Animators Voice ‘Deep Distrust’ of Warner Bros. Discovery After Latest HBO Max Purge

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Showrunners and agents say company’s efforts to reduce debt are harming relationships with talent

hbo max animators
"Infinity Train," "Mao Mao" and "Summer Camp Island" (HBO Max)

Ian Jones-Quartey is used to seeing fan art and TikTok videos of his Cartoon Network show “O.K. K.O.: Let’s Be Heroes” on social media, but on Aug. 17 he found out something far more sobering from his fans: His show was one of three dozen titles that Warner Bros. Discovery had abruptly pulled from HBO Max as the company looks to reduce costs following its $43 billion merger earlier this year.

“It was a real shock for me, but I think even more for the fans,” Jones-Quartey told TheWrap. “The show finished on television three years ago, but more people were slowly finding it through HBO Max since then. It was becoming a cult show.”

Multiple animators told TheWrap they felt blindsided by the news that their work had been pulled from HBO Max without any advance notice, and compared the lack of communication to the studio’s abrupt announcement to scrap the $90 million DC Comics film “Batgirl” earlier this month after it had already wrapped production.

In addition, many talent agents said WBD’s push to trim $3 billion in costs risks long-term damage to relationships with creative talent. “The entire company is coming off as distressed,” one agent who asked to remain anonymous told TheWrap. “The messaging both inside the company and externally is ‘Stay away or get out if you can.’”

One storyboarder on a just-canceled HBO Max animated series said that animators have a “deep distrust” of Warner Bros. now. “If I’m a showrunner that had this happen to my project, why would I work with that studio again if I could help it?” the individual said. “It’s a business. We get it. But the way all this work just got thrown away in the blink of an eye just feels so callous.”

The majority of the titles in the latest round of cuts were family programming geared at kids, including several Cartoon Network shows and the HBO Max original “Infinity Train” that had built up devoted followings. In addition to removal from HBO Max, the company pulled videos of the cut shows on Cartoon Network’s YouTube page and other social media channels.

At a time when competition for kids’ attention is stiff with services like Netflix, Disney+ and Apple TV+ heavily investing in programming — not to mention the popularity of YouTube, TikTok and Twitch — stepping back from that section of content while plans continue to merge HBO Max and Discovery+ is likely a driving factor behind this move. A rep for Warner Bros. Discovery did not respond to a request for comment.

The animation retreat had come with a major backlash. In the days that followed the cuts, several showrunners decried the move. “Infinity Train” creator Owen Dennis called the cancellation “incredibly unprofessional, rude, and just straight up slimy” in a personal blog post.

Julia Pott, creator of the fantasy series “Summer Camp Island,” lamented that animators had worked through the pandemic while live-action projects were forced to shut down, only to find their work abandoned by a streaming service that had leaned on their creativity. “We worked for five years to make 100 episodes of animation. We worked late into the night, we let ourselves go, we were a family of hard-working artists who wanted to make something beautiful, and HBO Max just pulled them all like we were nothing. Animation is not nothing!” Pott tweeted.

Infinity Train
“Infinity Train” (HBO Max)

According to two insiders, some Cartoon Network executives opposed the decision to abruptly pull the shows, warning that it would damage their relationships with showrunners who had worked for years on multiple shows for the network before creating their own projects. Prior to creating “O.K. K.O.,” Ian Jones-Quartey worked as a storyboard artist on “Adventure Time” and a supervising director on “Steven Universe,” while Owen Dennis worked as a longtime writer for “Regular Show” before creating “Infinity Train.”

The actual choice of which shows would get axed, the insiders said, was based on data from the company’s accounting department on how much money could be saved from writer and actor residuals, among other costs.

The network’s labor representatives have been in contact with The Animation Guild about the pulled shows, according to individuals with knowledge of the talks. While residuals for the Animation Guild are not affected by the streaming pull because members are paid upfront (unlike voice actors, who get additional pay based on reuse of media), the Guild is pushing for other contractual benefits for members exiting canceled projects, including access to work that animators contributed for use in their portfolios.

But there’s only so much guidance that the Animation Guild and Cartoon Network can immediately provide, as the network’s execs are still trying to figure out what their parent company’s moves mean for several projects. A representative for Cartoon Network declined to comment for this story.

Many of the most popular shows like “Infinity Train” and “Summer Camp Island” can still be viewed on other platforms, including Hulu, Google Play and iTunes. But the ongoing trend of directors, actors and showrunners finding out about abrupt changes to how their work is handled and made publicly available has talent worried about a new normal in a consolidation-focused Hollywood, where relationships with talent seem to be secondary to financial mandates.

“What you are seeing with [former Warner Media CEO] Jason Kilar’s Project Popcorn/HBO Max-first mandate, Bob Chapek’s ‘Black Widow’ issue and now Zaslav’s killing off Kilar’s mandate is all Hollywood outsiders doing things their way,” one agent said, referencing some recent cases of studio heads prioritizing streaming subscriber growth over building traditional partnerships with stars, directors and producers. “And they obviously care less about how things land with talent.”

It wasn’t long ago that the streamers seemed responsive to creators. Jones-Quartey recalled that HBO Max executives responded quickly when he alerted them that “O.K. K.O.” episodes were streaming out of order. “The fans were grateful for how quickly it was fixed,” he said.

Now animators are seeing another pattern. Netflix, which openly embraced animation in all its forms, suddenly turned off the spigot this past spring and announced dramatic cuts to its animation development plans. Several high-profile projects were canceled, including an adaptation of the comic series “Bone” and the original series “Toil and Trouble” from “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” creator Lauren Faust, while Phil Rynda, Netflix’s original animation development head, was fired along with several members of his staff.

Many animators have been unnerved by the one-two punch of Netflix and HBO Max’s retreat from animation, wondering if the moves portend a bigger downsizing in the genre throughout Hollywood. After all, both streamers were home to animated shows that developed cult followings largely through social media, as fans spread word of shows like “Infinity Train,” “Arcane: League of Legends” and “Close Enough” via fan art and clips of favorite scenes.

But if the level of success that these streamers want to achieve is a hit series on the level of Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks or Illumination, those shows won’t go far enough.

“There is clearly no long-term, multiseason career in animation anymore, not just at WBD but anywhere. None of these streamers will commit to picking up more than one season of a show at a time, which is just not how animation works,” one showrunner said. “Animation is a long-term investment — you can’t just pop in and pop out and think you’re gonna get good quality.”

Brian Welk and Umberto Gonzalez contributed to this story.