There’s a mystery in the swamps of Louisiana, and it’s not the hulking form of nature’s vengeance incarnate. No, it’s the unexpected cancellation of the DC Universe series Swamp Thing a mere six days after the first episode aired. The show, which follows the story of CDC researcher Abby Arcane and scientist Alec Holland as they investigate a mysterious virus near Houma, Louisiana. The two bond only for Alec to be killed and reborn as the titular elemental hero.
The show got a warm reception when it aired so its cancellation came as a shock. However, not all had been going well in the bayou. In April, while Swamp Thing was still shooting in North Carolina, the number of episodes had been cut from 13 to 10. This came at the same time that the Hollywood Reporter released a rather overlooked article that WarnerMedia was reconsidering the nature of the DC Universe service itself as it makes plans for its broader streaming service to launch as early as March of 2020.
The North Carolina Film Commission’s Bookkeeping Wasn’t the Problem
It was reported by numerous sources that the cost of Swamp Thing lead to its downfall, citing reports of a clerical error on the part of the North Carolina film commission resulting in a smaller package of tax breaks. However, that turned out to be a case of bad math and mistaken numbers as the state issued numerous statements pushing back and stating that the show got the maximum amount available under the program.
Regardless, Swamp Thing’s first season was expensive. Writer John Gohlson initially fed the funding rumor by citing the show’s $80 million budget and stating that North Carolina had promised $40 million to offset, but only granted $16.3 million. The state has a cap of $12 million per production but was able to grant another $4.3 million for the initial episode under its laws.
The main driver for the decision appears to have been that studio execs at AT&T and WarnerMedia didn’t care for the direction the show was going, given its $80 million price tag. The decision was made to pull the plug just before episode 11 began filming. Reshoots were ordered, and they reshot parts of episodes 2, 4, 7 and 10. A new ending was written for the season (now series) finale, and production wrapped for good on May 1st.
Not of this world
Swamp Thing was not part of the same world shared by its fellow DCU series, Titans and Doom Patrol. The reasoning for that was not clear, but that is a departure from other Warner Brothers live action series, most notably the Arroverse shows; Arrow, Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. The short-lived Marvel/Netflix collaborative shows; Punisher, Jessica Jones, Power Man, etc. also shared a common world, so that model has been proven to work.
As mentioned above, Swamp Thing had run into some resistance at the corporate level but for largely unexplained reasons. The show had been greenlit during the prolonged attempt by AT&T to acquire Time Warner. That long running saga began in 2016 and was approved in June of 2018 after a judge ruled in favor over the objections from the United States Justice Department.
In approving the $85 billion merger of the two companies, Judge Richard Leon cited Netflix’ domination, agreeing that it was needed in order for AT&T to remain competitive. At present, the DC Universe channel has only a few shows actually in production. Its library consists mostly of older shows and movies centered around its stable of heroes – with “Batman” appearing in most of those titles. Subscriptions for DC Universe run $7.99 a month. That price point is shared by its sister streamer Crunchyroll which focuses primarily on anime and manga. WarnerMedia also has a third “ministreamer” called Boomerang that runs the classic Warner Brothers Looney Toons and other Saturday Morning cartoon staples.
As has been reported here on SCIFI.radio a number of times, the competition for on-demand streaming services has been heating up for the past two years. Earlier this spring, Disney announced that their Disney+ service would be offered for $6.99 a month with an exceptionally deep library. That low price point set the bar for the other players in, or planning to enter, the market. Warner Bros’ specialized channels with a very limited offering and a cost of a dollar more a month will not be competitive.
On June 6, Variety reported that WarnerMedia plans to launch its service which would likely include HBO and Cinemax for a monthly cost in the $16-17 range. Currently, it offers HBO Go for $14.99 monthly, so the implication is that it would discontinue that offering in favor of its new service. That puts DCU, Boomerang and Crunchyroll in the unenviable position of competing with their company’s flagship service – and being less value for the cost. AT&T’s goal is to stem the tide of “cord cutting” which has seen the cable and satellite entertainment industry lose substantial numbers of customers over a 10-year period. AT&T and rival Comcast, are both in good shape as they are often the providers of the internet connection people use to go online, but their costs for carrying content for their cable packages have only grown over that same period.
WarnerMedia CDO John Stankey has been said to being intent on focusing on the launch of the as-yet-unnamed service. A beta version is said to debut in November of this year with the formal launch set for the first quarter of 2020. To that end, he moved several people into key positions overseeing all streaming products. It is thought that the plan would be to merge the niche services into the larger service in the form of “channels” or the like.
While that would be relatively painless for Boomerang or Crunchyroll, it becomes problematic for DCU as, in addition to the videos and movies, the service also offers digital editions of DC comics that can be viewed by a proprietary reader app. This was intended as DC’s answer to Marvel’s own “Marvel Unlimited” service. Users of either service can access the latest titles as well as the deep libraries dating back over half a century. Whether this feature would be split off from the larger service, the DC brand being offered at an additional charge or even remaining as a standalone is unclear at this time. It is similarly unclear whether DCU content would remain exclusive to the platform, or delay its release onto the larger service.
It’s Only Mostly Dead
Despite the cancellation, all 10 episodes of Swamp Thing will stream on DC Universe as planned. Swamp Thing’s PR team confirmed that each new episode will debut each Friday through the finale on August 2. Titans has been given a second season and Doom Patrol is also getting good reviews and seems likely to be given another year. Jeff John’s Stargirl series has yet to enter production, but it remains on the schedule for 2020.