The Cancellation of Swamp Thing and the Precarity of DC Universe
Rusty Hatchell / University of Texas at Austin

Swamp Thing
Swamp Thing, a DC Universe original series

On May 31, 2019, Swamp Thing premiered on the DC Universe streaming service. A week later, shortly before the release of the second episode, the series was cancelled. To date, neither DC Universe nor its parent company, WarnerMedia, have cited any particular reason for the show’s demise, although an official post on the streaming service’s Watchtower forums—the official space dedicated to DC Universe’s updates and news items—states that they are “not in a position to answer” the questions of why at this time. As can be expected with vague or incomplete media industrial news, theories regarding the cancellation soon spread across social media and fan networks.

One particular theory that gained mild traction pointed to a potential clerical error and a misunderstanding in the tax rebates Warner Bros. would receive from the state of North Carolina where the series filmed. However, Guy Gaster, director of the North Carolina film office, later confirmed that the budget discussions between his office and Warner Bros. “had nothing to do with Swamp Thing‘s cancellation.”

Additionally, the show was reported to be suffering from creative differences between various heads of DC Entertainment and WarnerMedia, the latter of which formed as a reorganized conglomerate after the completion of an $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner by telecom giant, AT&T. For reference, the completion of the WarnerMedia deal in June 2018 occurred a month after DC Universe had given a script-to-series order for Swamp Thing, marking the series as one of the last to be ordered and announced for production under pre-AT&T Time Warner. One evidential sign that the series was suffering from creative differences occurred mid-production in April 2019, with WarnerMedia reducing the planned thirteen episode season down to ten episodes and abruptly halting production of the series, much to the shock of the cast and crew of the series.

Despite the varied yet possibly related theories on what led to the demise of Swamp Thing, fans have begun to worry that the cancellation news is pointing to a precarity of sorts for the streaming service dedicated to all things DC Comics and DC Entertainment. Shortly after the WarnerMedia deal was finalized, plans to develop and launch a major streaming service to compete against streaming giant Netflix as well as rival development plans for streaming services from Apple (to launch late 2019), Disney (to launch late 2019), and Comcast’s NBCUniversal (to launch early 2020) were announced. Additionally, in the year since WarnerMedia was finalized as a new parent company, smaller and niche streaming services under the WarnerMedia umbrella of companies—including Filmstruck, Super Deluxe, and Drama Fever—have been discontinued. This is part of Warner’s new strategy to consolidate “resources from sub-scale D2C efforts, fallow library content, and technology reuse.” [ ((John Connelly, “WarnerMedia to Launch Direct to Consumer Streaming Service in Late 2019,” Variety, Oct. 10, 2018,]

Disney Plus
Disney+, announced earlier this year, will position Marvel as one of the service’s five main content hubs

Thus, many comic and superhero media fans may find that their go-to space for DC-branded content might be doomed before it can find its footing. Indeed, DC Universe has not been without their own missteps since the service was first announced in April 2017. Imagined as a central digital hub for all entertainment related to DC, including live-action television and film, animated television and film, as well as the comics and graphic novels that inspired such content, DC Universe currently still does not offer any content from DC’s two most profitable and most-visible media franchises—the DCEU franchise of feature-length films and the television franchise of DC properties airing on the CW network (colloquially referred to as the “Arrowverse” in reference to the franchise’s flagship series, Arrow). DC Universe’s plans to “supplement the lack” was to develop original programming to help lure fans to the service. Yet, the service launched without any original content readily available; DC Universe’s first original title, Titans (a live-action retelling of the Teen Titans run of comics as well as the popular Teen Titans animated program and subsequent films), released its first episode over a month after the service launched in September 2018. Nearly a year after the launch of the service, there are only three live-action series for viewers to watch, with a fourth (Stargirl) scheduled to debut in early 2020.

DC Universe Originals
DC Universe offers viewers original content as well as a variety of television programs and feature-length films from its DC Entertainment library

Even as comic book and superhero properties have become highly lucrative for the contemporary media industries, superhero television has become interwoven into the tangled web of industrial strategies employed by many of the major media conglomerates, particularly Walt Disney’s Marvel brand and WarnerMedia’s DC brand. The precarity of the DC Universe service calls into question the ways media scholars have tried to understand the post-network era of television, a periodization made popular through Amanda Lotz’s The Television Will Be Revolutionized. While Lotz considers the shift of control from the networks to the viewers who “now increasingly select what, when, and where to view from abundant options,” [ (( Amanda Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, 2nd edition (New York City, New York University Press, 2014), 15.))] it might help to also note the ways in which networks—through their reorganized media conglomerates—are attempting to regain control in the distribution of their respective libraries, especially as the media industry enters what has been has been commonly noted as the “streaming wars.”

