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Warner Bros. shelved 'Coyote vs. Acme.' Here's why some finished films are mothballed

Wile E. Coyote and actor Will Forte are seen in a still image from the film <em>Coyote vs. Acme</em>. Eric Bauza, another actor in the film, posted the image online in December.
WarnerBros. Discovery via Eric Bauza
Wile E. Coyote and actor Will Forte are seen in a still image from the film Coyote vs. Acme. Eric Bauza, another actor in the film, posted the image online in December.

Back in November, Warner Bros. Discovery announced it was not planning to release Coyote vs. Acme, a hybrid animated and live-action comedy starring John Cena and Will Forte that had wrapped filming a year earlier.

"With the re-launch of Warner Bros. Pictures Animation in June, the studio has shifted its global strategy to focus on theatrical releases," the WB Motion Picture Group said in a statement at the time to the Hollywood Reporter.

In 2022, the studio axed the Batgirl movie after spending some $90 million on production, saying it was part of Warner Bros. "leadership's strategic shift as it relates to the DC universe and HBO Max."

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said during an earnings call at the time, in which he also discussed the shelving of Scoob!: Holiday Haunt, that "we're not going to put a movie out unless we believe in it."

The string of cancellations at Warner Bros. in recent years has angered some fans and disappointed cast and crew members who worked on the projects. It has also highlighted the power Hollywood studios have to call off projects that are partially or even entirely finished.

"The studio owns the completed product and all the work that makes up the completed product, and they're free to do whatever they want with it," said Chad Fitzgerald, a Los-Angeles based entertainment lawyer who represents talent in disputes with studios.

"They're free to put it on a million screens worldwide. They're free to put it on a shelf in a closet and let it collect dust and forget about it," Fitzgerald said.

Scrapping a completed project is often a financial decision

Warner Bros. didn't respond to NPR's questions about why it's choosing not to release Coyote vs. Acme.

But the decision led many to wonder why the studio would retreat from a film that it had already sunk an estimated $70 million into.

Hollywood financial experts say that when studios scrap finished projects the decision usually comes down to money.

Stephen Glaeser, an accounting professor at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, says film studios may predict that a movie won't perform well and cut their losses, rather than sell it for a low price or spend any more money to market it.

"It could be that they are getting offers to distribute it but they would be expected to market it and do some other things, and that would be extremely costly," he said. "It could be that streaming services are saying, 'Well, you wouldn't have to market it, we'll buy it from you,' but they're not offering much."

Warner Bros. briefly relented and allowed filmmakers to shop around Coyote vs. Acme to streaming companies, but The Wrap reported in February that the studio had rejected offers from Netflix, Amazon and Paramount.

Studios may also want to avoid a scenario in which they release the movie and audiences dislike it. Withholding a film allows executives to sidestep the potential low ticket sales and critical embarrassment of a flop. (In the case of Coyote vs. Acme, though, director Dave Green said on X, formerly Twitter, that it had been "embraced by test audiences who rewarded us with fantastic scores.")

Abandoning a project may also reflect the shifting priorities of a studio. After Warner Bros. and Discovery merged in 2022, Zaslav said the combined company was planning a "reset" of its DC Comics cinematic universe.

Some media reports have speculated that Warner Bros. will take a tax write-off for nixing Coyote vs. Acme. Some critics interpreted this to mean the studio would benefit from sitting on the movie.

In the film and TV industry, the term "Hollywood accounting" has long been a tongue-in-cheek reference to the murky financial methods studios and other companies use to increase their profits — even when they claim projects bombed.

Warner Bros. didn't respond to NPR's questions about a potential tax write-off for Coyote vs. Acme. But Glaeser suggested that any potential tax benefits would only serve to soften the financial blow of canceling the movie's release, and the studio would still lose money on the project.

Puck News reporter Matt Belloni told NPR in November that Warner Bros. had been under pressure to cut costs, and shelving the movie allowed executives to "get some financial benefits from being able to apply the losses" on their balance sheet.

What a film's cancellation means to the cast, crew and fans

Though it may make financial sense for a studio to abandon a film, that argument may prove little comfort to the movie's cast and crew or the fans eagerly awaiting its release.

The cancellation of Coyote vs. Acme seems to have struck a particular chord. Based on a satirical New Yorker piece, the movie followed Wile E. Coyote as he sued the Acme company after its products again and again fail to help him catch the elusive Road Runner.

Will Forte, who starred in the movie, called it "incredible" in a post on X last week and said he was disappointed by the decision to shelve it. "Please know that all the years and years of hard work, dedication and love that you put into this movie shows in every frame," he told the cast and crew.

The actor Michael McKean, in response to Forte's post, called him "a truly decent dude being truly decent" and said, "I really want to see this movie."

Another fan saidthey hoped Warner Bros. would "give the Looney Tunes brand the love & appreciation that they truly deserve."

An online petition, created by a Coyote vs. Acme background actor, urged Warner Bros. to release the film and had more than 18,000 signatures at the time this story was published.

The growing number of movies shelved by Warner Bros. in recent years has critics increasingly questioning studio leadership.

While hosting the Golden Reel Awards in Los Angeles this week, comedian Patton Oswalt quipped about the reported tax write-offs the studio is taking on cut projects. "I joke, but it's exciting to see our industry once again flourishing," he said, according to the Hollywood Reporter. "I hear that David Zaslav just gave a three-picture deal to H&R Block."

Fitzgerald, the entertainment lawyer, said Warner Bros. has had a reputation in the past as one of the more talent-friendly studios. While he didn't say that's changed, he noted that the pattern of cancellations in recent years is having an impact in Hollywood.

"These stories keep happening with the same studio, and it is already leaving somewhat of a sour taste in people's mouths, both people working in the industry and the fan community," he said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez