With the possible exceptions of trauma surgeons, firefighters, and garbage collectors, nearly everyone has at one point or another been plagued by the ambient sense that their job is pointless. This is true even within professions that we’d consider essential: If you know any nurses or teachers, you’ve heard about the hopelessness and boredom that snake their way through hospitals and schools. When you abstract work further and further, away from producing shoes and chairs and toward producing “shareholder value,” you are forced to confront one fundamental question, again and again: What the fuck are we doing here?
Last week, it became clear that Warner Bros. Discovery (a conglomerate formed when AT&T spun off Warner Media, itself the by-product of a 1990 merger between Time Inc. and Warner Communications that was designed to stave off a hostile takeover by Gulf+Western, which is now Paramount) planned to permanently shelve Coyote Vs. Acme, a live action–animation hybrid film that was completed sometime in 2022. Based on a New Yorker piece by Ian Frazier (published a month after the Time-Warner merger) that imagined Wile E. Coyote suing the Acme Co. over “defects in manufacture or improper cautionary labelling” of the various items he purchased to help capture the Road Runner, the film stars Will Forte and John Cena, is directed by Dave Green, and is written by Samy Burch, whose May December script is up for Best Original Screenplay at next month’s Oscars.
It is now overwhelmingly likely that no member of the public will ever be able to see Coyote Vs. Acme. In fact, The Wrap reports that after outcry from filmmakers and onlookers over initial reports about plans to shelf the film, which was budgeted around $70 million, Warner allowed it to be screened for interested parties. But Warner did not inform Netflix, Amazon, or Paramount—all of which are said to have made “handsome” offers—ahead of time that there would be no budging from its initial asking price, which was somewhere between $75 million and $80 million.
There is precedent for Warner, under CEO and president David Zaslav, canceling a filmed and nearly finished feature film. In 2022, the conglomerate shelved Batgirl and something called Scoob! Holiday Haunt, each of which was slated to go directly to the company’s paid streaming service, then known as HBO Max. (You imagine a team of men in suits: “Sir, the exclamation point actually goes in the middle.”) But while Coyote Vs. Acme is not the first property to be left flattened, as if by a falling anvil on the side of a highway, it’s the first one whose very premise is a tidy metaphor for the way the industry has become an impassable web of complementary and competing corporate interests that wraps itself around cultural objects until they are completely mummified. Put another way, Coyote Vs. Acme—if we’re to take the Frazier piece as its basis—is a movie that is about the very dynamic that killed it: capital’s use of the law not as an arena for fair adjudication but as a blunt instrument.
Created for Warner Bros. at the tail end of the 1940s by Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese, Wile E. Coyote has spent the past 75 years in perpetual chase of the Road Runner, a similarly silent desert dweller. Across what, in Frazier’s piece, Coyote’s attorney calls “Arizona and contiguous states,” the predator deploys an endless array of Acme-supplied gadgets and contraptions to catch his prey—always to no avail. While Bugs Bunny is the unquestioned star of Looney Tunes, Coyote is a constant victim of the cartoon physics the franchise made famous: He scurries off cliffs but falls into the chasm below when he looks down and sees that the ground is gone; he’s frozen, statue-like, by the quick-drying cement Road Runner speeds through like a hydroplaning car; he collides “with a roadside billboard so violently as to leave a hole in the shape of his full silhouette.”
What Frazier’s piece captures so shrewdly is the way legalese can make the ordinary sound absurd and the absurd sound downright justifiable:
Unsuspecting, the prey stopped near Mr. Coyote, well within range of the springs at full extension. Mr. Coyote gauged the distance with care and proceeded to pull the lanyard release. ... At this point, Defendant’s product should have thrust Mr. Coyote forward and away from the boulder. Instead, for reasons yet unknown, the Acme Spring-Powered Shoes thrust the boulder away from Mr. Coyote. As the intended prey looked on unharmed, Mr. Coyote hung suspended in air. Then the twin springs recoiled, bringing Mr. Coyote to a violent feet-first collision with the boulder, the full weight of his head and forequarters falling upon his lower extremities.
