Thursday, September 29, 2022

Why Warner Bros. Discovery Boss David Zaslav Rules With An Iron Fist

While the rest of the world focuses on the fall film festival and the kick-off to awards season, there’s still a lot happening at Warner Bros. Discovery. Like a corporate version of Godzilla, former Discovery, Inc. CEO David Zaslav has conquered one of the premier legacy industry studios while leaving nothing but potential destruction in his wake and shows no signs of stopping soon. For a quick refresher, in April, Zaslav led a $43 billion merger between AT&T and WarnerMedia, resulting in Warner Bros. Discovery, which Zaslav now presides over with an iron fist.

In the past month, comic book fans of the studio experienced the most pain when Zaslav decided that DC’s “The Batgirl” be scrapped entirely; it had been originally planned to premiere on Warner Bros. owned streaming app HBO Max. In addition to that, Warner Bros. also removed “Batman The Caped Crusader” and pushed back both “Shazam: Fury of The Gods” and “Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom” to 2023.

Even outside the realm of comic books, Zaslav and company have also abetted halting production on several original animated series and removing what they deem to be “unpopular content” like “Vinyl” and “An American Pickle,” solely for the purposes of lucrative tax write-offs. Reportedly, Zaslav is dealing with a mountain of debt to the tune of 43 billion dollars, that’s causing some of these drastic measures.

But even so, this begs the question of Zaslav’s endgame for the company. Yes, drastic times call for extreme measures, but some decisions are just downright baffling. It seems that the only way to understand this tricky situation is through an analysis of Zaslav’s storied career in television. It’s imperative to know that streamlining is in Zaslav’s blood. His experience as the president and CEO of NBC Universal in the 90s and Discovery Channel in the early 2000s gave him an invaluable insight into how to run an entertainment company by trimming the fat.

So naturally, it makes sense that one of his first actions as head of Warner Bros. Discovery was prioritizing theatrical releases over streaming-focused releases, a decision that HBO and HBO Max had made at the peak of the pandemic with the simultaneous release of mega-blockbusters like “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Dune.” It was a shocking decision, to say the least. Still, past the dreadful PR fallout from theatrical purists who rebuked the decision to simultaneously stream, Zaslav’s decision to revert back to theatrical releases over streaming will no doubt benefit its tentpole franchises in the DC cinematic universe, “Godzilla” and “The Wizarding World.”

Another positive development for Zaslav’s regime is the renewal of HBO’s five-year contract with Warner Bros. to retain Casey Bloys as chief content officer. For those unaware, Bloys was named HBO’s programming chief in May 2016 and took over HBO Max’s original content duties in August 2020. Since then, he has greenlit hit shows like “Hacks,” “Barry,” and “Westworld,” which became HBO’s biggest debut in just one episode with 10 million viewers.

From that resume, he knows what gets eyes while maintaining the HBO brand’s prestige. This also aligns with Zaslav’s attempt to create the studio he envisions; so far, he has hired studio veterans such as MGM’s Mike Deluca and former Warner Bros. and Disney executive Alan Horn, as well as seeking advice from Disney alum Bob Iger.

However, he has made two fatal mistakes, which are underestimating talent relations and the optics of the current situation. As reported, there have been significant conflicts within the studio between Zaslav and JJ Abrams concerning his failure to produce the DC projects he promised, such as “Constantine” and “Superman.” It is also possible that as a form of punishment, HBO has canceled his expensive sci-fi passion project “Demimonde.”

This type of friction has also spread throughout Warner Bros. televisions and animated department as well, as several hit shows for the streamer having been canceled or flat out removed from the platform, including “Close Enough,” Generation Hustle,” “Raised By Wolves,” “Made for Love,” and several others to save money by avoiding residual payments. In addition, most of the projects he has cut have been produced by people of color, which makes Zaslav’s recent decisions look even more troubling.
While those incidents have occurred, Walter Hamada, DC film’s current president, has likely been the most impacted by the merger. In the last four months of Zaslav’s watch, Hamada’s rule in DC has been in tatters.

Not only has Zaslav proclaimed that he has a grand 10-year plan for DC, but he’s also on record as saying that he will spin it off into its own studios like Marvel with a brand-new Fiege-like figure at the helm, who seems to have been chosen already with seasoned producer Dan Lin in talks for the role.

Additionally, Zaslav canceled several of Hamada’s DC projects after the flash, including the $90 million “Batgirl” movie, which is the most egregious example of Zaslav’s ruthlessness. As of now, Zaslav remains committed to releasing most of DC’s theatrical slate under Hamada, including “Black Adam,” “Shazam Fury Of The Gods,” “Aquaman The Lost Kingdom,” and Ezra Miller’s controversial role in “The Flash.” Unfortunately, the abrupt cancellation of “Batgirl” has placed Hamada’s future at DC in jeopardy, which is unfortunate since several insiders have praised him.

After all, that baggage has been removed, and now we must ask, what will Zaslav’s Warner Bros. look like? There has been speculation that Warner Bros. will be a highly organized, streamlined organization similar to Disney. However, others believe it will resemble Paramount and MGM of old, where quality will be the king and the theater will be the focus. Zaslav has stated that theatrical windowing would be prioritized over streaming, which is very encouraging. If I had to guess what shape this studio will take, I’d say it will probably be a combination of both methods. This sounds great in theory but is quite destructive in practice.

Despite the talented executives Zaslav has hired, it is unclear whether he will be able to grow their division without cutting corners. Among the most problematic aspects of his regime at Warner Bros. is his desire to have it all, which is that he wants big-name talent to join the company while also hamstringing them with budget constraints and corporate mandates. I find it interesting that Iger is mentoring Zaslav to avoid becoming like Bob Chapek, the current Disney CEO, despite having a powerful grudge against him. In spite of this, Zaslav has become like Chapek through his cruelty, as well as mistreating talent, much the same way former Warner Bros. president Jason Kilar ran the studio before him.

It is difficult to predict what will happen to the company in the future. Whatever happens, this ongoing story will continue to shock the industry unexpectedly.

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