The streaming revolution promised us the luxury of choice. The new age of instant accessibility to decades’ worth of film and television seemed like a cultural utopia. Never again would we have to worry about art disappearing due to neglect or bureaucratic meddling. It took practically no time at all for that fantasy to be proven almost hilariously wrong. Over the past couple of years, as various studios and companies entered the increasingly saturated streaming game, all of the mistakes of Hollywood past were repeated tenfold: costly squabbles over who owned what; a distinct lack of transparency over viewership numbers; salary disputes and questions over anti-union practices; and, of course, a sudden downturn in availability of material for viewers to access. It’s happening across the board but it’s over at Warner Bros. Discovery where things have gotten extremely dark.
Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. was formed when WarnerMedia by AT&T and Discovery Inc. merged in April of this year. The conglomerate now owns Warner Bros., HBO Inc, Turner Broadcasting, CNN, DC Entertainment, and the Turner Sports brand, among other departments. David Zaslav was hired as the Chief Executive Officer and President of Warner Bros. Discovery having spearheaded the acquisition, and he immediately changed the company’s focus in a way that caused a lot of collateral damage. Most infamously, the upcoming Batgirl HBO Max film saw its release cancelled, a move that was later revealed to be part of an $825â€¯million write-down on content. Over the past couple of weeks, other HBO Max shows and films were either canceled or outright pulled from the streaming service.
The result has been a veritable bloodbath, especially for the animation industry. Shows like Infinity Train, OK K.O., Summer Camp Island, and Aquaman: King of Atlantis were unceremoniously taken down from the platform. Over 200 Sesame Street episodes also vanished. One fan was in the middle of watching Infinity Train on HBO Max when the ‘media not found’ error popped up and suddenly disappeared. As noted by series creator Owen Dennis on Substack, the show is gone from HBO Max, Cartoon Network, and their YouTube and Twitter accounts. The soundtrack was even removed from streaming services. While it’s still available on services like Amazon, he admits that he’s unsure of how long they’ll remain there, even though Warner Bros. Discovery ‘assured’ him that ‘it would not be taken down from any pay-per-season/episode services.’ Understandably, many are cynical about this claim, especially since it seems that creators weren’t told of the decision to remove their work before it happened.
Money is usually at the heart of decisions like this. In the current age of heavily monopolized media and an increasing lack of options, companies like Warner Bros. Discovery will do everything in their power to squeeze every penny from the smallest of sources. This doesn’t entirely mesh with their continued strategy of spending upwards of $200 million on tentpole blockbusters (or whatever cost is involved in keeping Ezra Miller around for The Flash) but it is indicative of their misguided priorities. It’s not enough to have some parts of your business make some money. Unless they’re making all of the money, they’re not considered worth the effort or investment.
Media monopolies are bad across the board. It’s terrible that Comcast owns so much. It’s terrifying how many things fall under the vast umbrella of Disney. And we’re seeing Warner Bros. Discovery, in all its clumsily named glory, repeat the cruel tasks of its predecessors, albeit with more publicly evident callousness. Months before the Justice Department blessed the $43â€¯billion Warner Bros. Discovery merger, 30 members of Congress warned the agency in a letter that the resulting competition vacuum could allow the company to steamroll audience desires and dampen inclusive programming. Rafael AgustÃn, CEO of the Latino Film Institute, told The Hollywood Reporter, ‘The new Warner Bros. Discovery leadership is relying on formulas and cost-saving measures that have historically excluded marginalized communities.’ It doesn’t seem a coincidence that the first major movie canned, Batgirl, had a Latina actress at its forefront and was directed by two Belgian-Moroccan filmmakers.
Owen Dennis himself noted, ‘We’re working at the intersection of art and commerce, but the people in charge have clearly forgotten that they’ll have no commerce without the art.’ Of course, to companies like Warner Bros. Discovery, art isn’t what they want. It’s content. Batgirl wasn’t in line with their narrow definition of #content so it was scrapped in favor of a tax write-off, damn the hundreds of people involved in bringing it to life. The human cost is also vast. Many of these creators, animators, and below-the-line industry workers are now at risk of losing not only royalties but healthcare provisions. Dennis wrote, ‘Our pay is not complete without the ongoing residuals. Those residuals aren’t paid directly to the artists, they actually go to our union to pay for our healthcare. So not paying artists residuals on their work means they are indirectly defunding our healthcare.’
Martin Scorsese was right: the devaluing of art and those who make it as nothing but a stream of anodyne content is bad for us all. It’s awful for audiences who dared to show a modicum of dedication to a piece of storytelling. It’s wasteful and dehumanising for those who make it and are reliant on the whims of corporate finger-pointing to make a basic living. It’s horrendous for the preservation and archiving of art, something that Hollywood has historically been terrible at. The curse of streaming is that it depends on the allure of accessibility in theory while greatly limiting it in practice. Netflix, for example, is pathetically bereft of films and TV series made before 1975. Disney seems utterly uninterested in allowing audiences to view the Golden Age movies they acquired as part of the Fox merger. HBO Max seemed to be an exception in making its old films available for viewing, but now they’re throwing newer and niche work to the wolves. Stuff with no physical release (because streaming’s popularity relies on making sure there’s only one place to watch things) may vanish forever, with piracy the only option open to those fans who care.
If you’re a writer or director, you’re probably looking at what’s happening at Warner Bros. Discovery and crossing them off your (admittedly shrinking) list of places to pitch to. Cartoon Network warned their bosses that this mess would irrevocably hurt relationships with creators and talent but they did it anyway. They clearly don’t care how pig-headed this looks to the public. How the hell do you even begin to deal with that? Their focus is on a handful of shareholders, not the unnamed tens of thousands of underpaid workers creating all the art that makes them money.
CNBC has estimated that this mass exodus of #content will save Warner Bros. Discovery some tens of millions of dollars. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to the $3 billion that Zaslov says he wants to save by 2023. He’s not earning those pennies by cutting his own impressive salary. He’s doing it by hurting those who are already struggling to get off the bottom rungs of the ladder. In that sense, it’s business as usual for Hollywood, but the chances of true success seem slim. You’re not Disney. People aren’t slavishly loyal to your brand. They’ll cut HBO Max before they unsubscribe from Disney+ or Netflix. But, as Warner Bros. Discovery in their infinite wisdom have shown us, they don’t really care about the whims of people not earning eight-figure salaries.