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The Snyder Cut was a gamble for Warner Bros., but it may not have a big payoff for HBO Max


Justice League

Warner Bros. Pictures

The hotly anticipated four-hour-long director’s cut of “Justice League” arrived Thursday on HBO Max.

Assembled from hours of unused footage and cut together with newly filmed scenes, the Snyder Cut is an anomaly in the entertainment industry. Driven by a yearslong fan-driven social media campaign, Zack Snyder got a second chance at crafting his version of “Justice League.”

WarnerMedia, which is owned by AT&T, saw the fervent crusade for Snyder’s official cut of the movie as a way to appease ardent fans and pad its streaming service HBO Max with exclusive content.

However, the risk is “Justice League” may not pay back the dividends that WarnerMedia needs it to. The film sets up sequels that DC fans may never get to see, meaning even if it does succeed in drawing in subscribers for the month of March, there’s no promise of new DC-related content on the horizon for the streaming service to keep those new sign-ups around.

Initial estimates pegged the price tag for Snyder’s second take at $20 million to $30 million because many of the computer-generated images were not finished. However, more recent estimates suggest WarnerMedia could have shelled out $70 million or more on the project as Snyder brought back several actors to shoot new material. It’s unclear if that figure includes spending on marketing.

WarnerMedia declined to comment on the project’s financial terms.

The cost could be justified if WarnerMedia uses the film to gain subscribers and encourages enough current subscribers to stick with the service, said media and streaming analyst Dan Rayburn.

What may help is that HBO Max has several high-profile releases coming to its platform in March and early April. On March 31, “Godzilla vs. Kong” arrives on the service and, on April 16, “Mortal Kombat” will be released. Each will spend about a month on HBO Max before heading to video on demand for a rental fee.

This strategy of have a consistent steady stream of new content can help in retaining subscribers.

And then there are the fans. While Snyder and DC Films President Walter Hamada have both said this updated “Justice League” will not spawn spinoffs or automatically set up a sequel, the film allows Warner Bros. to regain some good will.

Fan service

“I definitely think fans are going to be pleased,” said Erik Davis, managing editor of Fandango.

Davis, who was able to view the new “Justice League” ahead of its launch on HBO Max, said the Snyder Cut is a “much better version of the film.”

The Snyder Cut basically erases co-writer and co-director Joss Whedon from the film. Whedon had been brought onboard after executives balked at Snyder’s initial cut of the film and took over when Snyder left the project after the death of his daughter.

Whedon slimmed down Snyder’s 214-minute version and imbued it with moments of levity, something Warner Bros. wanted in order to mimic the comedy style that was successful in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Because Whedon’s version altered so much of Snyder’s work, fans have clamored to see the director’s cut of “Justice League,” believing it to be the purest version of the film. In May 2020, WarnerMedia granted them that wish and invested in bringing Snyder back to finish it.

Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot star in “Justice League.”

Source: Warner Bros.

While fans will be pleased to finally have Snyder’s cut, there’s a major fault in Warner Bros.’ plans with releasing this movie.

When Snyder was developing “Justice League” more than five years ago, the DC Extended Universe was expected to continue expanding with this cast in the same way that the MCU had unfolded. Solo movies would build together into team-up films. Ben Affleck was supposed to have his own stand-alone feature and Snyder was already talking about a sequel to “Justice League.”

However, that plan is completely different in 2021. All of the cameos and setups in Snyder’s cut of the film will likely never be seen by DC fans.

Affleck may be attached to the upcoming “Flash” film, but it’s uncertain if he will the don the cowl in any DC project after that. Not to mention, Warner Bros. has already gone ahead with a new Batman film starring Robert Pattinson, one that doesn’t connect to any of the previous movies released by the studio.

As for Superman, Henry Cavill is still attached to the role, but it’s not clear when or where his version of the character will appear next.

The studio does have plans for a Superman reboot from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and with J.J. Abrams signed on as a producer. It’s unclear who will be cast as the Kryptonian or when that film will find its ways to theaters.

And Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg, has a frayed relationship with the studio. The actor accused Whedon of on-set harassment and an investigation was conducted. Fisher also had harsh things to say about DC’s head, Hamada, who he claimed helped enable Whedon’s actions.

As such, Fisher has said he will not participate in any film associated with Hamada. So, Warner Bros. would need to recast the role if they wanted to bring Cyborg back into the fold for a team-up flick.

Warner Bros.’ decision to fund and release this new “Justice League” may appease fans, but it does nothing to further the cinematic universe of the franchise.

Disney, which owns Marvel, has used its streaming service Disney+ to expand on its theatrical releases. Shows like “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki” all tie directly to the MCU and must be watched in order to understand all of the nuance of upcoming feature films.

The Snyder Cut doesn’t do that. It is exists in a vacuum.

Bolstering HBO Max

As for the hope that fans will flock to HBO Max to see the film, boosting subscriber numbers, what matters is the longevity of their interest.

“Is it good business? Maybe.” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at “As a one-off release, the film may boost HBO Max subscriptions momentarily, but streamers are strongest with episodic and weekly content that keeps casual consumers coming back for binge after binge.”

Robbins noted that “Justice League” is a niche film, in that its viewership demographics skew young and male. So, while it will likely lure in fans of DC, it may not do much to move the needle on subscription sign-ups across the board, unless they are drawn to other HBO Max content.

Ray Fisher stars as Cyborg in “Justice League.”

Source: Warner Bros.

“‘Justice League’ alone may not be the answer to the company’s future needs, especially since the DC brand has already started moving in other directions creatively, but it may succeed as a symbolic valentine to fans,” Robbins said.

AT&T seems to be feeling confident about HBO Max. The company boosted its subscriber projections last week to a range of between 120 million and 150 million for HBO Max and HBO by the end of 2025.

In October 2019, the company set a goal of hitting 50 million U.S. subscribers by 2025, a relatively low bar considering premium cable channel HBO already had around 33 million subscribers ahead of the streaming service’s launch.

Still, there does seem to be a bit of a missed opportunity in releasing “Justice League” before HBO Max expands globally. The platform is set to be released in around 60 markets outside the U.S. this year and will launch a lower-cost version with advertising in June. “Justice League” garnered the majority of its $658 million in ticket sales internationally. It only tallied $230 million at the U.S. box office.

WarnerMedia could have easily used “Justice League” as a lure for international launches. Instead, it’s likely that the film, which will stream in high-definition state-side, will be a choice target for international digital pirates.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes.

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