Warner Bros. sent the movie business spinning on its axis when it announced Thursday that it was releasing its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max at the same time as the movies debut in cinemas. It’s a group of potential blockbusters that includes “Matrix 4” and “Dune,” as well as awards hopefuls such as “Judas and the Black Messiah” — high profile projects that it would have been unthinkable to view as straight-to-streaming endeavors just a few months ago.
Of course, the whole notion of a theatrical debut has been dramatically altered during pandemic times, as major markets like New York City and Los Angeles remain closed, with other cinemas reopening only to shut back down again as crowds failed to materialize for Warner Bros.’ “Tenet,” a sci-fi epic from director Christopher Nolan. And yet, Warner Bros.’ decision is, to use a hackneyed phrase, a game changer, one that could alter the theatrical distribution landscape permanently and fundamentally change the way people watch movies years after coronavirus fades.
Here are five burning questions facing Hollywood in the wake of Warner Bros.’ big announcement.
1. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR MOVIE THEATERS?
It’s not good news, that’s for sure. These are huge movies that are now going to be released on HBO Max at the same time they appear in local multiplexes. Warner Bros. says that the move is a temporary one that was brought about because of extraordinary circumstances, but it’s hard to put this particular genie back in the bottle. It seems unthinkable that after acclimating a wide swath of moviegoers to the idea that they can see the fourth “Matrix” film from the comfort of their home on the same day it debuts in cinemas, Warner Bros. can successfully turn around and go back to a model where consumers patiently wait three months until the next “Batman” reboot wraps up an exclusive theatrical run. And let’s be honest, it wasn’t like theaters were the model of health before this bombshell was dropped. AMC, Cineworld and other chains are laden with debt and face the prospect of bankruptcy. Smaller chains and mom-and-pop cinemas are running on fumes after operating at reduced capacity for much of 2020. Is a bank or lender going to really want to extend them more liquidity when they’re looking at headlines like the one Warner Bros. generated today? Movie theaters were already staring down the barrel of a long, bleak winter. Now, they’re looking at a potentially ruinous next 12 months.
2. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR HBO MAX?
A lower-profile streaming service just got its swagger. Look at the lineup of top films that will soon be bowing on the service — “The Matrix 4,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” remake, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical adaptation of “In the Heights,” the Sopranos prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” and “The Suicide Squad.” Add in: the Denzel Washington thriller “The Little Things,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the “Mortal Kombat” video game adaptation, the next “Conjuring” follow-up and the Will Smith sports drama “King Richard.” That’s an insane lineup, one that should leave Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu quaking. It’s also a murderer’s row of “event” pictures that may force Disney Plus to raid Disney’s film lineup as a way to counter Warner Bros.’ big move. Can “Black Widow” really debut only in theaters in a world in which “Dune” is launching on streaming?
3. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR WARNER BROS.?
It’s no longer the straw that stirs the drink. For decades, the film studio has reigned supreme as the sexiest, most storied, and most glamorous part of the Time Warner media empire. While Time Warner is gone and Time and its magazines with it, replaced with the more 21st century appropriate moniker of WarnerMedia. In this froth of change, HBO Max has risen to the top. Now, Warner Bros. film and television exist more to feed that service, which AT&T clearly sees as the entertainment conglomerate’s future. Warner Bros.’ ability to make fun and exciting movies is valuable in this new world order, but its relationship with exhibitors doesn’t mean that much these days.
4. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OTHER STUDIOS?
In just a few short months, two new distribution models have emerged. One is being deployed by Warner Bros. with its HBO Max gambit. The other, more flexible version, is being utilized by Universal, which has signed agreements with the likes of AMC, Cinemark, and Cineplex that enable it to release new movies on premium VOD 17 days after they first hit theaters. That was originally seeing as being highly disruptive, even dangerous to cinemas, but it may become the preferred release strategy of theater owners. It has, in the short run, succeeded in keeping films like “The Croods: A New Age” and the upcoming Tom Hanks drama “News of the World” exclusively in theaters for a few weeks. Plus, theaters get a cut of digital revenue. One other thing that makes the HBO Max deal more appealing is that customers have to pay nearly $20 for a VOD rental, whereas HBO Max customers get access to everything from “Matrix 4” to “In the Heights” (plus a whole heap of “Fresh Prince” and “Sopranos” episodes and other HBO content) for one monthly fee.
As for the other studios, say a Sony or Paramount, they are now left with some unappealing choices. Does Paramount’s parent company invest more heavily in CBS All Access, pushing movies to the service in a bid to compete, or does it refashion itself as a supplier to these new streaming leviathans? Sony, which doesn’t have much of a streaming presence, will likely go that route or may become an even more appealing acquisition target for an Apple or Amazon looking to ward off the newly resurgent HBO Max.
5. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THEATRICAL WINDOWS?
Gone, baby gone. The old model, whereby theaters had an exclusive 90-day window to showcase films on their screens has been under threat for over a decade. It is now a casualty of the pandemic. Studios thought the amount of time they had to wait to release movies was too long and they wanted to shorten it only to be met with fierce resistance from exhibitors. Clearly, when it came to coronavirus, they didn’t let a crisis go to waste.