‘Batgirl’: Capitalism Is Killing Art

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Batgirl

This week, Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) has cancelled several projects in various stages of completion. The one that made the most noise, though, was the announcement that Batgirl, directed by Bilall Fallah & Adil El Arbi, would be shelved and not be released in any format.

This comes after the already controversial decision to premier Batgirl on HBO Max and not give it the theatrical release many thought it deserved as a Latina-led film with LGBT+ characters. Many feel releasing such a film in theatres would be a big step for representation both behind and in front of the camera in the superhero genre.

The film, which has a budget of $90 million, was almost complete and due for release later this year. The reasons given for axing a multi-million dollar superhero film when films in that genre are making hundreds of millions at the box office are bizarre. Earlier this year David Zaslav became CEO of the newly formed Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) and has said that he wants WBD to focus on theatrical releases to make films feel like “events” again.

Batgirl is seemingly too small to justify almost doubling the budget to give it a theatrical release, and WBD wants to move away from streaming. As such, shelving the film permanently means Warner Bros. can write the film off as tax expenses. This seems like the most financially safe (but creatively cut-throat) way to handle the film.

Why exactly is this such a bad thing? Besides disappointing legions of fans, and the complete disregard for the hard work put into this project by the creatives who made it? Saying film is art has been viewed recently as a pretentious stance to take, but film is art, and has inherent artistic value. Axing a film is one thing, but axing it as a tax write-off is something else. It shows that Warner Bros. only consider films to have financial value rather than artistic.

One of the oldest film studios in Hollywood either has a fundamental misunderstanding of their craft, or they consciously reject film as art and view films solely as business commodities which can be scrapped at any stage of production. Now, this is not to say that Batgirl would have been a piece of art house cinema, but this decision reflects the general attitude towards films held by those at the top of the industry. Being a film it should inherently have artistic value, especially to the CEO of the studio who produced it. 

This is not the first time Zaslav has demonstrated attitudes like this. Earlier this year when he first became CEO of WBD, he was shocked at the studio’s decision to greenlight Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho even though they expected it to fail financially. Studio executives told Zaslav that they felt obliged to fund Eastwood’s film due to his five-decade-long relationship with the studio, as well as his consistent ability to make films quickly and under budget. Zaslav allegedly replied by quoting Jerry Maguire and saying “it’s not show friends, it’s show business.” Of course, it is to be expected that a CEO of a company wants to make money. When dealing with art, that should not be the only thing they care about. 

Film has been commodified in a way that no other art form has. Books can be read for free in libraries, music can be listened to for free on the radio, and paintings or sculptures are displayed in museums for free. Until a film enters the public domain, there is no (legal) way to access it for free. Even after a film has been out for decades and more than made a profit, it’s never available for free. Film has inherent value and should be available in the same way other pieces of art are.

For example, Ava DuVernay, along with Netflix and Paramount, have made parts of her filmography available for free because she believes everyone should have access to them. DuVernay understands that these films have artistic, social, and education value that outranks any financial worth. But the desire to keep earning money, to keep stock numbers high, and please executives prevents this from happening until films enter the public domain – although some studios are fighting to prevent that from happening by having, effectively, perpetual copyright.

Decisions like shelving Batgirl happen all the time, albeit on smaller scales. Every time a studio edits out a same-sex kiss from a film so it can release in more territories, they are sacrificing the artistic integrity of the film in favour of selling tickets. Financial value is constantly winning over artistic value in Hollywood. Disney CEO Bob Chapek has expressed that he is more interested in producing IP-based films rather than original ones. Films based on already successful IP are less financially risky. This is, of course, not the same as scrapping a near-complete film, but it is yet another example of Hollywood studios prioritising financial success over anything else. The reason they do this is that they ‘need’ financial success because film exists in a society driven by money and stock numbers. Capitalism has made it impossible for film to thrive as art.

Of course, that is how the world is, and it would be impossible to ignore financials completely. However, there is a difference between taking that into account and it being the only reason to make films. This kind of attitude that films are not worth making if they will not be a huge box office hit is the antithesis of what art should be. It’s this capitalistic attitude that is the biggest enemy of film as an art form. Whether or not the outcry of support for Batgirl’s release will pressure WBD into changing their minds is yet to be seen, but the fact that it has been done in the first place is damning enough.

Shelving a film as a tax write-off is the most egregious example of this kind of thinking. It is a worrying precedent. Anyone who loves film as art should be angry and aware that this decision means more than just cancelling a Batgirl film. It shows that these studios are warping what film is and our perception of it. Another Hollywood studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), has had the same Latin motto since its founding almost a century ago; “art for art’s sake.” This apparently intuitive idea is dying in mainstream Hollywood. Film is art, not business. Or at least, that’s how it should be.

Words by Lewis Royle


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