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Why Deleting and Destroying Finished Movies Like Coyote vs Acme Should Be a Crime

There’s an old joke about a guy who murders his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan. 

A variant of this thinking is becoming an accepted strategy at major entertainment corporations like Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), which adopted a scorched earth brand of accounting after its 2022 merger that sought to reduce debt by using drastic measures. One of WBD’s most notorious post-merger decisions was deleting an entire finished feature, “Batgirl,” that had an estimated budget of $90 million, to claim a tax write-off, deeming it bad-to-the-point of un-releasability (how they could prove this when no one outside the production had seen it remains a mystery worthy of Benoit Blanc). 

The company seems determined to do it again with another one of their productions, the live-action/animation hybrid “Coyote vs. Acme,” a comedy based on a New Yorker humor piece about Wile E. Coyote suing the Acme corporation that reportedly cost $70 million, co-starring John Cena and Will Forte, directed by Dave Green. The film was already done and had performed exceptionally with test audiences (in the high 90s, according to a Rolling Stone article) when it was earmarked for deletion last November so that the company could claim a tax write-off, as they had done with “Batgirl”. 

To my knowledge, the company has never given anyone a justification beyond debt reduction and a bit of vague gesticulation toward a corporate vision that the film supposedly didn’t sync with. Public outcry caused the company to backpedal in November 2023 and say that they would sell the movie elsewhere, but Drew Taylor of The Wrap has reported that the company never entertained any negotiations about their asking price, demanding not a penny less than $70 to $80 million for the privilege of owning a project that they would only gain $30 million by scrubbing from their own ledgers. The offer to sell the film was, to put it mildly, not undertaken in good faith. It appears that the company would rather take less money by writing off the movie than sell it for even a few dollars more than that, because they might risk having a rival turn it into a success, which would further embarrass them for never even having tried to market it themselves, even though it was built around “intellectual property” (i.e., adorable cartoon characters) that are as inextricably linked with Warner Bros. as Marianne is with the nation of France.

It’s not just the completed film that gets deleted in cases like this, but everything associated with the film, which means that nobody who did any sort of work on a project that consumed years of their lives will ever be able to point to it as evidence of what sort of work they’re capable of doing, and get more work. At least when a real estate company demolishes a completed building before anyone’s had a chance to move into it, there are photos of what it looked like. “With this write-off, everything gets deleted, not just what you see on screen, but everything that it took to make the film,” the film’s editor Carsten Kaparnek told Rolling Stone at the time. “A released movie is just the tip of a giant iceberg of love and labor. The talent and commitment of the people who bring a project to life should not go unnoticed … All of it is now lost but will never be forgotten by those lucky enough to have been there.” (As Jacob Oller pointed out in an article for Paste, in the old celluloid days, studios or filmmakers who tried to do this had to burn a negative.)

Some of the company’s tactics post-merger were garden-variety ruthless, like eliminating 87 series from its streaming platform Max, so that they won’t have to pay union-mandated residuals to the talent that created already-existing programs or pony up funds to produce more seasons of existing ones (such as “Our Flag Means Death,” one of the company’s most popular and critically acclaimed comedies—canceled after just two seasons). Other decisions appear coldly pragmatic at first glance but reveal themselves as counterproductive after a closer look, like offloading formerly exclusive HBO productions like “Band of Brothers” to Netflix or cutting the number of available Looney Tunes and offering them to rivals (those characters are literal mascots for the company; imagine Disney+ doing the same with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons, and the horrified reaction of devotees of that brand). Taken to extremes, the mentality is the equivalent of trying to get your weight down by slicing off fingers, toes and ears. The number on the bathroom scale is reduced, but the corporate body politic is traumatized from shock and blood loss, and nobody considered the long-term health ramifications.

It has been pointed out to me that companies own things and therefore can do whatever they want with them. Being an American, I’m aware of that position. 

But I’m also aware that—in theory, at least—governments exist (in part) to regulate corporations, in order to stop them from doing things that are deleterious or destructive to the public good and to individuals who work for them. They have the means and motive to step in, whether declaring certain kinds of waste dumping to be illegal, trying to prevent private companies from bribing or otherwise influencing public officials, or mandating that TV networks cannot blast the volume of ads to make them audible to viewers who leave the room during commercial breaks. (Yes, that last thing is real; it’s legislation known as the CALM Act.) 

They should do something similar for all types of media. The template could be the moral rights of artists in some European markets, which you can read about at length here

A selective adaptation of that idea for the United States is the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which smart lawyers might want to look into. Among other things, it grants artists “the right to prevent distortion, mutilation, or modification that would prejudice the author's honor or reputation.”

Whatever the technical legality of writing off completed films and destroying them for pennies on the dollar, it’s morally reprehensible: Oller memorably calls it “an accounting assassination.” Defending it on grounds that it’s not illegal is bootlicking. 

The practice also has a whiff of the plot of Mel Brooks’s “The Producers”. The original idea of Brooks’ hustler protagonists Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom was to mount a play so awful that it would close immediately, and they can live off the unspent money they raised from bilking old ladies. When the show unexpectedly becomes a hit, they blow up the theater. 

The biggest difference between the plot of “The Producers” and what happened to “Batgirl” and “Coyote vs Acme” is that in “The Producers,” the public got to see the play.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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