Warner Bros. Discovery has destroyed another finished film for a tax rebate, Coyote Vs Acme. Here’s what we’ve missed out on:
Since WarnerMedia and Discovery, Inc. merged to form, imaginatively, Warner Bros. Discovery on April 11th 2022, the company has produced (discounting those it only distributed) a total of 12 feature films. As of November 2023, it has destroyed – quite literally, erased from existence – three.
If it seems strange to you that a movie studio would scrap a full fifth of the films it finishes, you’ll be even more shocked to find that the latest victim of the David Zaslav regime, live-action-animation hybrid Coyote Vs Acme, was apparently rather good. While the first film to suffer this fate (deleted before release as a tax write-off), Batgirl, had execs cowering behind the excuse its release “would have hurt DC” and their wider superhero brand, test audiences for John Cena’s latest Warner Bros project, according to its director, seemed almost universally positive.
While it’s tempting to take that verdict with a pinch of salt, following conventional Hollywood logic, the film must have been good – the idea seems too weird to green-light otherwise. A combination of live action and animation, Coyote Vs Acme was based on an excellent 1990 New Yorker article of the same name, which transcribes the legal proceedings between Looney Tunes’ unluckiest marsupial and the corporation which provides his Roadrunner-stopping materials.
For an idea of the film’s tone, here’s an extract from the article in question:
“Defendant sold over the counter, without caveat, a product which attached powerful jet engines (in this case, two) to inadequate vehicles, with little or no provision for passenger safety. Encumbered by his heavy casts, Mr. Coyote lost control of the Rocket Skates soon after strapping them on, and collided with a roadside billboard so violently as to leave a hole in the shape of his full silhouette.”
With Wile E. Coyote battered and bruised after another encounter with his road-running prey, the film would have seen him seeking representation from an equally down-on-his luck attorney, played by Will Forte, to seek damages from the megalomaniacal Acme Company. When the corporation’s defence turns out to be Forte’s old boss, the stage is set for an absurd arc of redemption for the lawyer and his client.
If the idea of a legal drama starring Will Forte, John Cena and one of the most iconic cartoon characters on the planet sounds like a slam-dunk, it also sounds a far-cry from the sort of film the studio system has been producing in recent years. It sounds, in short, like exactly the sort of film that would have been a welcome sight in a cinema.
Warner Bros, apparently, disagrees. “With the re-launch of Warner Bros. Pictures Animation in June, the studio has shifted its global strategy to focus on theatrical releases,” a spokesperson from Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group said in a statement. Like Batgirl and Scoob! Holiday Haunt before it, Coyote Vs. Acme was a project initially scheduled for a straight-to-streaming release. Following a too-little-too-late shift to theatrical (Warner Bros’ streaming-focused pandemic response already lost them long-term collaborator Christopher Nolan, along with his $900m Oppenheimer), the company seems to have very suddenly realised the numbers behind straight-to-streaming releases don’t quite add up.
Assuming for a second this whole fiasco isn’t simply the result of gross business incompetence, Warner Bros. Discovery’s recent dealings should be setting off some major alarm bells in the streaming industry. If the suits have decided the $30m clawed back in tax for writing off a $70m finished film, alongside the significant reputational damage the company is quickly accruing (we can even put a number on that – the first Batgirl cancellation saw the company’s market cap drop by $20bn) is worth more to Warner Bros than simply releasing a well-received film on a platform it owns, then what does that say about the economics of the streaming revolution?
While it’s plausible that a theatrical release of Coyote Vs. Acme, once marketing and distribution are taken into account, wouldn’t break the roughly $140m ceiling for the film to make a profit, if the same film released on the platform formerly known as HBO Max wouldn’t earn its owners even $30m through ad revenue and additional subscribers, then why were they willing to spend $70m on it in the first place?
While Hollywood history is littered with half-finished projects abandoned in late stages of production, this cultural arson is new, and worrying, territory. As the actors’ strike comes to a close and the movie-making machines whir up again, surely more and more filmmakers must be wondering if Warner Bros. Discovery is the creative partner for them. If a movie studio can’t find a financially viable way to release a movie – what are they even doing here?