Does Batgirl mark the beginning of the end of the great streaming experiment?

Leslie Grace as Barbara Gordon in the only released image from 'Batgirl' (Warner Bros)

Leslie Grace as Barbara Gordon in the only released image from ‘Batgirl’ (Warner Bros)

It was the shot that was heard around the world – or at least around the corridors of social media. This week Warner Bros put a bullet through the head Bat girl, canceling the film’s release as it neared completion. It was a decision without any real precedent. Almost $100 million (£82 million) had already been put into production; filming was completed. Michael Keaton was set to reprise his role as Batman for the first time in 30 years. Warner Bros attributed the decision to shelve it to a “strategic shift” of management; the pivot follows a significant leadership change in the company’s upper echelon. But what everyone really heard, whether they know it or not, was not a “bang” but a “pop”. For all intents and purposes, the great streaming bubble may have just burst.

The remarkable thing about Bat girl, you see, wasn’t that it was denied a theatrical release. This is unfortunately the case all too often with movies now, even big budget ones. If you’re worried about something flopping, keep it straight to streaming. (During the height of the pandemic, when theatrical release flops were a sure thing, straight-to-streaming or hybrid releases were particularly prevalent—films from Wonder Woman 1984 to Dune to The Matrix Resurrections all launched immediately on streaming in the US). The problem is that Warner Bros. presumably decided there was more profit to be made from the tax write-offs that would come from abandoning the project altogether than there would be from dumping it on the HBO Max streaming service. And they are not wrong.

Has streaming ever really made sense? I don’t mean the technology, of course – the sheer convenience of watching movies and TV shows over the internet means that most people will never accept going back to a world of cumbersome physical media. But financially, streaming has always been overtaken on vibes alone. It’s never made business sense for Netflix to release movies that would easily clear $100 million in theaters straight to streaming — throwing millions in cold, hard cash in exchange for the nebulous lure of “branding” and “streaming exclusivity.” You can’t build an entire business around exponential subscriber growth; eventually, as we saw earlier this year, you’re simply going to run out of new customers.

The fact that Netflix has begun paving the way for a new advertising-supported subscription tier suggests that the company has doubts about the sustainability of its business model. Advertising-supported television had been the best and most profitable way to monetize home programming for the better part of a century. Streaming was never likely to usurp this in the long run, any more than paid cable subscriptions did towards the end of the 20th century. With cinema, the most profitable way to distribute a film has been to give it a theatrical release; the dream scenario could see companies make billions from a film that costs only a few hundred thousand to make and promote. Moving a feature to “straight-to-DVD” or “straight-to-video” was typically a sign that a studio had given up on its financial prospects. “Direct-to-streaming” doesn’t share the stigma of its physical media predecessors, but there’s hardly anything more useful for recouping an investment.

But back to Bat girl. The DC Comics adaptation was far from the only casualty in Warner Bros’ top management shakeup. Scoob! Holiday resort – a sequel to the sad Scooby Doo prequel Scoob! – was canceled at the same time, despite the fact that it was largely already animated. A number of TV shows have also been dropped from HBO Max in recent weeks – including Raised by wolves, Close enough, Made for loveand The Gordita Chronicles. Variety noted that six HBO Max-exclusive original movies—including Anne Hathaway’s remake of The witches and the Seth Rogen vehicle An American pickle – had been quietly removed over the past six weeks, something almost unheard of in the streaming world. The report suggested that the move could be designed to escape payment obligations for underperforming titles, or carried out for tax purposes, as is allegedly the intention of Bat girl.

Perversely, those of us rooting for the survival of the “cinematic experience” can take some heart from the fact that Warner Bros is clearly prioritizing the very real financial potential of theatrical releases over the woolly branding boost of streaming. It can only take so long for the rest of the industry to follow suit. But to cancel projects that Bat girl is not the way to proceed. You can’t help but feel for the cast, crew, directors — some of whom have posted heartbreaking statements after hearing about the cancellation — and even the fans.

At the end of the day, movie studios are anti-artists. They are at the mercy of shareholders and directors – people who, at the end of the day, will inevitably follow the money. When there’s more profit to be found in canceling a $90 million project altogether than releasing it on streaming, it’s clear that there’s something pretty rotten about the whole business model. Streaming as we know it must adapt or die – and soon.

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