Assessing that media scholars “should consider this a period of transition for the medium,” Mike Van Esler notes that “greater emphasis and attention can be placed on the role that major media conglomerates play in developing, funding, and legitimizing new forms of television distribution, in addition to co-opting disruptive technologies and business models and at the same time hindering others.” [ (( Mike Van Esler, “Not Yet the Post-TV Era: Network and MVPD Adaptation to Emergent Distribution Technologies,” Media and Communication 4, no. 3 (2016): 132-33.))] While the streaming ecology of the early 2010s was quickly dominated by Netflix, the announcement of corporate strategies over recent months have forecasted a pending wave of conglomerate domination in streaming media. Subsidiaries and independent media companies are either bought and dissolved (in the case of Machinima) or repurposed to fit the (re)organization and (re)prioritization of parent companies (in the case of Turner Broadcasting).

In the case of DC Universe, only time will tell how WarnerMedia fits the streaming service and its productions within its larger goal of launching their still-unnamed streaming service. While DC’s rival, Marvel Entertainment, has been announced as one of five major content hubs for Disney+, it’s unclear to what extent WarnerMedia’s streaming service will include DC branded entertainment. So far, WarnerMedia’s plans have shifted from a three-tier system that would allow users to pay for specific types of content (notably categorized by form rather than brand) to one that would cost $16-17 a month (notably more than any other existing or planned streaming service) and would include HBO and Cinemax content as the central element of the bundle as well as recently-released DCEU films, such as the 2018 Warner Bros./DC film, Aquaman.

As Disney, Apple, NBCUniversal, and WarnerMedia continue to develop their streaming services for launches in late 2019 and early 2020, it is clear to see that there will be major casualties in this new period of the streaming wars. Media scholars should continue to keep their eyes on what is still a transitory period for streaming, moving from the niche and subsidiary-oriented strategies to the broad and aggressive pushes by tech giants and media conglomerates themselves. The demise of Swamp Thing suggests that we as media scholars should be cautious in simplistic and reductive logics and analyses—in this case, the sustainability and profitability of comic and superhero properties for major media companies, particularly when DC’s industrial struggles are perpetually placed in conversation with Marvel’s economic successes. Rather, we should continue to view contemporary superhero television as an ephemeral moment in the transition toward a new era of conglomerate-controlled streaming media.

Image Credits:

1. Swamp Thing, a DC Universe original series
2. Disney+, announced earlier this year, will position Marvel as one of the service’s five main content hubs
3. DC Universe offers viewers original content as well as a variety of television programs and feature-length films from its DC Entertainment library

The Future of B.C.: Vancouver as Sci-Fi Television’s Ideal Media Capital
Rusty Hatchell / University of Texas at Austin

Vancouver's BC Place Stadium in Netflix's Altered Carbon

Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium in Netflix’s Altered Carbon

Earlier this year, television critic Tim Goodman noted that television has been experiencing a renaissance of sci-fi, fantasy, and supernatural programming over the last few years. Indeed, many studios have begun producing more sci-fi and fantasy productions as many cable channels and streaming platforms desire to air the next Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present). Last year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reportedly demanded his studios bring him his own Game of Thrones, instigating a major shift in the streaming giant’s development slate, including production on at least four new sci-fi series (Lazarus, Snow Crash, Ringworld, Culture) and two new fantasy series (Wheel of Time, The Dark Tower). Additionally, Amazon is positioned to spend an unprecedented $1 billion on its upcoming five-season Lord of the Rings small-screen project by the time series production wraps. Meanwhile, CBS has reportedly spent $8-8.5 million per episode on Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access, 2017-present), a show that might be one of the most expensive in TV history yet only reaches the approximately 2 million subscribers of CBS All Access.

However, sci-fi television has not always lavished in high production budgets. As J.P. Telotte notes, “SFTV [sci-fi television] has traditionally had to work at a disadvantage.” [ (( J.P. Telotte, The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2008), 5. ))] From the advent of sci-fi television in the 1940s, filming other-worldly and futuristic scenes on limited budgets has typically constrained the narratives of many earlier productions. As efforts concentrated on making sci-fi more visually palatable through visual effects (VFX), studios have found other ways to save money, including relocation of productions to more affordable locations.

