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Why Hollywood keeps binning brand-new films

The $90m Batgirl film was canned in 2022
The $90m Batgirl film was canned in 2022 - TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

In Stephen King’s 1975 bestseller, Salem’s Lot, a vampire emerges from his crypt and terrorises a New England town. A new movie adaptation of the novel, produced by Aquaman director James Wan, has suffered the opposite fate: it has been sealed away and left to moulder. But not before King had the opportunity to watch it. “It’s quite good,” he tweeted this week. “Old-school horror filmmaking: slow build, big payoff.”

King loves a surprise ending, and his tweet contained a twist. “Not sure why WB is holding it back,” he said. “Not like it’s embarrassing, or anything.”

“WB” is Warner Bros, the Hollywood studio that bankrolled Salem’s Lot and originally announced it would be released in May 2022. That date was pushed back to April 2023, with Warner blaming “Covid-related delays in the post-production realm”. Then, last October, King revealed the movie had been “shelved”. That was the last anyone heard about it until his latest tweet.

Wherever the film is, it is in good company. Since Warner Brothers’ April 2022 merger with the Discovery network, the “new” Warner Bros Discovery conglomerate has been busy sending movies and TV shows into limbo to avail of tax write-offs – all in an apparent bid to service a $45.3 billion debt. At Warner’s Burbank HQ, you could say putting cinema on ice is a cool new trend.

Warner’s initial focus was its HBO Max streaming site, where shows such as Westworld and The Outsider have been binned to save money (if a series isn’t airing, you don’t have to pay royalties). Warner Bros Discovery has now moved on to cinema. It started with Batgirl, a $90 million DC superhero spin-off due to air on Max in 2022. Batgirl was cancelled and will never be seen, allowing the studio to avail itself of tax breaks.

Stephen King was nonplussed by the decision to ditch Salem's Lot
Stephen King was nonplussed by the decision to ditch Salem's Lot - John Lamparski

Hollywood economics are notoriously complex. However, the logic of the Batgirl decision is straightforward. Canning Batgirl meant Warner could list it as a loss up front in its tax returns – allowing it to write off around $15 to $20 million from its liability for that financial year. Had Warner Bros gone ahead and released the feature, with it eventually ending up in the red, it could potentially take years to claim back the same amount. By binning it, those savings could be recouped immediately.

There was an outcry, but Warner Bros Discovery CEO David Zaslav was not for turning. He has since buried Salem’s Lot and two new animated Scooby-Doo features, Soob! Holiday Haunt and Scooby-Doo! and Krypto, Too! (though the latter leaked online last year). Most controversial of all has been the decision to axe a much-anticipated life action /animated comedy, Coyote vs. Acme.

Even more so than Salem’s Lot, the project looked like a sure-fire hit. Wile E Coyote is a star of Warner’s beloved Looney Tunes cartoons, and test screenings for the completed feature were overwhelmingly positive. “Devilishly destructive,” lamented one insider of the decision to scrap the release in an exchange with Rolling Stone.

Of all Zaslav’s moves, blocking a Looney Tunes film is regarded as the most baffling. Warner spent $70 million on Coyote vs. Acme, which had an impressive cast headed by former wrestler John Cena and comedian Will Forte and is directed by David Green (who made the 2016 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot Out of the Shadows).

A scene from Coyote vs. Acme
A scene from Coyote vs. Acme - Warner Bros.

Even more puzzling is that Warner initially announced that it would sell Coyote vs. Acme to another studio. However, its asking price was the entire $70 million budget – no matter that the most it could claw back in tax-deducations from not releasing it was $30 million. It was almost as if executives didn’t want the picture to reach cinemas under any circumstances whatsoever.

“The offer to sell the film was, to put it mildly, not undertaken in good faith,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz on Rogerebert.com. “It appears that the company would rather take less money by writing off the movie than sell it for even a few dollars more than that because they might risk having a rival turn it into a success, which would further embarrass them for never even having tried to market it themselves, even though it was built around intellectual property… inextricably linked with Warner Bros.”

