Falling stock, controversial stars, and a complicated streaming situation.
After a prolonged search for a new DC Films leader, Warner Bros. Discovery has finally solved one — just one — of their many conundrums.
Director James Gunn and producer Peter Safran are set to become the new co-chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery’s superhero film, TV and animation branch next week, starting on November 1. The change was accompanied by the announcement that DC Films is being rebranded as DC Studios — probably not coincidentally, this puts it more in line with its closest rival, Marvel Studios, over at Disney.
The duo of Gunn and Safran have worked extensively at the company — Gunn directed “The Suicide Squad” and HBO Max’s “Peacemaker,” while Safran executive produced those projects and other DC films such as “Aquaman” and “Shazam!” — although Gunn’s appointment as a director with somewhat minimal producing experience is unusual for a major studio role like this. Details on their full vision are a bit hazy, but one thing is clear — the two will be inheriting a ton of baggage.
On the one hand, Gunn and Safran will begin their post almost immediately after the relative box office success of “Black Adam,” which received terrible reviews but opened to a solid $67 million. On the other hand, they’ll be tasked with whipping DC’s film and TV slate, which can charitably be described as “messy,” into shape, and contending with some bad press plaguing WBD overall.
The company — which was founded a mere six months ago from the merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery — has been racking up impressive amounts of controversy, carries a debt of $55 billion, and has seen its stock fall 50 percent in value since April. It’s not the worst merger in the history of the universe (or even in Warner’s own history: the infamous failed 2001 AOL TimeWarner merger still has it beat), but the company has definitely had the messiest 2022 of any entertainment corporation. And many of the biggest profile blunders facing the company relate to how it’s handled its DC shows and films, so presumably some of the pressure to fix it will end up on Gunn and Safran’s laps.
Here’s a shortlist of all the controversies at WBD, as well as what’s on Gunn and Safran’s plate as DC’s new head honchos.
“Man of Steel”/Warner Bros.
Making Sense of the DC Film Slate
Reportedly, part of the reason for the search, and the stepping down of former DC Film head Walter Hamada, was that WBD president David Zaslav wanted DC to have its equivalent to Marvel Studio’s Kevin Feige, someone who can guide the films and TV shows produced in a cohesive direction. Currently though, DC’s slate is anything but cohesive.
Upcoming films set to be released include movies that take place in the same general universe established by 2013’s “Man of Steel,” (“Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” “The Flash,” “Blue Beetle,”), but also two movies that exist in their own franchises: the in-development sequel to this year’s “The Batman,” and “Joker: Folie à Deux,” a followup to 2019’s “Joker.” Considering how successful both of the previous films in those series were critically and commercially, WBD presumably wants as many installments for both as possible. But at the same time, plans seem in place to keep the “Man of Steel” universe going, judging from Henry Cavill’s promise that he will be in another film as Superman following his “Black Adam” cameo.
In terms of television, DC’s slate is something of a grab-bag, with The CW’s “Arrowverse” franchise of superhero shows, Gunn’s “Peacemaker” series set in the main film universe, and a handful of other independent HBO Max shows like “Titans” and “Doom Patrol.” Several upcoming shows have run into false starts early on in development, with a spinoff of “The Batman” focused on Arkham Asylum burning through two showrunners (Antonio Campos is currently attached to the in-development series) and a “Green Lantern” series from Greg Berlanti being redeveloped completely after scripts were written.
Ezra Miller and “The Flash”
Uglier issues for DC Films to contend with is the rollout for their upcoming films “The Flash” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.” “The Flash,” set for 2023, has plenty of DC fan service, including the return of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, but star Ezra Miller has spent the bulk of 2022 — and considerable time before that — creating baroque levels of controversy. Between allegations of physical violence, improper conduct toward children, arrests for assault, and a current trial for felony burglary that could result in them facing up to 26 years in prison, the actor’s highly publicized troubles make “The Flash” a thorny proposition. The image rehab has begun: Miller issued an apology for their actions in August, said they’re seeking treatment for their mental health issues, and promised they’re “committed to doing the necessary work to get back to a healthy, safe and productive stage in my life.”
Although not nearly on the same level, next year will feature the release of “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” which features Amber Heard. She spent this summer on the receiving end of an intense social-media harassment campaign stemming from her widely publicized court case with her ex-husband Johnny Depp. Depp’s supporters, who have accused her of lying about the abuse she alleged to have experienced during their marriage, have made several demands that she be cut from the “Aquaman” sequel, but the actor is still set to appear in the film for now.
Can “Batgirl” Rise Again?
One of the biggest film stories of the year was WBD’s almost unprecedented move to shelve two films, “Batgirl” and “Scoob! Holiday Haunt,” never to see the light of day. Company head David Zaslav wanted to prioritize theatrical releases — and, incidentally, take the tax write-offs.
“Batgirl’s” cancellation received particularly high attention, due to the pedigree of the cast and crew — the directors, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, directed “Bad Boys for Life” and episodes of this year’s “Ms. Marvel,” while the cast included “In the Heights” star Leslie Grace, J.K. Simmons, Brendan Fraser, and Keaton as Bruce Wayne. There have since been reports of WBD attempting to develop deals with Grace and the directors for new projects, so there is presumably still a possibility Grace may one day don the Batgirl cowl on film.
