Background first, quickly, because facts are important but not so important that we want to get stuck in them before the good parts.
Coyote Vs. Acme is a movie about Wile E. Coyote suing the Acme Corporation for all the very many defective products he has ordered from them in his pursuit of the Road Runner. The whole thing is based on a solid humor piece that ran in The New Yorker in 1990 and has some heavy hitters attached to it, most notably new DC head honcho James Gunn. The cast ain’t too shabby either, with John Cena and Will Forte and Lana Condor leading the human side of the hybrid cartoon/live-action business, kind of like if Space Jam had ended with a trial in a courtroom instead of a basketball game in outer space. There is lots to like here. It was supposed to hit theaters in July 2023 before it got bumped by Barbie. All pretty straightforward stuff, or at least as straightforward as “a lawyer played by Will Forte helps a bumbling cartoon coyote sue a large corporation for sending him faulty products and preventing him from murdering a very fast bird” can get.
Then, a few months later, chaos. Tragedy. Potential redemption. It is maybe my favorite little Inside Baseball Hollywood story in years. And I’m going to explain it as best I can, in four parts, with each part featuring a GIF of Wile E. Coyote mangling his body for our enjoyment, only because I already have them saved on my computer and I will always take advantage of an opportunity to use them.
Here we go.
PART I: Everything goes full Wile E. Coyote
Despite the movie being shot and edited and completed and ready to go as soon as someone pressed play, and despite it receiving a slew of positive test scores, Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav decided to scrap the whole thing entirely to take a $30 million tax write-off. This was and is a huge bummer, for a lot reasons, some of them having to do with the general concept of making a piece of art and throwing it into your own personal trash can in the name of capitalism, some having to do with all the people who worked on the film being denied the chance to show off the finished product, and some of it having to do with this not being the first time it’s all happened. Warner Bros. scrapped the almost completed Batgirl movie a little while ago, too. You probably remember this. People were very upset. We’ll circle back to it.
It’s not even the first time a hybrid cartoon/live-action Looney Tunes movie has been scrapped, for the record. Yes, this is another excuse to tell you about the time Tony Hawk almost made a movie called Skate Jam. Yes, I will post his quote about it from Hot Ones.
“[They said], ‘When you get back, we’re going to finalize all the details,’ like, that’s set, it’s happening.’ Awesome! I get on the plane, go to Australia. In the meanwhile, they released Back in Action, which was a Looney Tunes film with Brendan Fraser, and apparently, it didn’t do the numbers they had hoped. That was supposed to be their way to reintroduce Looney Tunes characters. By the time I got back from Australia, they weren’t even calling anymore. It was gone. It was just gone. It was more like, ‘What happened?! Let’s all meet up again! This is gonna be fun, right?!’ Yeah. Bummer.”
On one hand, these situations are different because Coyote Vs. Acme was a completed film and Skate Jam was still just an idea. On the other hand, I just really like talking about the time Tony Hawk almost made a Looney Tunes movie called Skate Jam. Plenty to consider here.
The point is: Huge bummer and ironically fitting for a movie about a character whose exciting big plans are always dashed by the world around him.
PART II: Everyone gets angry
Buddyyyyy, did they ever. There was already bad blood brewing between executives and creatives in Hollywood after the extended and ugly actors’ and writers’ strikes, but this set people off. The director, Dave Green, posted this…
… and John Cena posted this…
… which were way on the tamer end of the reactions. Many were angrier and louder, like, to choose just one example, director Peter Atencio, who has worked on a bunch of cool stuff like Key & Peele.
This is INSANE. First of all, fuck a business model that incentivizes this. Secondly, this movie is GREAT. I was lucky to get to see some and it's hilarious, with incredible animation. What a disgusting turn of events, especially with a huge gaping hole in the release calendar. https://t.co/AnUwBcY8S2
— Peter Atencio (@Atencio) November 9, 2023
It did not help Zaslav and Warner Bros. that the entire plot of the movie is literally about little guys fighting back against a greedy and/or cartoonishly evil CEO.
