Why was the $90 million 'Batgirl' killed and could HBO Max be next?

Superhero film is the latest victim of restructuring at Warner Bros Discovery

'Batgirl' directors Adil El Arbi, left, and Bilall Fallah on set in Glasgow, Scotland. Getty Images
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Before taking over the reins at Warner Bros Discovery, the surprise merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery Inc that was completed in April, chief executive David Zaslav had been focused on one thing: cutting costs.

When the deal was first unveiled in May last year, executives told The Hollywood Reporter the two companies expected to save up to $3 billion after two years and planned to pour it back into creating streaming content.

The shock shelving of the long-awaited Batgirl film on Tuesday, which was set to be broadcast on HBO Max later this year, is the latest major victim of that new strategy.

With $90 million already being spent, the superhero film by Moroccan-Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah — who also directed Bad Boys for Life and two episodes of Ms Marvel — was already in post-production.

So why would Warner Bros Discovery throw it all away?

According to Variety, Batgirl is apparently neither big enough for a major theatrical release nor small enough to make economic sense for streaming. In addition to the $90m already spent on it, a further $30m to $50m would still need to be spent on promotion as well as post-production. Those, and other pre-release expenses could have nearly doubled spending on the film.

So, the company instead seems to have chosen to shelve it entirely and is likely to take a tax write-down, which reduces the value of an asset for tax purposes, and will cut their losses. This also means it will not be allowed to monetise the movie in any way, including selling it to another studio, effectively killing the project.

Scoob! Holiday Haunt, a sequel to the 2020 animated film Scoob!, also met the same fate as Batgirl. It was meant to be released on HBO Max next month.

"We are saddened and shocked by the news. We still can't believe it," El Arbi and Fallah wrote on Instagram.

"As directors, it is critical that our work be shown to audiences, and while the film was far from finished, we wish that fans all over the world would have had the opportunity to see and embrace the final film themselves."

A rough journey

DC Comics character Batgirl has had a difficult journey to film, with her last big-screen appearance being via Alicia Silverstone in Joel Schumacher's 1997 movie Batman & Robin.

The long-planned project had been stalled since 2018 when Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Justice League) stepped down as writer and director saying he couldn't come up with a worthy story. Warner Bros then announced it was reviving the project in May last year with El Arbi and Bilall Falla as directors, and Christina Hodson, who wrote Bumblebee, in charge of the script. Singer and actress Leslie Grace, the breakout star of In the Heights, was cast as the lead. Michael Keaton, JK Simmons and Brendan Fraser later joined the cast.

Grace was more upbeat following the news of Batgirl's demise, saying she was "proud of the love, hard work and intention all of our incredible cast and tireless crew put into this film over seven months."

"I feel blessed to have worked among absolute greats and forged relationships for a lifetime in the process," she posted on Instagram. "To every Batgirl fan — THANK YOU for the love and belief, allowing me to take on the cape and become, as Babs said best, 'my own damn hero!'"

Could HBO Max be next?

The axing of Batgirl has rung alarm bells about the long-term survival of HBO Max itself, ahead of a planned earnings report on Thursday. The streaming service, which was launched in 2020, owns a library of all HBO and Warner Bros content, including the much-anticipated Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, coming this month.

But new parent company Warner Bros Discovery also owns Discovery+, which includes channels such as TLC, Animal Planet and Food Network, among others.

Zaslav is expected to announce a major restructuring to both HBO Max and Discovery+ on Thursday, according to TheWrap, with many speculating that either one of the services could be gutted. Layoffs are also expected.

Having all the properties under one streaming entity would make economic sense, and offer tough competition to rivals Netflix and Disney+.

On Wednesday, a representative for Warner Bros told CNN, which is also part of Warner Bros Discovery, the decision to not release Batgirl "reflects our leadership's strategic shift as it relates to the DC universe and HBO Max".

"Leslie Grace is an incredibly talented actor and this decision is not a reflection of her performance," they said. "We are incredibly grateful to the filmmakers of Batgirl and Scoob! Holiday Haunt and their respective casts and we hope to collaborate with everyone again in the near future."

Updated: May 09, 2023, 1:22 PM