Blogger's photo of the set of USA's The 4400

Blogger’s photo of the set of USA’s The 4400

One such location for many sci-fi productions over the past twenty-five years has been Vancouver, British Columbia. Although there were a few sci-fi productions filmed in Canada during the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was the debut and subsequent early success of The X-Files (FOX, 1993-2002, 2016-18) that sparked a wave of studios flocking to Vancouver to film sci-fi, fantasy and supernatural programs throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, while a 1980s-developed tourism motto for the province—”Super Natural British Columbia,” which is still used today—intended to “promote travel to the province by extolling the beauty and variety of British Columbia’s natural landscape … by the mid-1990s, the slogan became more closely associated with the fact that Vancouver was the production home of nine of the top American ‘supernatural’ television series.” [ (( Serra Tinic, On Location: Canada’s Television Industry in a Global Market (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 29. ))] Many of these productions—including Poltergeist: The Legacy (Showtime, 1996-98; Sci Fi, 1999), The Sentinel (UPN, 1996-99), Sleepwalkers (NBC, 1997-98), Harsh Realm (FOX, 1999-2000), Dark Angel (FOX, 2000-2002), The 4400 (USA, 2004-07), Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, 2004-09), Supernatural (The WB, 2005-06; The CW, 2006-present), and Kyle XY (ABC Family, 2006-09)—filmed in the Canadian city (and the surrounding area) to take advantage of lucrative provincial and federal tax incentives as well as the weak exchange rate on the Canadian dollar.

Shortly after the wave of Hollywood-financed sci-fi television, Canadian creators began to produce and finance their own sci-fi content, quickly catching the attention of executives at Syfy. Thomas Vitale—executive vice-president of programming and original movies—explained, “[w]hether it’s shows that are made in Canada for the international marketplace, or some very original shows produced in Canada, the Canadian marketplace is a terrific place for good programming in the sci/fi, fantasy and supernatural genre.” [ (( Etan Vlessing, “Syfy Bulks Up on Canadian Sci-Fi Imports,” The Hollywood Reporter, Feb. 5, 2013, ))] Canadian-produced content—as well as co-produced content—showcased Vancouver’s shift from a production capital mostly populated with Hollywood runaways to a more diverse hub full of runaways, co-productions, and domestic productions alike. Meanwhile, the number of runaway productions in Vancouver continued to rise through the 2010s, strengthening the city’s claim as the third largest production center in North America. In the essence of Michael Curtin’s assertion that media capitals “represent centers of media activity that have specific logics of their own,” Vancouver has rightfully become a unique production hub for the majority of Hollywood’s sci-fi and supernatural programming as well as an emerging destination for Canadian sci-fi production. [ (( Michael Curtin, “Media Capital: Towards the Study of Spatial Flows,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2003): 203. ))] However, as premium TV and streaming platforms continue to push the budgets of dramas and other hour-long offerings into $10-million-plus territory, it remains a curiosity why Hollywood firms continue to depend on filming their sci-fi projects in Canadian locations rather than relocating to California.

The natural landscape of B.C. stands in as a foreign planet on Netflix's Lost in Space

The natural landscape of B.C. stands in as a foreign planet on Netflix’s Lost in Space

For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, Canadian production volume reached $8.3 billion, with British Columbia edging out Ontario’s provincial share of the figure for the first time ever, in large part due to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. [ (( Canadian Press, “B.C. Now Canada’s Most Popular Province For Film, TV Production: Report,” HuffPost Canada, Feb. 2, 2018, ))] Netflix and Amazon have led the pack of major streaming services investing in higher-end sci-fi filmed in Vancouver, with the former debuting Altered Carbon (2018-present) and Lost in Space (2018-present) earlier this year and the latter’s The Man in the High Castle (2015-present) forecasting the platform’s aforementioned surge into high-budget development and production of sci-fi and fantasy programming. Additionally, Netflix has co-produced two sci-fi productions: Between (2015-16)—a co-production with Rogers-owned City—filmed in Ontario, while Travelers (2016-present)—a co-production with Corus-owned Showcase—has filmed in British Columbia.

