At times methinks I’ve been a bit too harsh on Warner Brothers Discovery’s David Zaslav, who we are frequently motivated to reference as Yosemite Zas, an homage to one of the more frustratingly unsuccessful IP “villains” he inherited when he stormed into Burbank with his six-shooters ablazin’ with fiscal responsibility. I recently learned we’re close to the same age, he was born not far from where I grew up and he’s a fellow undergraduate alumnus of a State University of New York school. I’ve even been told by many who have worked side-by-side with him at earlier points in his career he was a pretty good guy–respectful, funny, and collaborative. For all I know, there are probably a few C-Suiters besides Gunnar Wiedenfels who might still agree.
So it’s entirely possible he may have grown up as I did as a fan of classic Bugs Bunny cartoons which were a staple of the Channel 5 kids’ blocks weekday mornings and afternoons and which were dropped into my favorite Sunday morning show, WONDERAMA. And one of my favorites was one called OPERATION: RABBIT, which to true afficiandos was legendary because it not only featured perennial Road Runner foil Wile E. Coyote taking on a new nemesis for the first time, but it was also the first time he had a speaking role. It’s absolute brilliance, I assure you. Here, judge for yourself.
But it’s safe to say that Yosemite perhaps had far less of a passion for this particular one than, say, Dave Green. Green had enough talent and appreciation to have earned the chance to take a crack at one of the first attempts to resurrect the fully formed Coyote character–not merely a silent foil as he is often depicted in his futile pursuit of a speedy New Mexican fowl–in decades. And at least from numerous reports that have surfaced, his efforts, as well as those of his producers and talents was unique and sure seemed to be something worthy of checking out. As FORTUNE’s Christiaan Hetzner tells it:
His upcoming Coyote vs. Acme film starring John Cena would have pitted the legendary Looney Tunes character Wile E. Coyote in a legal battle with the corporation whose innumerable products all end up backfiring on the animated animal.
“For three years, I was lucky enough to make a movie about Wile E. Coyote, the most persistent, passionate and resilient character of all time. I was surrounded by a brilliant team who poured their souls into this project,” the director wrote on social media Thursday. “I am beyond proud of the final product”.
And as FORBES’ Paul Bloom added, Green’s ebullience and passion were apparently not unique to him:
(B)y all accounts, the film is great. Many have already seen it and say it’s excellently done, comparing it to Who Framed Roger Rabbit and praising its animation and storyline. Test scores among audiences were reportedly extremely high.
Hetzner also shared this from the X account @DISCUSSINGFILM that noted similar feelings amongst Green’s peers:
Zaslav’s entertainment giant, forged through the debt-financed acquisition of AT&T’s media assets last April, is lugging around liabilities currently worth $45 billion, and the CEO has stated his top priority is to de-lever his ailing balance sheet.
For the Warner Bros. Discovery boss, the combination of heavy interest payments to service its debt and a collapse in TV advertising translates to a consistent stream of red ink, including $7.4 billion in 2022 and another $2.7 billion through September.
Investors just suffered their biggest one-day loss in two years this week after shares plunged by a fifth amid warnings from management that WBD could miss its debt reduction target for 2024.
So yes, as a CEO with fiduciary responsibilities, Zaslav has a right to pursue legally legitimate, if creatively reprehensible options, to do his job as well as possible.
But to deny Green, Cena and Gunn even the chance to do theirs? Well, let’s just say it’s not the most talent-friendly call made in the history of the industry.
And the assumption that a movie with recognizable, established characters with multi-generational appeal couldn’t have made enough to justify its release is about as tone-deaf and ignorant an alibi as could have possibly been offered.
Let’s assume that the belief that this couldn’t make enough to justify a pivot to MAX only, a fair assumption given the struggles for the platform to gain subscriber traction even as it has increased its Walmart-like array of corporate brands and services that now include news and sports. A theatrical release, especially at a time where numerous projects have been pushed back due to delays in delivery, would likely have been seen as highly desirable for chains desperately looking for reasons to bring people’s butts out of their houses. After a weekend where the newest DUNE installment was supposed to have been out there as an alternative or supplement to the modestly received THE MARVELS, something like COYOTE V. ACME would have been the ideal four-quadrant carrot (pun intended) to have out there.
And one of the largest expenses that’s applied to a movie is its marketing costs. In this case, the buzz alone would have accomplished a great deal of the heavy lifting. One does not need to do a traditional multi-million dollar media blitz to gain attention, especially in an era where music and memes can go viral at almost no cost. In fact, it proved to be a detriment years ago with one of the costliest blunders in marketing history. I personally worked with the man tagged as being responsible for it. As Wikipedia recounts:
Sergio Zyman …is a marketing executive from Mexico best known as the marketer behind the failed launch of New Coke. Fortune Magazine reported Zyman, then head of U.S. marketing, was coming off his enormously successful introduction of diet Coke when he was assigned day-to-day responsibility for top-secret Project Kansas in 1984. The zealous Mexican insisted that Coca-Cola (or Co-Coola, as he pronounces it) must act boldly to reverse its 20-year market-share decline vs. Pepsi. Zyman, a former Pepsi marketer, argued that the correct strategy was to replace 98-year-old Coke with a better-tasting cola, label it New Coke,” and blare the news–which is exactly what the company did. A cover story in Fortune from May 1, 1995 referred to New Coke as the biggest marketing blunder since the launch of Ford‘s Edsel. New Coke was a reformulation of the original Coca-Cola flavor. After significant consumer opposition, the original flavor was reintroduced after 77 days. Zyman’s greatest error, which some attribute to ego, was that he and his team failed to present the option of keeping old Coke on the market.
But Zyman himself provided his rationale when I worked with him on ill-fated attempts to work on the branding challenges of combining The Family Channel and FOX into the short-lived FOX Family Channel, which we referred to internally as the combining of “hamhocks and Lox”. According to Zyman, the intent all along was to remind people exactly how good Coke was, and to temporarily deprive people of it only drove up the demand. And as many who remember New Coke will attest, it was essentially a copycat formula of Pepsi itself. Zyman knew folks who knew how to manufacture it and urged Co-Coola to hire them.
And as JB Maverick of INVESTOPEDIA tells it, for the most part, in the last two decades, Coke it, to borrow from an older campaign, still “it”:
Since 2004, Coca-Cola Company has been the market leader. Coca-Cola, despite a brand value decline of 13% in 2021, remained the world’s most valued soft drink brand at $33.2 billion in 2021, according to Brand Finance. PepsiCo. takes second at $18.4 billion.
So there’s at least one suggestion on how you can still save face, Yosemite. Maybe you still have a chance to regain a little street cred among the creatives and fans who are more pissed off at you than ever for even trying to jusitfy that a $30 million writedown of a GOOD and timely movie will make enough of a dent in your $45B deficit to placate your Wall Street puppeteers enough so you can indeed make that payment on the megayacht you bragged about getting at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival.
But naaaaah, what do I, or your researchers, or your creatives, or your fans know? After all, Gad, you’re SUCH a genius, right, Zas?
Just ask your indentured servant Wile E. how overconfidence tends to turn out in your world. In fact, I hear he’s ready for a face-to-face with you. Lookie:
Until next time…