After all of the products made by ACME Corporation backfire on Wile E. Coyote, in his pursuit of the Road Runner, he hires an equally-unlucky human attorney to sue the company. When Wile E.’s lawyer finds out that his former law firm’s intimidating boss is ACME’s CEO, he teams up with Wile E. to win the court case against him.
There was some self-awareness lacking here. That’s the nicest way to put it.
PART III: This is where it starts to get good
The backlash got so intense and burned so hot and came from people with enough juice to make the executives wobbly that Warner Bros. turned around days later and said the film would be shopped to other distributors who might actually want to release it instead of lighting it on fire to save a few bucks.
Puck was the first to break the news over the weekend.
Warners declined to comment, but a good source tells me the decision was made this weekend by Warners film chiefs Mike De Luca and Pam Abdy, along with new animation head Bill Damaschke, after the online outcry by filmmakers and the animation community, as well as some heated back-and-forth between the studio and reps for the director and stars. Warners had agreed to pay the top talent their streaming bonuses despite the film being scrapped, but obviously, everyone involved in this project wants it to be released by someone.
This is the good stuff. It’s fun to see the number-crunchers get a little perspective every now and then. And it’s not even the first time De Luca and Abdy have had to step in to help the company save face after a cold financial calculation made people very angry. It just happened a little while ago when Warner Bros. tried to kill Turner Classic Movies and freaking Steven Spielberg got so mad about it that he almost wrote a blog. You would think a lesson was learned here. And yet!
More reporting followed, as reporting usually does. Every streamer that exists is now interested in poking the tires on the movie, both because they really do love content and because they probably relish the opportunity to be seen as a conquering hero who saves art from their evil competitors. There was also this from The Hollywood Reporter.
The Coyote cancelation roiled the creative community perhaps even harder than Batgirl and Scoob!, because those had been positioned as a one-off change in strategy, never to happen again. According to sources, after the Coyote vs. Acme news broke last week, several filmmakers instructed reps to cancel meetings they had on the books with Warners. But now that Coyote may ultimately find a new home, these filmmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach.
To recap so far:
- Warner Bros. paid for and made a whole movie about Wile E. Coyote
- They decided to scrap it for cash without releasing it
- Everyone got so mad that the studio ended up reversing the decision and gave their competitors a chance to look like virtuous benefactors of the arts
- People who make the movies that the movie studio needs got so ticked off that they threatened to not give the studio movies anymore
Other than that, everything went great. Which brings me to…
PART IV: It can get so much funnier
The film was screened this week for potential buyers and the people in attendance raved about it. People like, for example, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who know a little something about making movies.
— Phil Lord (@philiplord) November 15, 2023
I saw COYOTE VS ACME and it’s delightful. Funny, charming, good physical comedy timing, with a surprising amount of heart. I hope several studios go after it so the world can see all the good work people did. pic.twitter.com/sZDaUGGJ2L
— Christopher Miller (@chrizmillr) November 15, 2023
Also, because anytime the public yells loud enough about something a politician’s ears perk up, Joaquin Castro, a Congressman from Texas, started raising questions about the entire business practice of scrapping a finished movie for a tax break, and threatened to get various important government agencies involved.
The @WBD tactic of scrapping fully made films for tax breaks is predatory and anti-competitive.
As the Justice Department and @FTC revise their antitrust guidelines they should review this conduct.
As someone remarked, it’s like burning down a building for the insurance money. https://t.co/Vb8vj3brD7
— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) November 14, 2023
All of which means we are heading toward a potential situation where:
- A big corporation gifts a massive hit and public relations windfall to a competitor because of a heartless cost-cutting move that backfired
- The CEO of that company gets dragged in front of Congress to get yelled at about a movie where a cartoon coyote tries to kill a cartoon bird with explosives
We deserve this. Please. Let the people have a little treat.