Update (11/14/2023): Following the uproar surrounding their decision to shelve Coyote vs. Acme, Warner Brothers is now apparently allowing the filmmakers to shop it to other platforms, including Amazon. But Texas Representative Joaquin Castro is calling for a federal investigation to determine if Warner Brothers’ decision is “predatory and anti-competitive” and violates antitrust guidelines.
We live in a strange era where movie studios, besides trying to own actors’ likenesses until the end of time and recycle them with AI, no longer seem to be in the business of, y’know, making movies available to audiences. Earlier this year, Disney removed a slew of titles from Disney+ and Hulu, including such acclaimed titles as Crater and The Mysterious Benedict Society.
Even more curious, though, Warner Brothers has opted to not even release movies that are actually finished. Last year, the studio surprised everyone, including cast and crew, when it shelved the highly anticipated Batgirl movie. There are some reports that Batgirl was shelved because it just wasn’t very good and would’ve cost even more to improve it via reshoots, etc. (The movie already had a $90 million budget.) Thus, it might be argued that it made more business sense to shelve the film as part of a massive tax write-off rather than risk releasing a critical and commercial failure.
But that’s not the case with Coyote vs. Acme, a live-action/animation hybrid that finds Wile E. Coyote suing the ACME Corporation because their products never help him capture the Road Runner but instead, simply blow up in his face. It’s a delightfully wacky premise, the sort of meta humor that could both poke fun at Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies while also celebrating them. Indeed, the film — which is finished and stars Will Forte as Wile E. Coyote’s lawyer and John Cena as ACME’s CEO, and was produced by James Gunn — was generating some early positive buzz before Warner Brothers decided to shelve it.
“I have seen this movie and it is excellent,” tweeted Brian Duffield (No One Will Save You, Love and Monsters). “It also tested in the high 90s repeatedly.” BenDavid Grabinski concurred: “COYOTE V ACME is a great movie. The best of its kind since ROGER RABBIT. It’s commercial. It tested well.” Director Dave Green tweeted out a statement, noting that test audiences had given the movie “fantastic” scores and saying he was both “beyond proud of the final product” and “beyond devastated by WB’s decision.”
Coyote vs. Acme was originally scheduled for release this past July but was rescheduled with Barbie taking its spot. (Barbie has since become one of 2023’s biggest movies, earning more than $1.4 billion at the box office.) And now that Coyote vs. Acme has been shelved, Warner Brothers can take a $30 million write-down on the movie’s $70 million budget.
We’re told that the cash-strapped Warners finds that it’s not worth the cost to release the film theatrically or to sell to other buyers (and there are parties who are interested for their own streaming services; we hear Amazon kicked the tires). After reporting a mixed third quarter, the best means for Warners money is a tax write-off.
Naturally, a Warner Brothers spokesperson made it clear that the studio has “tremendous respect for the filmmakers, casts, and crew, and are grateful for their contributions to the film.” But frankly, that’s a little hard to believe, because we know what’s really driving decisions like this — and it’s not anything respectful. Film critic Dana Stevens summed it up nicely: “Think of all the 1000s of hours of collective labor that go into making a big part-animated, part-live action film like this… All shelved forever so the stockholders can get even richer.”
As I wrote back in June, it’s way past time to stop thinking of movie studios as faithful stewards of art and culture. No matter what their spokespeople might say, they’re money-making machines focused on protecting their intellectual property and increasing shareholder value.
But if I were a studio exec like Warner Brothers’ David Zaslav — the same David Zaslav who, during the SAG-AFTRA strike, said that “we need our creative partners to feel valued and rewarded” — then I hope I’d be worried that my extreme money-saving measures might ultimately backfire like some ACME booby trap. After all, how many filmmakers and actors will want to keep working with a studio that’s made it clear they’ll shelve completed movies, regardless of how promising they might be, just to get a tidy little tax write-off?