It’s been a bruising several years for Warner Bros Discovery. Zaslav is regarded by many in Hollywood as a barbarian who has breached the gates and is laying waste to all around him.

His background is in cable TV – a very different business to Hollywood and his ruthless focus on profit and loss has alarmed and angered many in Tinsel Town. This is an industry that will tolerate thugs such as Harvey Weinstein – provided they buy into the idea of cinema as sacrosanct. Zaslav is a bottom-line guy, and his willingness to bury Coyote v Acme in a deep, dark place and reap a $30 million tax saving has been received with open disgust.

“Zaslav is the man in charge of frankencorp Warner Bros. Discovery and, in an impressively short period of time, has managed to f—k up nearly everything within its considerable portfolio,” began a damning piece in the SFGate which articulated the loathing Zaslav has evoked around Tinseltown. “He’s a parasite: a terrible CEO, an enemy to artists.”

'Enemy to artists': Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav
'Enemy to artists': Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav - AUDE GUERRUCCI

“Terrible” or not, he isn’t quite the outlier many in Hollywood would have you believe. Netflix, for instance, is sitting on an unreleased Halle Berry science fiction movie, The Mothership, by Bridge of Spies co-writer Matthew Charman.

The premise is intriguing. Berry plays a single mother trying to raise her family after her husband mysteriously vanishes. She then discovers an alien mothership under the family farm: it may hold the key to her husband’s disappearance! Who wouldn’t want to watch Halle Berry battle aliens? Netflix, for one – the company’s chief content officer, Bela Bajaria, said that everyone who had seen the Mothership had agreed “it was better to not watch it”.

Of course, you could say the same about Love Island – and look at its success. However, Bajaria has held firm.

“It doesn’t happen very often, it’s very rare,” she told a press conference. “If you think about how many things we make, it’s a rare thing. But it was one where there were lots of production issues, creative issues.”

Rare it may be – but not unheard of. The Hollywood archives are full of movies destined never to see the light of day – the logic behind their banishment often shrouded in mystery. For instance, as Oppenheimer star Cillian Murphy counts downs down to Oscar night next month, few have mentioned his never-seen 2007 period piece, Hippie Hippie Shake, in which he starred opposite Sienna Miller in a retelling of the true story of the Oz magazine obscenity trial in 1970.

It was never released, the rumour being it was simply too terrible to inflict on an audience. “I was eventually, after asking several times, permitted to see a copy of the film, which I think is quite possibly the worst film to be made in the 21st century,” said Felix Dennis, the Oz editor portrayed in Hippie Hippie Shake by Chris O’Dowd. “An absolute stinker… a dog’s breakfast.”

Notorious: Jerry Lewis in The Day The Clown Cried, 1972
Notorious: Jerry Lewis in The Day The Clown Cried, 1972 - Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

Then there are films which should never have been made in the first place. The most notorious example is Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried from 1972, where the King of Comedy plays a clown sent to Auschwitz. The project doesn’t play for laughs and shares broadly the same storyline as 1997 Oscar-winner Life Is Beautiful. Nonetheless, from Lewis downwards, everyone involved seems to have immediately regretted their involvement.

The Day the Clown Cried was cast into oblivion, and there it remains. However, those who have watched a rough cut say it is as grim as it sounds. “Seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object,” actor Harry Shearer told Spy Magazine.

“This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. ‘Oh, My God!’ – that’s all you can say.”

Lewis was toiling on The Day The Clown Cried in the years Stephen King was writing Salem’s Lot. Some five decades later, the movie adaptation of the latter shares a fate similar to the comedian’s folly. From ghoulish Holocaust romp to cult vampire caper, it’s hard to think of two films with less in common. Yet they have suffered the same ignominious end, both condemned to eternal celluloid undeath.