The lawsuit, like the cartoon itself, endears Wile E. Coyote to us: We want him to catch the Road Runner; we don’t want him to suffer a “fracture of the left ear at the stem, causing the ear to dangle in the aftershock with a creaking noise.” But underlying the catalog of injuries to body and reputation that Coyote’s lawyer offers is the claim that it is a predator’s inalienable right to pursue its prey. So where Acme is a clot of half-obscured “directors, officers, shareholders, successors, and assigns,” the plaintiff is himself hoping to normalize his crimes; the case is a Russian nesting doll of predation. It calls to mind the arch-American myths of the careless coffee drinkers suing restaurants for handing them hot drinks.
The entertainment industry, like all others, replicates this logic on a larger scale. Most analysts figure Warner will score at least a $30 million tax break for shelving Coyote Vs. Acme rather than releasing it. This is, on its face, immoral and anticompetitive whether you find morality and business competition to be one and the same or directly opposed: How can it be better to flush $70 million down the drain than to try to recoup at least some of it?
And still, in the immediate sense, it’s almost certainly good business; the balance sheets will be cleaner this year. But it closes off any possibility that the film would be a hit—or adapted into a hit spinoff, or heavily merchandised, or simply good enough that it makes Warner more attractive to filmmakers who could bring it hits in the future. It’s shortsighted by the most craven measures and simply gross by any others. Yet tax law—and precisely nothing else—incentivizes the conglomerate to do something that, in a sane world or in a more competitive industry landscape, would alienate it to writers, directors, and stars.
Speaking of American myths, it doesn’t take too many contortions to see Wile E. Coyote as our Sisyphus: alone in the unpopulated West, starving but eager to abstract his animal instincts with consumer goods and cheap schemes. Coyote Vs. Acme is not some bizarre, divisive, or difficult passion project. It’s an all-ages comedy about the most recognizable characters a studio has ever created that has a hook (Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets Erin Brockovich or whatever) that could compel adults. But we have somehow arrived at a place where the production history of a Looney Tunes movie starring a former wrestler is now emblematic of art’s struggle against corporate greed.
In about 10 days, people—junior analysts, “institutional investors,” the wealthy and semiretired, senior analysts—will huddle around those arachnid conference call speakers or pace through airport gates on Airpods and listen to Warner Bros. Discovery’s fourth-quarter earnings call. It’s possible that the Coyote Vs. Acme debacle will be addressed simply due to the uproar it caused, but just as likely that the company will barrel ahead with what was likely the plan all along: to let it slip silently into the ether, a massive tax benefit “earned” by lighting years and tens of millions of dollars on fire. Zaslav will be rightly praised while those so inclined will sleep well knowing they can cash out whenever they please.
This is an extreme example, to be sure, yet still clarifies the precarity and seeming impermanence of art in the streaming era. To the extent that those streaming platforms have become the de facto media libraries for so many, individuals have ceded to rights holders and corporations control over their collections of movies and music, which can be shrunk or radically altered on the first of any given month. For decades, things have fallen out of print and become obscure, and axing something before its release, as Warner seems ready to do with Coyote Vs. Acme, is reminiscent of the way studios could control what was available in decades past. But today, Warner and its competitors are free to play this out over and over—able to yank things out of circulation at will. In the past, they never could have reached into your home and scooped up your DVD copy of The Spy Who Shagged Me.
I should correct something from earlier, when I said that Coyote never catches the Road Runner. This isn’t true—not exactly. In “Soup or Sonic,” a nine-minute segment in a 1980 special called, unfortunately, Bugs Bunny’s Bustin’ Out All Over, Coyote tries and fails to capture the bird using a pole vault that starts spinning like a propeller; a faulty rocket; a Frisbee fitted with a firecracker; a piece of “Acme Giant Flypaper” that captures, well, a giant fly; and a case of exploding tennis balls.
But in the short’s final two minutes, Coyote chases Road Runner through a series of pipes that turn each animal smaller as they pass from one end to the other. Discovering this, they pivot; running back the direction they came brings the Road Runner back to normal size, but leaves Coyote tiny. Nevertheless, he finally catches up. Wrapping his arms—just barely—around the Road Runner’s now giant ankle, Coyote licks his lips and pulls from his nonexistent pockets a bib, knife, and fork. But there’s nothing he can do: The thing he’s pursued forever is too immense, too threatening for him to bite, to cut, to finally eat. “OKAY, WISE GUYS, YOU ALWAYS WANTED ME TO CATCH HIM,” reads one sign Coyote holds up for the audience. The other: “NOW WHAT DO I DO?”
Paul Thompson is the senior editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.