M…or less than 10% of what Zaslav was paid to make this stupid decision.
If it wasn’t quite clear enough that superhero movies are simply commodities, here you go. They’re now the only thing Hollywood is making, and even then, they might not even let us see them. Hope you aspiring filmmakers like the sound of that.
And how do you like the sound of working for “an old-school film mogul?” That’s how one WB insider described Zaslav’s power over the company, now that he’s broken the studio down into three divisions that all report directly to him. There’s a new head honcho in town and he loves Wall Street almost as much as he fucking hates HBO Max.
Yes, HBO Max itself is under plenty of fire. The unscrupulous unscripted boss behind such bastions of quality as Naked and Afraid and 90 Day Fiancé must have been watching too much Deadliest Catch, because he’s taken it upon himself to gut the best streamer like a fish.
First, HBO Max pulled at least six made-for-streaming Warner Bros. movies from the service. You might notice that streaming libraries have some churn from month to month. You might also intuit that it’s not a great sign when your streaming service isn’t keeping the movies specifically made for your streaming service. Honestly, since it doesn’t seem like this would save…any money at all, this all sounds like Zaslav proving what a big strong Boss Baby he is by dismantling his predecessor’s streamer.
So to those who made Moonshot, Superintelligence, Locked Down, The Witches, An American Pickle and Charm City Kings, my heart goes out to you. If you wanted to see those, or the new House Party that’s been indefinitely delayed, too bad. Since they were streaming originals, don’t expect them to get physical releases, either. They’re just fading from history—art permanently erased so the monopolists have happier spreadsheets.
These films are in the same boat as Batgirl: Who needs movies when you can get a tax write-off? Hell, let’s just have a streaming service that’s whole library is just tax forms. Actually, that’s probably what Zaslav watches when he crashes on the couch with a pint of ice cream.
And second, The Wrap has had their ear to the ground, and heard the following: Everyone at HBO is “freaking out.”
To put a number to the freak-out, the estimate right now is that the HBO Max development team will face 70% layoffs. Ah, you mean the development team that added 32 Emmy nominations this year to HBO’s sizable 108? Which extended their lead significantly over their nearest competitor, Netflix (105 noms)? The development team that, for the most part, helped take the Peak TV brand of HBO and translate it to the original content of a streamer? Cutting down that team will certainly bring them closer in line to Netflix and its soulless algorithm. Finally, we can have the same mush no matter which service we pay for!
Discovery+ and HBO Max existing under the same corporate banner wasn’t going to last forever, but if you look at the two…which would you want your main service to look like? A respected place where people could watch watercooler TV, ambitious projects from people like Nathan Fielder and Olivier Assayas, silent Harold Lloyd comedies, blockbusters like The Batman and the best anime films ever made? Or a vapid reality show landfill with multiple shows starting with the phrase “Ghost Adventures?” The choice doesn’t seem hard, but maybe that’s because I like movies and TV more than rubbing $100 bills all over my sweaty face.
As writers, directors, development executives and creatives of seemingly any kind are shown how worthless they are when the corporate overlords come a-knocking, we’ll see the immediate and long-term effects of a company alienating…well, all the actual talent. Maybe Warner Bros. Discovery can get by as an entertainment company employing only business suits, but my gut says that’s unlikely. Good luck running HGTV Max, is all I can say.
More cuts are soon on their way during today’s Warner Bros. Discovery earnings call, but even knowing what we know now, it’s hard to see David Zaslav as anything but a villain.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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