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From ‘Batgirl’ to ‘Spiderwick Chronicles,’ it really does seem like nobody knows anything

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Legendary screenwriter William Goldman gave Hollywood the phrase, “Nobody knows anything,” expanding on that a decade ago in an interview in which he explained, “Nobody has the least idea what movie’s gonna work.”

Add “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” a new streaming series, to the never-released movies “Batgirl” and “Coyote vs. Acme” as evidence that studios and streaming services don’t know any more now – and indeed, may know less – about what works than they did when Goldman expressed that thought in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade.”

Based on popular books that previously inspired a 2008 movie, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” was produced for Disney+, before, as Deadline reported, the service decided not to proceed with airing it as a cost-cutting move.

Unlike “Batgirl,” produced for Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max (a sister unit to CNN), and that studio’s live-action adaptation of the Roadrunner cartoons “Coyote vs. Acme,” “Spiderwick” will actually see the light of day. After Disney balked, the project was acquired by the Roku channel, which will premiere the eight-episode first season this week.

Now, “Spiderwick Chronicles” isn’t anything special, and has the generic feel of any number of similarly themed properties, this one about a family that moves into a creepy estate that’s home to mythological creatures.

Still, the cast includes Christian Slater and Charlayne Woodard, and bluntly, you’ve surely seen worse shows on Disney+, which makes one wonder why this effort was deemed unworthy.

Various factors go into that, including, in the case of “Batgirl” and “Coyote,” complicated tax issues that potentially make the savings associated with writing off a movie entirely more attractive than televising or distributing it.

At the heart of those decisions, though, is a basic decision that these projects are not going to be successful enough to merit even bothering to release them, when, in point of fact, nobody really knows.

Indeed, the long history of Hollywood is filled with unexpected hits as well as surprising flops. The studios behind “Titanic” famously feared that James Cameron’s over-budget epic was going to sink faster than the actual ocean liner did. “Seinfeld” was given so little chance of succeeding at NBC the network’s head of specials, Rick Ludwin, had to give up a portion of his budget to greenlight a mere four episodes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Goldman died in 2018, leaving behind a glittering resume that included screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men,” “Marathon Man” and “The Princess Bride.” While those signature works came during a different era, the broader lessons about the corner-office mentality have surely lingered.

The current, unsettled status of the entertainment landscape, roiled by the shaky economics of streaming and the blow dealt box-office revenue by at-home consumption and Covid, have fueled unease about how companies spend money. Even once sure-fire commodities, like Marvel, suddenly look like rolls of the dice.

Nevertheless, a genuine hit – the next “Barbie” or Avatar,” or in streaming, another “Stranger Things” or “The Boys” – is a bargain at practically any price.

Roku might know something that Disney doesn’t, or vice versa. Or perhaps it’s just that “Spiderwick,” a recognizable title, could serve the interests of a lower-profile channel better than Disney, which wants to showcase properties the studio owns. In the glass-half-full department, this could be one of those instances where the resolution benefits all sides, the producers and talent included.

One of Goldman’s famous lines came in “All the President’s Men,” in which Deep Throat says, “Follow the money.” With projects like “Batgirl” and “Spiderwick,” though, that’s an elusive trail, suggesting that modern adventures in the screen trade – large and small – have become more confounding than even a sage like Goldman could have envisioned.

“The Spiderwick Chronicles” premieres April 19 on the Roku Channel.

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