“Little Ellen” co-creator Jennifer Skelly found out her show would be pulled from HBO Max earlier this month while reading the news. Over the past few days, he’s seen dozens of other series hit the brink as Warner Bros. Discovery is liquidating HBO’s streaming platform to cut costs.
Not only have the first two seasons of the animated series, centered around a young Ellen DeGeneres, left HBO Max. Additionally, 20 fully completed, unreleased episodes — spanning the next two seasons — will never be released.
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“It’s really devastating,” Skelly says Variety. “I’ve worked on a million things that have never seen the light of day, but it’s very rare that you get this far – it literally has – and it’s still not going to see the light of day.”
Shortly before the 10-episode Season 3 release of “Little Ellen” in June 2022, Skelly was informed that Warner Bros. Discovery planned to keep it until 2023. It wasn’t until August that the team found out both seasons 3 and 4 would be shelved indefinitely.
Skelly continues, “In the streaming culture, I don’t know everything about how that process works. But to me, it’s like, “Well, there you have it. Just flip a switch. They are finished and surrendered.’ But obviously there’s so much corporate stuff going on in terms of what that means for them financially.”
One of the main reasons for this content bloodbath is that Warner Bros. Discovery may reduce payment of balances. But when creators sign deals with streamers, they don’t expect their shows to suddenly disappear. Physical releases are largely a thing of the past, and creators don’t own the distribution rights to their work, meaning the only way people can watch many of the recently-released series is to pirate them illegally. As a result of the decision by Warner Bros. Discovery that some series aren’t worth keeping on HBO Max, those shows are essentially no longer existing.
“There were writers who had their first episodes in their 20s and there were directors who got their first directing gig,” Skelly says. “We’ve had a lot of firsts in our crew and they won’t get to see these episodes on TV and see their assets. It’s really tough.”
When asked if he thinks creators will be wary of working with Warner Bros. Discovery, Skelly says, “I don’t think people will avoid working with this studio or even necessarily be able to know what to ask for in the contract to protect themselves, because the parameters in a year and a half will be different again.”
Throughout its run, “Little Ellen” faced turmoil from not only the merger of Warner Bros. Discovery but also from the fall of DeGeneres, the subject of the series.
“We’ve been a perfect storm of a lot of things because the Ellen brand has also suffered in recent years,” says Skelly. “Our show wasn’t going to love anyway for that reason. We started at the peak of her career, but by the time she was in animation — because it always takes to get something done in animation — her brand was in a really different place and her show was ending.”
In 2020, DeGeneres’ talk show became the subject of an internal investigation by WarnerMedia following numerous reports of workplace issues on the long-running daytime series, including sexual harassment, racism, bullying and the treatment of legacy employees during the COVID-19 lockdown. DeGeneres fired three of the show’s top producers and apologized on-air for reports of abuse on her show. In 2021, DeGeneres announced that the series would end after its 19th season in 2022.
“That was another thing that was completely out of our control,” Skelly says. “There was so much turmoil around the Ellen brand as we were starting to go into animation, and I thought they would end up deciding not to go forward with the show. But they said, “No, we’re going ahead,” and that was so amazing. We were still able to create some beautiful works.”
As for Skelly’s own experience working with DeGeneres, the “Little Ellen” co-creator says that “her interaction with her was less than 0%.
“I met her once, very briefly, but it all went through Warner Bros. There wasn’t much interaction with her company at all, and certainly not directly. We were really doing our own thing in our own world, which was great.”
As more and more shows disappear from HBO Max, Skelly can’t help but notice that animated series seem to be taking a disproportionate hit.
“When the pandemic hit, we were working on our first episode. We weren’t even in animation yet, and we took our computers home on Friday and met on Zoom on Monday morning. We didn’t miss a beat,” Skelly said. “Animation has kept the industry going during the pandemic and it’s being hit so hard between Netflix and Discovery stuff right now. It feels like an extra kick in the teeth on top of everything.”
He continues: “We were the ones who carried on when no one could show up on set, and the COVID protocols prevented people from being able to film. But we still create content for you. And now that we’ve done it, and the pandemic is slowing down, it feels like you’re being kicked to the curb. And that’s a big disappointment in the animation community right now.”
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