In what has become a grim reality of the next phase of the streaming era, 60 movies and television shows have left Disney+ and Hulu. That includes Sundance crowdpleasers like “Timmy Failure,” initially-intended for theatrical releases like “Artemis Fowl” and “The Once and Future Ivan,” big-budget IP adaptations like “Willow” and “Y: The Last Man,” and high-concept YA dramedies like “Stargirl” and “Rosaline.” Once such casualty is “The Princess.”
Released in August of 2022, the original high-concept hybrid of “Die Hard” and “The Raid” features Joey King (star of “The Kissing Booth” trilogy) as a princess trapped in a tower having to fight and kill her way floor-by-floor to save herself and her family from a violent coup attempt. It’s the kind of clever genre exercise that might have been a theatrical release a generation ago. Had it been given a theatrical release, however token, it would also have been available on DVD, VOD and related revenue streams eventually. But now, once it leaves Hulu, reportedly for a tax write-down, it could vanish, never to be legally seen again.
Screenwriters Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton have been vocal online with their displeasure that their splashy action fantasy has been disappeared to create the perception of cost savings from one quarter to the next. It is just one film or television show caught in this grim new normal. So, just days before their movie was Thanos-snapped out of existence, they sat down with TheWrap to talk about it.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Disney has, as of this writing, declined requests for comment.
Was “The Princess” conceived as a streaming title from the beginning?
Jake Thornton: There was a mandate to 20th Century Studios by Walt Disney, who had just purchased it, requesting films specifically for Hulu. We worked in the industry for seven years without anything having [been] made. When they said they were going to make it, streaming was part of their sales pitch.
Ben Lustig: To their credit, they did make it. The only problem now is that it may not be available for anyone to see ever again, ever.
I’m not going to be able to go on Amazon or iTunes and rent “The Princess” for $5.99?
Thornton: Our understanding of it is that if you are going to write something off in the way Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav did with “Batgirl,” you cannot make any more money on it or you lose the write-down. For that to happen, it cannot be anywhere.
It’s ultimately coming down to what we feel the WGA is striking against, which is this complete corporatization of our love of movies that we write and pour our souls into, which they just consider content. Now the entertainment industry has always been a business, but you at least felt that there were people who owned the studios or ran the studios [who] really loved movies. It just feels like it’s going away because it’s all about shareholders and stock prices,
Lustig: There are a lot of people who work at the studios, including those at high levels, who do love movies. The executives who worked on “The Princess” genuinely wanted to make a great movie. They are probably just as disappointed as we are. There are places where costs can be cut. The idea of making a quick write-down that will show a substantial change on the balance sheet, at the expense of the future of the expression of all these artists, is a real shame.
Thornton: We [also] read about it in the press. The director [Le-Van Kiet] was contacted. It just comes down to the feeling that writers are not important. [It’s] another reason why we’re stomping around and raising our voices now because writers are important.
Lustig: I don’t want us to come across as bitter in that way. There’s been an enormous amount of benefit for us to be able to get this made, whether it’s been a financial benefit, or whether it’s just been a career. However, I have a six-year-old daughter and a seven-month-old daughter. “The Princess” originally just spawned from my six-year-old’s love of Disney princesses. My hope was that one day my daughter would be able to watch this movie with her friends and say, “My dad wrote this!”
What’s ghoulish is that everything about the movie, the trailer, the poster, the media coverage and the reviews, may remain online but the movie itself won’t.
Thornton: Many of the streamers are realizing that a theatrical release of a movie helps push people to sample it later on streaming. The marketing of the movie inspires some audiences to see it in theaters. However, months later, those who skipped it in theaters might decide to catch up with it on streaming. I didn’t get to see “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” in theaters, but I did watch it last weekend on Disney+.
Theatrical releases are then followed by VOD, DVD and all of those other outlets. With streaming, those other outlets don’t exist and the streaming-centric movies just aren’t hugely marketed. Maybe not that many people watched it. We don’t know, because Disney doesn’t share numbers.
Lustig: I was told off the record that it did very well streaming in Europe. What’s so disheartening is that for an industry that’s built on the backs of creative people, we are the last ones to be taken into consideration. There are so many other ways to whittle down your balance sheets. Yet the very people who give you a business at all are not taken into consideration.
We may have this weird situation where the movies and television shows created from 2019 to 2022 for streaming platforms will get caught in this weird vortex. Before the last few years you didn’t have a dozen streaming services that needed Hollywood-like movies. Going forward, I imagine there will be contractual safeguards to prevent this kind of total removal from the entertainment ecosystem.
Lustig: The only way that this happens is if there’s a clause that states if you don’t want to distribute this movie anymore, we have the right as the artists to shop in other places. However, that means that the company can’t take the write-down, which is why they want to do it.
I think you’re going to see a lot fewer films like “The Princess” being made because they were chasing underrepresented demographics as a cultural and critical shield.
Thornton: I think it starts to affect our decisions as creatives as well because we start to see what does well, what people want to see.
Lustig: Executives are starting to say publicly that releasing movies in the theaters, even if only for a week, is better than just dropping them on streaming. Apple and Amazon are reportedly going to make a huge investment in theatrical release movies. The new question could be “Is it worth the theatrical marketing spend?” The new equation is “If we lose money on the theatrical distribution, does it still convert into subscribers?”
The “Air” model?
Thornton: Right? Absolutely. We made a point to watch “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” on Paramount+.
Lustig: This was a double gut punch for me because previously Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that they were going to be moving Hulu content to Disney+. I was so excited since, technically, Joey King in “The Princess” would now be a Disney princess!
“The Princess” came out around the same time as the “Predator” prequel “Prey,” and they both played like explicit deconstructions of Disney’s now-patented “not your normal Disney princess” marketing narrative.
Lustig: I feel like we’ve had the opportunity in Hollywood to take a movie that bombed at the box office, like “Blade Runner” for example, and turn it into a cult classic. If we’re entering a phase whereby anything that doesn’t perform within the first six months, they are going to take a tax write-down on it, all of those movies that might become cult classics and cultural influences might just vanish.
Physical media really helps. The studios have not figured out how to monetize streaming in the way that they monetize DVDs. We’re in this weird place where right now the write-down is more valuable. Maybe when they figure this out, they will figure out a way to monetize “The Princess” in a way we couldn’t even see today.
I assume you’re going to be more cautious before you get into streaming movies in the future?
Thorton: If we have multiple offers from multiple places, one of the things that we’re going to actually now start asking for [for streaming films] is guarantees on certain things.
Lustig: I’ll be the pessimist that says I don’t think it will be an option. Even if you sell a movie to Warner Brothers Discovery with the theatrical terms in your contract, they own it. They have the right to put it on their streamer if they want. You don’t have a choice in that. They’re not going to give you that power.
Thornton: The studios don’t like being told what to do.
Lustig: One of the things is going to be to try and push for these companies to give movies a chance to make a cultural impact. Sometimes it takes more than eleven months.
Thornton: If it was down to a streamer, maybe Netflix, along with Disney+ but maybe Universal is interested too? Could Universal release it on Peacock? Sure, but I’d rather take my bets with a place that might release something theatrically and maybe I’ll take less money because of that.
Lustig: You also have to feed your family. If the only offers are coming from streamers, then you make a streaming movie.
Better a vanished movie than no movie at all?
Lustig: 1,000%. Yeah. Otherwise, being a writer is not a career.
Is it a career at all anymore?
Thornton: I think so, but that’s why we’re striking.