This isn’t the first time HBO has ditched the work of its creators, but filmmakers should view all studio experiences with caution.
In all the hubbub surrounding streaming updates from Warner Bros. Discovery this week, no one bothered to note that we had been here before. It’s not the first time that a version of the company – or at least a version of it – has killed off a finished project in the name of delisting with no regard for its creators.
Of course, it’s hard to look at the past when there’s a lot to ponder in the present: ‘Batgirl’ won’t come out but the ‘Flash’ scandal will one way or another; old HBO Max titles were quietly booted from the service; executives on the earnings call proclaimed their confidence in plans to combine two very different streaming services into a new, amorphous entity that still has no name.
But let’s step back for a moment and recall some recent history: remember HBO Go?
Launched during the paramount era of the streaming wars in 2010 (USA Today: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO – on your computer”), HBO Go quietly morphed into HBO Max at the summer 2020. The internet has long since moved on: the HBO Go site redirects to HBO Max and a link to the older Asian version of the service appears even before Wikipedia enters, with a quote from no less than Jon Snow announcing his fate.
HBO Go’s failure was instructive on many fronts, not the least of which was that it competed with popular hit HBO programming rather than integrating it. It was an experience that chained several up-and-coming filmmakers to lock their work in the same limbo where “Batgirl” now finds itself. The playing field has not been democratized, but it has been leveled: everyone is vulnerable to suppression.
In light of the shock that a major studio can simply eradicate a massive creative effort, for the sake of the focus of this column on cinemait’s worth noting the pattern here: disruptive business ventures are riskiest for the people who have the most to lose, i.e. the creatives.
A decade ago, as Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ became a smash hit after 26-year-old ‘Tiny Furniture’ broke from SXSW, HBO decided to use its fledgling service to woo more talented young storytellers to experiment. on a small scale. These so-called “HBO Digitals” were created by former HBO executive Nick Hall (who now oversees the creation of A24’s TV division) and enlisted a group of up-and-coming young artists to develop short-form content in the range from 10 to 15 minutes (hi, Quibi!). The episodes did not head to HBO’s linear channel; they were HBO Go exclusives, meant to attract curious viewers while nurturing new talent from within.
Some results were disappointing, like “The Boring Life of Jacqueline,” which starred Sundance-winning director Sebastián Silva and cinematographer extraordinaire Jody Lee Lipes, but never rose above the level of a movie. lo fi student. “Single Long,” a web series spin-off about Chicago hipsters, was a total dud. “Brody Stevens: Enjoy It,” produced by Zach Galifianakis, featured its titular self-destructive comedian as an extended single punchline. But “Garfunkel and Oates,” which featured the eccentric musical duo of Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, boasted charming “Flight of the Conchords” energy in four- to six-minute bursts. All of these programs went bankrupt, but not before seeing one in action.
In 2012, filmmaker Alex Ross Perry invited me on the set of “The Traditions”, his HBO Digital production which he envisioned as an 85-minute feature film divided into 12-15 minute chunks. Perry’s gritty black-and-white comedy “The Color Wheel” was a recent festival hit that turned its unique blend of sarcastic humor and cinephile into an instant brand. The move from “The Color Wheel” to “The Traditions” wasn’t quite as bold as Dunham’s move from micro-budget cinema to “Girls”, but it was an opportunity to experiment at studio cost.
Perry had a great time on set, directing and starring alongside Kate Lyn Shiel in an observational comedy about a young couple who move to a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. The show — or mini-movie, if you will — consisted of passive-aggressive exchanges, off-the-cuff chatter, and satirical asides that poked fun at the insular world of a small-town college. Driving that day to the shoot in upstate New York from his home in Brooklyn, he was thrilled with the opportunity.
“It’s pretty nice not having to explain to my extended family or friends of friends at weddings what I do and why maybe they should care,” he said. . “HBO means you care when someone talks to you, and that’s kind of nice.”
Within a year, “The Traditions” was wiped out along with other HBO Digital ventures before the industry had time to notice. At that point, “House of Cards” took off, and everyone wanted streaming original blockbusters more than rambling sketches. Perry returned to feature films with the 2014 Sundance hit “Listen Up Philip” and he continued to develop his work of anxious character studies through the familiar path of feature films.
If there’s a teachable moment in these latest developments, it might be the same one that came before. “They looked at the costs and decided that this program didn’t work and was too much work to create $100,000 nothings,” Perry texted me. week, noting the parallel with his HBO Digitals experience. “Weirdly…the same story we’re hearing now but with $100 million.”
The industry will always struggle to adapt and restart, and emerging directors and producers should always view disruptions with caution. Nobody wants to be a Hollywood lab rat. Rather than taking leftovers from the studio lot, aim for the same opportunities great filmmakers already have – the familiar pathways that form the backbone of the enterprise ecosystem. Off-the-beaten-track deals sound exciting on paper, but they’re the most vulnerable to cold capitalism in action.
“Batgirl,” developed into the dubious rubric of a “streaming movie” that could never survive the measures of theatrical success, had red flags from the start. There was no long-term future in assigning quality to “streaming” versus “non-streaming”. Sure, a limited movie supply inspired Jean-Luc Godard to invent the cut jump on “A bout de souffle” (or so the story goes), but the lower bar for streaming movies gives more storytelling. nonchalant than aesthetic achievements. It’s nothing like a tentpole, and it’s clear now that WBD management wants to develop movies and TV shows that all seem to be part of the same equation. “We are stronger together and will make significant progress in operating our business as one team,” said David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, during the earnings call this week.
The transition from risk tolerance to risk aversion is a historical fatality. That means no more sweeping swings like “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” a $70 million multi-episode director’s cut made exclusively for streaming and to appease internet trolls. It probably caused Zaslav to gag if he even bothered to watch all four hours (although the parts are quite entertaining, and it certainly works much better than the turgid theatrical cut), and that’s not an isolated circumstance. . It’s hard to imagine Netflix would have greenlit the two-and-a-half-hour Season 3 finale of “Stranger Things” after its latest stock market crash.
There’s a silver lining to all of this; even bottom line executives now realize they must produce work that, by an elusive audience metric, bears the mark of quality. “It’s not about how much,” Zaslav told investors. “That’s how good it is.” And the best path to that outcome requires storytelling talent that can deliver the goods.
WBD may want to take a look at Universal’s recent moves. A few months ago, I advocated for other first-look agreements similar to the one Universal is maintaining with Jordan Peele. These provide a foundation of support for filmmakers to continue honing their skills rather than struggling between projects while providing studios with a worthwhile investment in original intellectual property. Universal turned to this strategy again, signing a five-year first look with director duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – aka Daniels – following their jaw-dropping A24 hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once”.
Courtesy of Everett Collection
The Daniels, who told me earlier this year that they passed up the opportunity to direct “Loki” for Disney+ to develop their own original multiverse project, now have the chance to continue growing in the commercial arena on their own terms. Chances are they’ll keep doing some goofy, unclassifiable stuff that will bolster their already great fan base (the pressure is on, guys!). Whatever the results, it’s a safe bet that it will be memorable and that many people will want to see it. As WBD tries to sort out its confusion of DC properties with one hand, it might consider using the other to secure a few deals like this.
Filmmakers, meanwhile, want to start making sure they save their work on private hard drives: even the people who make the finished masterpieces in the studios don’t own the final result, and they never will.
Email me with your thoughts on this week’s column or your own take on what this week’s news means for filmmakers trying to navigate the uncertainty of the studio system: [email protected]
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