Has ‘Coyote vs. Acme’ Sowed Distrust Between Warner Bros. and Creatives? | Analysis

The animated feature film, “Coyote vs. Acme,” has never been more popular than it was last week, after Warner Bros. announced on Nov. 9 that it would shelve the completed $70 million film for a tax write-off, despite claims by some directors who saw it that the film had tested strongly.

But it might not make the studio so popular, as the move is being seen in the creative community as another bait and switch after the cancellation of last year’s “Batgirl.”

“I think it’s absolute bullshit that a studio can and does shelve the creative work of hundreds of people for a fucking tax break,” director Scott Derrickson wrote on X, noting a reason that circulated widely on social media even though the studio denied it.

The response on social media to Warner Bros.’ decision to shelve the film was uniformly intense, with top directors like Derrickson and Phil Lord shaming the studio for essentially cancelling a completed film.

TheWrap spoke to four directors about the move who did not wish to disclose their names for fear of repercussions. They all questioned whether Warner Bros. appreciates the directors who work for them.

“I don’t know a single director who isn’t worried about the concept of working for Warner Bros. right now,” said one director who has worked for a big studio. “Why would you compete with other directors for a job when you know they may just shelve the final version? How are you supposed to get invested in the work?”

Rep. Joaquin Castro from Texas last week urged Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the practice of scuttling films for tax purposes, calling it “predatory and anti-competitive” in a post on X.

Warner Bros. Discovery denied making the move to take advantage of a $30 million tax write-off on the film, despite last year’s decision to shelve the almost-finished “Batgirl” and “Scoob! Holiday Haunt” for the tax benefit. Instead, the studio said that the Looney Tunes movie starring John Cena did not comport with the company’s shift towards theatrical-only releases. “Coyote vs. Acme,” directed by David Green, was initially pitched as a streaming-only title for then-HBO Max, at a time when the company was focused on building up streaming content.

While Warner Bros. had not set an official release date, the studio said early last year that it intended to put the film out this July. Then in April of 2022 the studio removed “Coyote vs. Acme” from the release slate and replaced it with “Barbie.”

Last Tuesday, five days after the cancellation, Warner Bros. reversed its decision, saying the movie would not be shelved and that the studio would consider selling the film to another interested studio. But many believe the damage has been done and wonder whether it has eroded trust with directors working with the studio.

WBD has outraged creatives before

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav (Courtesy of WBD)

The feeling within the creative community — both among those in the media and those who might someday work for the studio — is that Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is flashing his worst anti-art impulses.

This isn’t the first time Warner Bros. has been in the crosshairs of a war with directors and others known for producing films. Christopher Nolan famously parted ways with the studio in 2021 after Warner Bros. shifted its entire slate of films that year to release simultaneously on HBO Max alongside movie theaters, which Nolan called a “bait and switch.” Known as Project Popcorn, the move also saw former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar leave just two weeks after the merger (though he didn’t acknowledge it was a reason for his exit), and numerous directors said the studio had not told them about the decision beforehand.

Warner Bros. did not comment for this story.

“Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Nolan said at the time.

But so far there hasn’t been an exodus of creative talent, according to a studio insider. “There’s a pretty substantial list of [creatives] wanting to make movies here,” said the insider, noting that next year directors like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Alexander Payne will be making movies for the studio. In the wake of Warner Bros.’ changing its mind on the movie, the film has been screened for every studio that’s asked to see it.

Over the last year, Zaslav has alienated segments of the creative community, from directors to lovers of Turner Classic Movies, with cost-cutting decisions ranging from cancelling “Batgirl” to wholesale cutbacks at TCM. Most recently, a profile in The New York Times painted a more complex picture of the WBD CEO, who told the Times that he’s not afraid to spend money and noted that writers “are right about almost everything,” regarding the Writers Guild of America strike. “So what if we overpay? I’ve never regretted overpaying for great talent or a great asset,” he said.

Those who spoke to TheWrap all said that WBD’s attempts to improve its bottom line are showing in the work. “When you read a Warner Bros. script there’s always unnecessary references to their own IP,” one filmmaker said. “They are so desperate to mine the past they are actively harming it.” One producer echoed these sentiments, saying, “WB [is] the last place I’d want to make a movie personally, which is not a statement you’d have heard up until recently.”

Many have said the course-correction last week is an attempt by the studio to save face and professional relationships. One leading distribution insider argued that the studio “realized they may be cutting their nose to spite their face.” He further noted that “if WB can recoup its costs with a sale rather than a write-off, well, either one accomplishes the same goal.”

The “Coyote vs. Acme” insider said the claims that the movie was “testing in the high 90s,” according to a tweet from director Brian Duffield, is a misinterpretation — it didn’t test insanely well nor insanely badly. Duffield praised the film, saying it had “a million jokes a minute.”

That doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have interest from buyers. A distributor told TheWrap that Netflix and Amazon are both interested in the film. But the source close to the project said there are no hard offers, and that director Dave Green is crafting his own “PR campaign.” Green, who previously directed “Earth to Echo” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

In the end, Warner Bros. could save at least some face if it can sell the film, said the insider who spoke to TheWrap. A producer at another studio added those complaining on Twitter don’t necessarily represent the majority opinion.

But it’s difficult to see people not second-guessing relationships with Warner Bros. in the future. “There’s definitely more of a distrust with the studios,” one top talent manager said. “Shelving completed projects … doesn’t make studios seem [like] reliable partners.”

And for one director, “Coyote. vs. Acme” was the final straw for wanting to work with the studio. “Honestly, after ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ and ‘Tom & Jerry,’ I would feel gross working for them. But after ‘Coyote vs. Acme,’ I would never.”

Additional reporting contributed by Umberto Gonzalez and Drew Taylor

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