A “Black Canary” film, featuring Jurnee Smollett as the character she first played in 2020’s “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey,” is reportedly in development for HBO Max, but it’s unclear if it will release on the streamer, receive a theatrical release instead (another film, “Blue Beetle,” made that same switch), or simply be abandoned while in early stages.
HBO Max Cancellations, Cuts, and Consolidations
Shortly after the “Batgirl” situation, it was announced that WBD is planning to merge HBO Max with its other streaming service, Discovery+, sometime in 2023. Layoffs followed the news quickly, and WBD have faced accusations of gutting HBO Max in preparation for the merger. Some shows already in production were canceled, including the animated Batman cartoon “Caped Crusader,” although that series will reportedly be shopped to other outlets. Fans worried about the fates of several DC shows on the platform, including the acclaimed “Harley Quinn” animated series and “Peacemaker;” both appear to be safe, with “Harley Quinn” getting renewed in August and Gunn himself telling fans on Twitter to “calm down.”
Outside of currently airing shows, HBO Max took the unusual move over the summer of pulling about 70 original titles from the service. The reason behind their removal is unclear, but many of the shows are completely unavailable to rent or buy via any other method, effectively rendering them legally unaccessible.
TNets in Crisis
Another area of WBD to be gutted by the merger and the company’s aggressive cost-cutting is the brand’s “TNet” cable channels — TBS, TNT, and TrueTV. In April, shortly after the merger, it was reported that all the channels would be “pausing” their development of new scripted series. Since then, Brett Weitz was removed as the manager of the three channels, which are now overseen by Kathleen Finch. TNT has one original scripted series, “Snowpiercer,” remaining, and its fourth and final season wrapped production over the summer. TBS has two, “American Dad” and the final season of comedy anthology “Miracle Workers.” In a similar situation to “Batgirl” and HBO Max shows, Season 2 of Nasim Pedrad’s series “Chad” was removed from the channel’s schedule the day it was intended to air; it has since been shopped to Roku. It remains unclear when the remaining shows will air, if on the channels, and what WBD’s overall plan for the three networks is. Notably, TNT acquired U.S. rights to the British drama series “The Lazarus Project,” just to make its future even more confusing.
Courtesy of CNN
CNN in Crisis
One of the earliest and most brutal casualties of the WBD merger was CNN+, a streaming service off-shoot of CNN’s cable news network, featuring shows from several of its most famous personalities. Launched in March this year to mixed reviews from critics, the service struggled to find an audience, with reports that less than 10,000 people were using the site daily. But the streamer didn’t even have the time to become a massive flop like Quibi — only 30 days after launch, WBD shut it down, stating it was “incompatible” with the overall company’s streaming goals going forward.
CNN may not be as big a dumpster fire as CNN+ was, but its ratings may give CNN head Chris Licht an ulcer. CNN is currently on pace to have its lowest-rated (among adults 25-54, the key demo for news programming) quarter since the second quarter of 2012, according to Nielsen data, and its least-watched quarter overall since Q2 2015. Licht recently sent an internal memo to the channel’s staff, warning of “noticeable change to this organization” in the coming weeks — seemingly promising brutal layoffs for the cable institution.
Courtesy of Variety
The State of Animation
WBD holds a portfolio of beloved animated properties like “Looney Tunes,” “Scooby-Doo,” and Cartoon Network IP like “Powerpuff Girls” and “Samurai Jack,” but significant layoffs hit the department’s animated division in October. Combining the production resources of Cartoon Network Studios with Warner Bros. Animation led many to speculate that Cartoon Network would move away from original shows to develop spinoffs of existing media. (WBD sources deny this.)
Courtesy of HBO Max
Rooster Teeth Controversy
Separate from most of WBD’s controversies is a dispute involving subsidiary Rooster Teeth, which produces animated web series like “RWBY” and “Red vs. Blue” — it’s also one of its ugliest. In October, former employee Kdin Jenzen alleged homophobic mistreatment and harassment at the company during their tenure from 2013 to this year. In a blog post, Jenzen said she called out homophobic slurs at the company, which worsened when she came out as trans in 2016. Attempts to report the abuse were allegedly ignored by HR. Jenzen also alleged gross underpay, with their salary being significantly lower than other producers, in addition to taking on extremely long hours and unpaid voiceover work.
The company initially responded with a statement saying it was “disheartened” to hear about her experiences, but did not offer an official apology. In their second statement on the matter, Rooster Teeth formally apologized for Jenzen’s experiences, saying they promise to change their internal culture. Co-founder Geoff Ramsey also issued a lengthy apology for his role in the situation.
In another statement — made after apologizing for an old video that resurfaced of her saying the n-word — Jenzen claimed they left Rooster Teeth after an incident in which a senior exec of the company yelled at Black employees for “putting on a lackluster show” during Black History Month. However, Rooster Teeth HR specialist Nikki Miles disputed her version of events in a statement on behalf of the companies Black Excellence BRG, claiming nobody yelled at Black employees during the meeting.