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Super Hero Wars

Warner Bros. Discovery is killing streaming-only DC films to "protect the brand"

Kevin Winter
 Dwayne “The Rock” as Black Adam at  San Diego Comic Con in July. 

When Discovery closed its acquisition of WarnerMedia for $43 billion in April, many changes were expected, and now we know that one of the biggest shifts will be how DC superhero projects are handled. Specifics of the new strategy were revealed by Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav during its second quarter earnings (pdf) conference call on Aug. 5.

“We’ve restructured the business…there will be a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC,” Zaslav said. “It’s very similar to the structure that Alan Horn and Bob Iger put together very effectively with Kevin Feige at Disney.”

For well over a decade, since the debut of Iron Man in 2008, the success of Disney’s Marvel film franchises have cast a shadow over the comparatively inconsistent results delivered by Warner Bros.’ DC super hero films. The decision to recruit Horn, one of the studio brains behind Disney’s winning Marvel strategy, is a sign that Warner Bros. Discovery is done playing catchup in the super hero franchise game.

The new DC cinematic universe will focus on quality over quantity

The studio’s commitment to its new strategy became clear when Warner Bros. Discovery recently announced that it was canceling the release of its $90 million Batgirl movie, despite the fact that the film had already been completed. That film was one of a series that were designed to go direct HBO Max as streaming-only titles with no theatrical release.

“Our conclusion is that expensive direct-to-streaming movies…is no comparison to what happens when you launch a film in theaters,” Zaslav said. “This idea of expensive films going direct-to-streaming...we cannot find an economic value for it.”

The cancellation of Batgirl follows the shuttering of The Wonder Twins production, another highly anticipated direct-to-streaming DC film originally bound for HBO Max. Other DC comics-related projects that were in progress prior to the takeover, including two HBO Max series centered on Superman and Green Lantern DC characters, may also be on the chopping block.

These studio changes were in play before economic headwinds emerged

Without context, Warner Bros. Discovery’s pullbacks from direct-to-streaming DC films in favor of theatrical releases might seem like a reaction to inflation pressures and mounting fears of a recession. But Zaslav tipped his hand that post-merger changes were coming before the economic shift. The first real shot across the bow was the abrupt closure of CNN+, just weeks after the deal closed, a move that signaled a break with the pandemic-fueled thinking that direct-to-streaming might be the near future model to solve all Hollywood revenue ills.

“We will fully embrace theatrical [movie releases] as we believe it creates interest and demand…and generates word-of-mouth buzz as films transition to streaming and beyond,” Zaslav said.

Some of the upcoming DC films include Black Adam, Shazam 2, and The Flash. And just before the earnings call, Lady Gaga used Twitter to confirm her role in Joker: Folie à Deux (Joker 2) alongside Joaquin Phoenix in 2024.

“We’re not going to release any film before it’s ready,” Zaslav said, addressing the pricey Batgirl cancellation. “The focus is going to be, ‘How do we make each of these films as good as possible?’ DC is something that we think we can make better, and we’re focused on it now… Our job is to protect the DC brand, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

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