“We don’t owe anyone any favors. It’s not ‘show friends,’ it’s ‘show business.'”
Those are the words of new Warner Bros CEO David Zaslav, who may simultaneously be one of the most powerful and most frustrated chiefs in Hollywood. For he has been tasked with cleaning up the mess that is the studio’s spotty track record in recent years, which has seen WB unable to keep pace with the economic growth of rival Disney. This angst has been building steadily, but reached a new peak amidst the recent merger between WarnerMedia and Discovery Inc. With mergers often come shakeups in the respective companies’ workforce, as well as a change in power structure. There’s also an intense scrutiny placed on the merging parties, as new regimes will find any reason to make sweeping changes. And Warner Bros has had a lot to scrutinize of late.
Consider Warner’s cipher in the streaming wars – HBO Max. The relatively new service has an outstanding reservoir of titles at users’ fingertips, but it’s usage in 2021 represented a huge gamble for WarnerMedia. Still in the teeth of the pandemic’s death grip on live entertainment, WarnerMedia made the choice to release all of their 2021 titles as day-and-date releases. This means that films like Mortal Kombat, Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong, and The Matrix Resurrections would be able to be seen in theaters as well as on HBO Max, ON THE SAME DAY. This was a risky endeavor, and I don’t think it paid off. While Godzilla vs. Kong and Dune were box office hits, they undoubtedly left crucial money on the table. Meanwhile, The Matrix Resurrections just outright bombed in spectacular fashion, partially due to terrible reviews from critics, while being a victim of the peak of Spider-Man: No Way Home hype. However, the simultaneous release on HBO Max only exacerbated issues concerning the 4th Matrix – if critics are dumping on a movie, why not watch it on a streaming service as opposed to spending $50 to see it in theaters?
These are the issues that Zaslav intends to correct – tightening the screws so that you’re appropriately leveraging the value of your intellectual property. Those big tentpole movies wouldn’t have been on HBO Max if up to Zaslav, a lesson clearly learned when The Batman released this year and dominated the box office. Which makes sense – the DC movies are Warner Bros’ biggest cash cow, and the franchise most likely for the studio to draw people to a movie theater. So why is the structure of that franchise such an unfettered mess? There are four big DCEU movies on the docket for WarnerMedia in the near future – Black Adam, The Flash, Aquaman 2, and Shazam 2. And all 4 of those titles have had their release dates shuffled. The most high profile move being The Flash which is a title that, after moving to a June 2023 released date, is now marred in controversy thanks to the film’s lead star.
The charges against Ezra Miller, who stars as The Flash/Barry Allen, are long as the young star has been making violent headlines for years. They have been caught on tape assaulting a woman, have been accused of death threats, have been accused of throwing chairs at women, and in the latest chapter of the saga – they have been accused of kidnapping a child and fleeing authorities. For a while, every new Ezra Miller headline sounded like a pitch for a Ricky Spanish storyline in American Dad. This person clearly needs help, needs rehabilitation, and does not need to be the star of a multi-billion dollar movie franchise. Yet, WarnerMedia has only tip-toed to that reality, with rumors circulating that Miller will likely not portray the character beyond 2023’s The Flash. But WarnerMedia’s unwillingness to publicly distance themselves from Miller raises a lot of questions.
To be fair, Hollywood contracts are complicated and the studio may be opting to not make any brash moves that could violate Ezra’s contract. Even if you would hopefully assume that Miller is already in violation of the contract given his own criminal activity, WarnerMedia doesn’t want to leave the door open for a lawsuit. After the ugly scuffle between Scarlett Johansson and Disney, movie studios are predictably on high alert about any potential lawsuits from their collaborators. WarnerMedia themselves are currently going through this exact crisis – they were sued earlier this year by Village Roadshow Pictures, one of the key production studios that helped bring all 4 Matrix movies to the big screen. Perhaps emboldened by the Johansson lawsuit, Village Roadshow attested that the mismanaged release of Matrix Resurrections ended up screwing them out of millions of dollars.
Whether Village Roadshow is right is up for debate, but it’s just an additional piece of drama for a studio in flux. While it’s perhaps too sympathetic to say any major corporation came out a “loser” in the aftermath of the pandemic, Covid certainly hasn’t done WarnerMedia any favors. And Ezra Miller is outright kicking them in the nuts. So how do you solve many of these issues? Well, the biggest step is doing something the DCEU has often struggled with – making sound decisions in your world building. WB should release The Flash – too much money has been spent, and too many innocent people will lose out on income if the film didn’t see a theatrical release. However, what do to about Miller is more complicated. You could re-cast, with some fans desiring Umbrella Academy/Inception star Elliot Page in the role. You could also have a new character assume the mantle of The Flash – Wally West. West, in the comics, is the 2nd most recognizable character to become The Flash. In many ways, Ezra’s jokey interpretation of Barry Allen was probably closer in tone to how Wally is portrayed in the comics, which means you can easily slot in a character that carries that sense of humor over to future movies. Have Page play that role, or cast a young relatively unknown actor, which is often the superhero formula.
It should be an easy decision for two reasons: the public reaction to Ezra’s actions has been mostly disapproving of the actor, and Ezra’s Barry Allen is hardly some uber popular big screen draw. Their only big-screen starring role is in the terrible Justice League (2017). While they’re not to blame for why that movie is bad, it did not get the character off to a rollicking big-screen start. This isn’t like replacing Captain America or Iron Man, on-screen heroes who have left a much bigger impact on movie fans. More importantly, this is a character where the actor essentially fired themselves through their own actions. The problem is, Miller likely should have been fired a long time ago. Yet, even after everything that’s happened, we still don’t have confirmation that they’re fired, just rumors and conjecture. I mean, we expect Miller to be ejected from this role, but the longer everything is up in the air, the longer we can’t say anything certain about WarnerMedia’s decision-making.
But I think again of Zaslav’s quote: it’s not “show friends,” it’s “show business.” Zaslav was talking about the previous regime’s curious decision to greenlight Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho, made as a favor from the studio to the actor/director, despite WarnerMedia knowing the movie would bomb. And bomb it did, which explains why Zaslav questioned the business sense in geeenlighting it in the first place. In that vein, I have to question the business sense in not getting ahead of this Ezra Miller drama – does the DCEU just not have personal conduct clauses in their contracts? Does the Warner brass just imagine there’s a way to salvage this situation without replacing the actor? Show business isn’t just about the hard decisions, it’s also nailing the easy ones. Not granting a Lifetime Achievement movie to Clint Eastwood should be an easy decision. No longer employing dangerous criminals, who have not paid for their transgressions, should be another – but “show business” says nothing about ethics.