The Erasure of Cartoons from HBO Max Also Removes a Prolific Moment of Animation HistoryPhoto Courtesy of Cartoon Network TV Features HBO Max
Warner Bros. used to be one of the pioneering companies in animation. Out of their countless profitable franchises, no property has had as much longevity or a storied repertoire as Looney Tunes, which is nearly a century old. The studio has launched iconic figures throughout animation, film, and television history for generations. By making incredible business moves such as acquiring the entire Hanna-Barbera catalog and launching Cartoon Network in the ‘90s through the now-defunct Turner, Warner Bros. made sure they were leaders in the medium. But thanks to the dealings of a new (in the words of John Oliver) “business daddy,” animation has been pushed down an infinite flight of stairs and lit on fire.
Within the past few weeks—which has probably felt like an eternity to animators—Warner Bros. Discovery began to purge animated series from their HBO Max streaming service, with each decision more repulsive than the last. The shocking news of movies such as Batgirl and Scooby-Doo: Holiday Haunt getting axed last month was writing on a wall as to what bad business moves were to come. As of last week, the David Zaslav-run company unceremoniously pulled over 25 animation titles from the streamer’s database without warning. Most of this was to enact Zaslav’s mission to save $50 billion in debt left by AT&T, something he has failed to do thus far in his tenure.
The quiet wave of disappearing HBO Max content that occurred late last month has become a Rube Goldberg machine where multiple shows and films, predominantly in animation, have begun to vanish with little to no availability found on other platforms. The company didn’t even have the common courtesy to notify any of the creators or staff on any of those said series of their removal.
If that wasn’t alienating enough, any mention or clips relating to shows such as Infinity Train and Mao Mao were permanently removed from official Warner Bros. Discovery-owned accounts. Infinity Train was a series made because of fan demand. Now, it’s as if it never even existed at all.
In other infuriating cases, completed shows like Little Ellen were about to release their new seasons, but were hit with delays or got canceled, and then entire series were wiped off the streamer. Twenty fully completed episodes of Little Ellen remain unreleased, with many artists’ hard work never seeing any light of day. The same goes for Mao Mao, which was announced to have a second season, but ultimately canceled under Discovery’s ownership.
Almost daily, the news keeps getting worse for artists working under Zaslav’s reign. Many projects currently in production are in a constant state of limbo as to whether they’ll be canceled or even seen. Earlier this week, the Cartoon Network original movie Driftwood (which went into production in May) was canceled. Other projects such as The Amazing World of Gumball Movie, and Batman: Caped Crusader were announced as not moving forward at HBO Max, though will be shopped elsewhere. Batman!
The dissonance between how the entertainment industry relied on animation during quarantine in 2020 and the way it’s treated today is astonishing. Animation was running the industry gamut during the COVID-19 lockdown, as it was the only form of entertainment being produced, commissioned, and released for a time. As families across the world were stuck at home, new shows kept dropping to entertain and power them through the year.
During a time when filmmakers were unable to shoot live-action films, leaving various productions on hold, artists in animation had to bring that work they once did at a studio back home with them. Given the uncertainty of the pandemic’s length, one can only imagine the mental health struggles animators had to push through while working remotely. Nevertheless, hundreds of talented artists heeded the call.
Now animation is treated as thankless fodder that is inferior to live-action, when it’s not only responsible for livelihoods and passions, but is an exciting and expanding medium. Unfortunately, this troubling trend stretches to other streamers as well. Earlier this year, Netflix canceled a few of their upcoming animated series well into production as a result of their poor Q1 earnings. Meanwhile, they’ve been burning hundreds of millions of dollars to produce bland movies starring Ryan Gosling.
To execs, the medium of animation is just a business transaction, without any consideration for the people who produce these amazing shows. Now animators are unable to even see the projects they’ve worked on for months, if not years, and unable to include them in portfolios, reels, and resumes for future work. Also, the royalties the animators might make will stop. Imagine sacrificing your mental health to work on a series during such a tenuous time, and then seeing that work be stripped away from existence by out-of-touch execs who most likely don’t even have the talent to draw a decent stick figure (or know a good one when they see it).
It’s terrible to witness the swift pivot from WarnerMedia’s tenure—where animation was respected—to Discovery, where it is now being thrown out of a plane without a parachute. Exclusive content that was produced throughout quarantine now being wiped off HBO Max is a major spit in the face to everyone who sacrificed their well-being and labor to make those projects happen. Infinity Train creator Owen Dennis encapsulates it in his recent substack post: “What is the point of making something, spending years working on it, putting in nights and weekends doing their terrible notes, losing sleep and not seeing our families, if it’s just going to be taken away and shot in the backyard? It’s so incredibly discouraging and they’re definitely not going to be getting their best work out of whoever decides to stay.”
Higher-ups in the industry forget to realize and respect that animation is not just a medium or an art form, but also physical labor. And by axing all of these animated titles, they’ve called into question the relationship that both creatives and viewers have with the studio. Dennis continues to sum up the emotions perfectly: “I think the way that Discovery went about this is incredibly unprofessional, rude, and just straight up slimy. I think almost everyone who makes anything feels this way. Across the industry, talent is mad, agents are mad, lawyers and managers are mad, and even execs at these companies are mad. I can’t think of a single person who works in animation and entertainment that, when you bring this all up, doesn’t say ‘What the fuck are they doing? How do they plan to have anyone ever want to work with them again?’”
We’re witnessing a major pivot in animation where a once-great animation giant has now tarnished its legacy and promising future for the sake of corporate numbers games. As Cartoon Network’s 30th anniversary draws near, the vibe for celebration has become very grim, as its parent company’s lack of care for the medium the network was founded upon has set ablaze a bridge hundreds of artists are stuck on.
Rendy Jones is a film and television journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. They are the owner of self-published outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics Choice Association, and a film graduate of Brooklyn College. They have been featured in Vulture, The Daily Beast, AV Club and CBC News.
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