There is no doubt that Canada has become the sci-fi nation. Yet, there has been a silent shift in the role of Vancouver, Toronto, and other production centers, particularly for Hollywood-produced content. Whereas the cultural markers of Vancouver have long been erased to stand in for American (and other non-Canadian) locations in decades past, a modern, economically-forward image of Vancouver has emerged in more recent Vancouver-shot media. Much of this is due to the direct economic impact of the creative industries funding urban revitalization efforts across the Lower Mainland of B.C. In 2016, when Wayward Pines (FOX, 2015-16) filmed in the suburb of Coquitlam, the $100,000 that the city collected in service and permit fees paid for upgrades to one of the city’s parks. Surrey—another suburb of Vancouver—has recently implemented a massive economic strategy to position the city as a metropolitan center, which has identified the creative arts industries as one of five key sectors of growth. The city’s newly constructed Surrey City Centre Library (pictured below) has already been featured in a number of television series—including Continuum (Syfy, 2012-15), Travelers, and Supergirl (CBS, 2015-16; The CW, 2016-present). Much of the city’s more modern architecture—including many of the glass skyscrapers across downtown Vancouver—can easily represent futuristic locations with the help of visual effects.

Surrey City Centre Library (with Central City Shopping Centre in the background)

Surrey City Centre Library (with Central City Shopping Centre in the background)

The city boasts a vibrant industry for VFX and other post-production necessities. In 2015, the Digital Animation or Visual Effects tax credit (DAVE) was strengthened to keep post-production activities in the province. This effort to keep all stages of production in Canada helps to continue the industry’s growth and, more importantly, the clustering of various sectors in one accessible area. Today, the city claims to be the world’s largest cluster of VFX and animation studios. One such studio—Artifex Studios—has played a massively important role in VFX for many Vancouver-filmed sci-fi productions, working on Continuum, Zoo (CBS 2015-17), Almost Human (FOX, 2013-14), Travelers, The Man in the High Castle, and many others. Additionally, ever since the company began operations in the Canadian city in 2013, Industrial Light and Magic—Lucasfilm’s post-production company—has expanded many times, most recently opening up a second location in the city to meet growing demands.

Returning to Telotte’s comment on the disadvantages of sci-fi production, the influx of streaming platforms producing high-budget content marks a moment in which economic assertions of runaway productions in Vancouver must be reconsidered. First, as reports of Netflix producing 700 series in 2018 and Amazon amping up their own production slate continue to dominate industry headlines, Vancouver’s position as an essential site for runaway productions should be revisited as perhaps one of an ideal site for premium cable and streaming platforms. In other words, while some studios with tighter budgets may film in Vancouver primarily for tax incentives that lessen their financial risks—such as Warner Bros. Television, which is Vancouver’s biggest TV client—production efforts in the city from premium cable and streaming platforms may consider tax incentives simply as an added perk, packaged with the fully-clustered production hub of Vancouver and its highly-experienced crew in science fiction production. Second, as economic strategies continue to impact the visual identity of the city through urban planning and architectural developments, the city’s Vancouverness becomes slightly more recognizable. Websites dedicated to identifying Vancouver landmarks and specific locations have appeared for shows like Altered Carbon, while fans have started sceneframing—the effort of showcasing a location from a media text in the context of its actual location—much of Vancouver in reference to the multitudes of programs that have and continue to film in the city. This latter practice is, in part, a fascinating digital extension of Vancouver’s fan tourism and pilgrimage scholarship. [ (( For further reading on fan tourism and pilgrimage practices, see Will Brooker’s “Everywhere and Nowhere Vancouver, Fan Pilgrimage and the Urban Imaginary” in International Journal of Cultural Studies, Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures, and Rebecca Williams’ “Fan Tourism and Pilgrimage” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom (ed. Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott). ))]

Sceneframing The CW's Arrow in Vancouver

Sceneframing The CW’s Arrow in Vancouver

But perhaps the most important consideration is the potential impact of deep-pocketed streaming platforms continuing to film in the Canadian city. As production budgets continue to inflate and streamers attempt to produce the next big genre hit, only time will tell how much of a positive economic impact streaming platforms will have in Canadian production hubs. A recent announcement by the Canadian government that Netflix will invest C$500 million in original productions over the next five years in the country provides a glimpse into the role premium cable outlets and streaming platforms will play not only in global distribution, but also in runaway productions—particularly in Canada.

Image Credits:
1. Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium in Netflix’s Altered Carbon
2. Blogger’s photo of the set of USA’s The 4400
3. The natural landscape of B.C. stands in as a foreign planet on Netflix’s Lost in Space
4. Surrey City Centre Library (with Central City Shopping Centre in the background)
5. Sceneframing The CW’s Arrow in Vancouver

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