The HBO Max film fell victim to a change in corporate strategy.
On Tuesday, Batgirl filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah were in Morocco, where they had recently celebrated El Arbi’s wedding at a bash attended by guests such as their Bad Boys for Life star Will Smith. In the afterglow of the happy occasion, they received the stunning news that their upcoming DC film Batgirl would be shelved, despite it being deep into postproduction ahead of a planned HBO Max bow. The filmmakers are said to have been given a heads-up shortly before articles circulated online.
“We are saddened and shocked by the news,” the filmmakers wrote in a statement Wednesday. “As directors, it is critical that our work be shown to audiences, and while the film was far from finished, we wish that fans all over the world would have the opportunity to see and embrace the final film themselves. Maybe one day they will insha’Allah.”
Batgirl was a casualty of new corporate strategy from Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who opted to shelve the project in order to take a tax write-down on the $90 million film, multiple sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. The film had been greenlit for around $80 million under former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who also teed up multiple DC projects for HBO Max that would be budgeted more modestly than a theatrical DC offering. Its budget jumped to $90 million due to COVID-19 protocols.
Just a few months ago, Batgirl was seen as one of the more intriguing of the upcoming DC films. It hailed from the duo known as Adil & Bilall, who became hot commodities with Bad Boys for Life (2020) and continued to build excitement with well-received episodes of Disney+’s Ms. Marvel, released this summer. Even Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige expressed interest in learning spoilers from the film. Batgirl was also seen as a win for representation, with Leslie Grace being the first Latina to front a DC Extended Universe film, transgender actress Ivory Aquino playing a supporting role and Adil & Bilall bringing their unique background as Muslim, Belgian Moroccan filmmakers. Plus, Michael Keaton was back as Batman.
For a time, according to multiple sources, Warners considered pumping more money into Batgirl to beef it up into a 2023 theatrical release. Another source downplays the notion that a theatrical upgrade was seriously in contention, as from the script stage it was conceived as a streaming play. Either way, when a very early version of the film test screened, with temp VFX and score, it landed a score in the low 60s and is believed to have only tested once. Film producers and executives have long noted that test screenings are best used to determine whether audiences are engaged or disengaged during certain parts of the film, not as a final judgment call on a movie. For example, horror films that end up doing well have been known to test in the 60s. Batgirl’s test score, which was for a director’s cut, is comparable to scores for the first It (2017), which wound up grossing $700.3 million globally, as well as an early score for the upcoming Shazam! Fury of the Gods. Both of those films tested in the 60s.
Batgirl felt more modest than, say, The Batman — which had a production budget nearly $100 million more than Batgirl’s — with Glasgow, Scotland, filling in for Gotham City. Warners leadership under Zaslav feared it would not deliver the spectacle DC audiences are accustomed to. Still, its smaller feel was baked into its DNA, as Batgirl was supposed to be the first in a number of smaller DC films.
That strategy has been reversed. In May, Zaslav killed a DC Wonder Twins movie for HBO Max that was in preproduction, just weeks after Riverdale’s KJ Apa and 1883’s Isabel May had been cast in the lead roles. At a certain point, a source notes, it doesn’t make financial sense to spend $80 million or $90 million on a streaming movie, as it won’t necessarily attract more subscribers than, say, a $40 million movie. (In an earnings disclosure in April, HBO and its HBO Max streaming service counted 76.8 million combined global subscribers.)
Going forward, a streaming film will be made for a more modest number, “and if it’s for theatrical, it better feel theatrical,” notes a knowledgeable source.
The death of Batgirl also hints at a diminished role for Keaton going forward. The actor’s Dark Knight, who hadn’t been seen since 1992’s Batman Returns, was being positioned as akin to Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — an elder statesman who could pop up in multiple films and offer guidance. In Batgirl, he is said to have been at the center of a splashy action sequence.
He is also a key part of The Flash, the upcoming movie starring embattled actor Ezra Miller that is due out in June 2023. According to multiple sources, Keaton also filmed a scene for the upcoming Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom that test audiences found confusing, as it was unclear what Keaton’s Batman was doing in this universe. Lost Kingdom previously was supposed to open before The Flash, which will explain Keaton’s return. But last week, Aquaman star Jason Momoa revealed that Ben Affleck was filming a scene as Bruce Wayne, suggesting Keaton had been replaced with Affleck’s version of the character.
The Batgirl news comes ahead of Warner Bros. Discovery’s earnings call Thursday, with rumors swirling that Warners is considering moving the release dates for two of its upcoming films — Shazam! Fury of the Gods (currently slated for Dec. 21) and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (currently set for March 17, 2023). On Wednesday, the studio revealed an October 2024 date for the Joker sequel, Joker: Folie a Deux.
While Batgirl was supposed to be a win for representation, the studio has another groundbreaking superhero project in the can. Just months after Grace was cast as Batgirl, Cobra Kai star Xolo Maridueña joined the DC universe as Blue Beetle — the fourth Latino actor cast in a DC movie that year (Colombian American actress Sasha Calle had been cast as Supergirl in The Flash, and West Side Story star Rachel Zegler previously joined Shazam! Fury of the Gods). Blue Beetle was originally developed for HBO Max before being upgraded to a theatrical release in December. As soon as Batgirl was shelved, a number of tweets circulated asking the studio to save Blue Beetle. Among those who liked those tweets? Angel Manuel Soto, the film’s director, underscoring the uncertainty Warners talent faces at this time.
As for Adil & Bilall, the duo say they are grateful for their time in the DC universe, praising their cast, “especially the great Leslie Grace, who portrayed Batgirl with so much passion, dedication and humanity.”
Added the directors: “It was a huge privilege and an honor to have been part of the DCEU, even if it was for a brief moment. Batgirl For Life.”
Kim Masters, Rebecca Sun and Borys Kit contributed to this story.