Zack Snyder’s new edit of the film Justice League is looking like it’s now going to cost more than 2019’s Joker – here are a few thoughts on that.

I’ve stayed largely absent from the assorted conversations that continue to do the rounds regarding the Justice League movie, and the build up to next year’s extended Zack Snyder cut of the original film. Nothing radical as to the reason why: I can’t say I was very taken with the film, or Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and I figured the world didn’t need another voice joining in that particular conversation.

What has impressed me enormously though is the campaign run by fans to get a Snyder cut of the film made. If you’re not familiar with the story, the brief version is that Zack Snyder filmed his version of Justice League, was removed/walked away/taken off the film in post-production, and then Joss Whedon came in to write and supervise reshoots. Warner Bros, burned by the response to Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice also reportedly mandated a two hour running time, with all contributed to the final cut of the film that was release in cinemas.

Part of the fanbase, though, was determined that Zack Snyder was afforded the opportunity to realise his version of the film, and perhaps unpickle it a little bit. Whilst there was some unpleasantness around the sides, the core of the Release The Snyder Cut campaign was positive, constructive, well organised, and ultimately successful. I think that deserves genuine applause.

Warner Bros thus announced that the Snyder Cut was going to happen, and the original story suggested it had allocated $30m for him to complete his version of the film. Originally, this wasn’t to entail any further physical production, but that cost would cover the extensive fresh effects work required and effectively allow Snyder to start post-production on the film from scratch.

Over the past week though, a couple of stories have sprung up.

Firstly, it seems that there is going to be further production, with Jared Leto set to shoot new scenes as his version of the Joker (from Suicide Squad, of course). Then, it looks like Ben Affleck is suiting back up as Batman. Furthermore, the latest story suggests that the bill for the whole shebang has gone up to $70m. That’s an awful lot of change to throw at a movie that’s already made a loss.

Yet one part of me thinks this is a smart play by Warner Bros.

We’re in an era where Amazon has just spent $125m to purchase Coming 2 America for its Prime Video service, knowing that it’s just the kind of headline act to lure people to it. In the case of Warner Bros, it’s one a bunch of companies looking for some new high profile wares for its own streaming service. Whilst we don’t have HBO Max in the UK, it’s a big deal for Warners in the US. A $30m spend on a new Justice League cut seemed a decent bet, given that even those less keen on the movie might be tempted to see what all the (new) fuss is about.

Even at $70m, that seems to be a going rate price for a headline attraction film or show. Factor in that Justice League: The Snyder Cut may go over four hours and be split into multiple parts – all unconfirmed I might add – and that’s you could argue the price of doing business.

But what it also strikes me as is the price of going up against Netflix and Prime. This time last year – and boy, doesn’t that feel a long time ago – Warner Bros was basking in the success of Joker, a film that cost a mere $55m to make, albeit a fair chunk more to market. Nonetheless, Joker grossed over $1bn at the box office, won an Oscar, and has hit big again on home formats. A sequel is mooted, and feels inevitable.

Warner Bros gambled on Joker. It was willing to follow what Fox did with Deadpool, by taking something of a risk. That the trade off for the filmmakers concerned was that you get less money to make your film, and in exchange the need to appeal to a PG-13 audience was taken away. This approach doesn’t always work – The New Mutants is an example of that, with some mitigation – but when it does? Well, you get a profitable film, a possible franchise, and less exposure in the first place.

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This year, though, has taken its toll. We’re yet to see just what the long-lasting effects will be of Covid on the cinema industry, but I’m not seeing many optimists out there. Instead, I’m reading about more and more films being made for streaming, of companies consolidating their production processes to merge streaming and theatrical under one umbrella, and of an understandably reduced confidence in greenlighting a movie with the big screen in mind.

I can’t help but think then that Justice League may well – appreciating it was all signed off prior to this year’s events – be seen in the halls of Warner Bros and other studios as a smarter bet than spending a similar amount on a feature film. It didn’t help that when cinemas were open, Warner Bros’ slate last year was full of risk, and the audience didn’t come out on the whole. It backed smaller, riskier productions such as Motherless Brooklyn and The Good Liar (two movies I really enjoyed), and was rewarded with red ink for its trouble. Doctor Sleep struggled too, and it was down to Joker save the day.

Which it did. But also, if you were heading up Warner Bros now and you had a finite pot of money to spend on your films, where would you put it? The idealist in me would be backing filmmakers such as Mike Flanagan and Edward Norton (who were behind two of those financial disappointments last year, but I’d argue delivered interesting films). But if my salary and my job depended on it, and a $55m risky feature film landed on my desk or a $70m recut of, for argument’s sake, Suicide Squad? Well, I’m the wrong person to ask really, but I think you see the conundrum.

I don’t think Warner Bros intended to spend so much on this new Justice League at all, and it feels from the outside looking in that this is a project that’s just exponentially grown and got more ambitious. Furthermore, the comparably low subscriber numbers for HBO Max suggest it’s going to be a tough sell to get a return anyway.

But how can it not take the gamble?

The hard truth, I fear, is that the riskiest place going forward to invest $70m on a high profile production will be on a cinema release. The worst Warner Bros will face with the new Justice League cut is it’ll get more subscribers, and it won’t have to foot the unseen bill for a cinema release.

The best case? It’s been cheaper than making a new blockbuster, it drives its streaming service and proves a hit for its partners where HBO Max isn’t available (thus, Sky in the UK), and it reignites interest in more Justice League films, without having to do a major reboot.

Furthermore, going out on a limb, it may yet be that Warner Bros is looking at its Alice In Wonderland moment here too. That Disney gambled on a live action retelling of that film a decade ago, and in doing so was rewarded not just with a $1bn hit, but a whole new line of movies opening up. The $1.6bn gross of last year’s retelling of The Lion King can be traced back to Johnny Depp in a Mad Hatter costume nearly ten years before.

As such, if Justice League: The Snyder Cut becomes a raging success, then those funds currently allocated to other projects may find themselves directed towards alternate versions of films with in-built awareness and audience interest already. On the plus side, I may get the Dean Devlin-take on Geostorm I’ve always dreamed of. On the other, it feels like another growing threat to blockbuster cinema.

It’s clearly muddled times for cinema, and for those who decide where production budgets are spent. But I leave you with the question I’ve wrestled with myself through this piece: if it was your job on the line, where would you spend $70m in the current movie industry? Answers in the comments…

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