In early August — two days after David Zaslav terminated his brief honeymoon with Hollywood by dumping the HBO Max film Batgirl — the Warner Bros. Discovery The CEO was still sounding confident about the future of one of the studio’s most important properties.
“You look at Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman — these are brands that are known everywhere in the world,” Zaslav told investors. “We have done a reset. We’ve restructured the business where we are going to focus, where there is going to be a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC.”
But the declaration of the DC reset was premature. Zaslav is continuing to meet with prospective candidates to lead the effort, but surprising to no one, he has not found a Kevin Feige clone. A negotiation with producer Dan Lin became public (possibly due to a meeting that was held outdoors in plain sight because of WBD consultant Alan Horn’s COVID-19 concerns) but then apparently fell apart over complications involving Lin’s production/nonprofit company Rideback.
Meanwhile, DC Films president Walter Hamada called his lawyer after watching Batgirl get binned and listening to Zaslav talk about the bright future under superior but unnamed leadership. Film studio co-chairman Michael De Luca talked him into staying until Black Adam is released in October, but his exit is being negotiated.
At this point, it’s hard to think of any strong candidate to run a DC silo. And there are several reasons to wonder why anyone with a decent career would want the job. By now, Zaslav has made enough moves to reveal that — despite that extensive goodwill tour — he is exactly the tough boss that former Discovery insiders described when the Warner Media-Discovery combination first made the news. And with CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels working to slash the staggering $50 billion-plus in debt, the company has content creators wondering publicly what happened to material that disappeared from the streamer without a word of warning, while insiders send out résumés as layoffs roll.
“Zaslav doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,” says one leading talent rep. “That’s scary. And you’re always going to be compared to Marvel. It’s unfair. By the time they were being judged, it was working. It’s the exact opposite at Warner. It’s rough all around. Who the fuck would want that job?”
The Marvel comparison looms large. While Feige has had the advantage of being what one industry source calls both the architect and contractor of the Marvel universe, the DC property has been through multiple iterations. Its fans are passionate — sometimes to the point of toxicity — and hardly unified. “DC is so fragmented,” says one talent rep. “JJ [Abrams] had this one, Zack Snyder had that one, Todd Phillips had the other thing. And they’re all such huge egos.”
All these issues pale next to the biggest question hovering over any top job at WBD: How long will this gig last? The company is grappling with that heavy debt load and skeptical investors. One former Zaslav exec recently received a letter from a due-diligence firm on behalf of an unspecified client, asking for his evaluation of Zaslav’s leadership style, strategic plans and likelihood of success. That could suggest various possibilities — a potential acquirer digging around, a dissident shareholder sniffing for weakness, a hedge fund trying to place a bet. So much uncertainty.
Given the company’s daunting challenges, it has become accepted wisdom at the highest levels of the industry that another deal waits in the wings for Warner Bros. Discovery. For reasons related to the complicated structure of that merger, no negotiations can happen until April 2024. But at that point, many industry observers believe that Comcast’s Brian Roberts will make a long-awaited move, looking to combine NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. Discovery.
That deal would face some interesting antitrust issues but would give his company scale and a viable streaming service. “Obviously Peacock sucks,” says one exec with knowledge of both companies. “There are some good synergies. I’m sure [Roberts] is licking his chops because the [WBD] stock is so low. And I think that’s Zaslav’s endgame. Get the place sold.” (Roberts and NBCU CEO Jeff Shell met with Zaslav and board member John Malone during the Allen & Co. gathering in Sun Valley last July, but given the rules against plotting any combination, that was no doubt just a friendly get-together.) A WBD spokesperson responds: “We are building Warner Bros. Discovery for the long term.”
Many top industry execs are so convinced a deal will happen that some are pre-mourning an event that may never happen. “People feel like it’s Comcast for sure,” says the head of one company. “It’s going to be so depressing to lose another major studio [after Disney bought Fox]. And Warners was the Tiffany studio.”
Of course an obituary is premature. Maybe Warners will do a deal with Comcast, maybe not. Meanwhile, Zaslav continues his quest to find a DC superhero, but it seems possible that, eventually, De Luca and Pam Abdy — now acting heads of the division — will end up running the thing by default. De Luca was a comic book collector as a kid, and years ago, at New Line, he made Blade and even had an Iron Man movie in development. (A source says Bob Shaye, the New Line chief at the time, let the option lapse, arguing that it didn’t make sense because Iron Man was too heavy to fly.) “Mike was championing and scratching at the surface of this comic book universe long before it became the only thing that anybody is interested in seeing,” says one longtime associate.
Given the importance of DC, it appears the top filmmakers operating in that world — Matt Reeves, Phillips and Andy Muschietti — will be shielded from that sharp Wiedenfels knife. One agent with business at the studio says De Luca and Abdy are talent-friendly, decisive and a vast improvement from when the studio sat under AT&T and Jason Kilar. “From where I sit,” he says, “it is night and fucking day from before.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.