When Warner Bros. announced that “Wonder Woman 1984” would land on the streaming service HBO Max on Christmas, the same time it debuts in theaters, many expected it to be an isolated experiment in response to an unprecedented pandemic.
Instead, the studio will deploy a similar release strategy for the next 12 months. In a surprising break from industry standards, Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 slate — a list of 17 films that includes “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” — will debut both on HBO Max and in theaters on their respective release dates. The shocking move to release movies day-and-date underscores the crisis facing movie theaters and the rising importance of streaming services in the wake of a global health crisis that’s decimated the film exhibition community.
Warner Bros.’ 2021 release slate also includes Denzel Washington’s thriller “The Little Things,” biographical drama “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a remake of “Tom and Jerry,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” video game adaptation “Mortal Kombat,” Angelina Jolie’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” “Reminiscence” with Hugh Jackman, James Wan’s “Malignant” and the Will Smith sports drama “King Richard.”
In the short term, the move will inject some welcome buzz into HBO Max, a Netflix challenger that launched last spring without generating much sizzle. One of WarnerMedia’s key rivals, the Walt Disney Company, has strengthened its share price because of its investment in streaming offerings such as Disney Plus even as its core theme parks and film businesses have cratered. WarnerMedia and its corporate parent AT&T are likely making the move with an eye towards pleasing Wall Street.
Like “Wonder Woman 1984,” the films that Warner Bros. plans to release in 2021 will be available to HBO Max subscribers for 31 days. After the one-month mark, those movies will only play in theaters until they reach the traditional home entertainment frame. From there, people can rent through online platforms like Amazon, iTunes or Fandango. It’s unclear when the titles will return to HBO Max.
WarnerMedia chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff referred to the model as a “unique one-year plan.” Executives at the company have stressed the initiative isn’t expected to continue into 2022 or beyond — it’s considered a temporary solution in response to the ongoing global heath crisis.
“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group,” Sarnoff said in a statement. “No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.”
“With this unique one-year plan, we can support our partners in exhibition with a steady pipeline of world-class films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see our amazing 2021 films,” she continued. “We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors, and we’re extremely grateful to our filmmaking partners for working with us on this innovative response to these circumstances.”
Variety reported earlier this week that Warners. was considering sending several films to HBO Max and theaters day-and-date. But the studio opted to move forward with the rest of its upcoming slate because the film landscape is getting rockier as the pandemic worsens and parts of the United States consider implementing new stay-at-home orders. The idea that people will return to the movies anytime soon is looking more distant as the pandemic nears the one-year mark. It’s also unclear what kind of distribution footprint will await studios on the other end of the pandemic. More than 60% of U.S. theaters have closed down again, and that number could continue to rise if cases continue to spike around the holidays. Those that remain open are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. As a sign of these troubles, just hours before Warner Bros. disclosed its plans, AMC announced that it was selling up to 200 million shares of stock in an effort to raise as much as $834 million and shore up its liquidity.
To get theaters on board and allow Warners to break its theatrical contract for “Wonder Woman 1984,” the studio is giving cinemas a more generous cut of ticket sales. Theater chains are receiving as much of 60% of revenues. But sources say that won’t be the case for upcoming releases.
Thursday’s announcement from Warner Bros. is yet another example of just how dramatically the coronavirus crisis has shifted the power dynamic between studios and theater operators. Even with effective vaccines starting to be approved, the latest move by Warner Bros. suggests the balance may never return in favor of exhibitors.
Months ago, Universal Pictures took an axe to the theatrical window — industry parlance for the amount of time a new release plays exclusively in theaters. But in comparison, Universal’s terms of agreement with movie theater chains AMC and Cinemark make them look like downright martyrs. Under those pacts, the studio can put new movies on premium video-on-demand platforms in as little as 17 days. Films that generate at least $50 million in opening weekend ticket sales, however, will have to play exclusively in theaters for 31 days, or five full weekends. Traditionally, new releases remain on the big screen for 75 to 90 days before they move to digital platforms for a $19.99 rental fee. Universal has agreed to give the two circuits a cut of digital sales to get them to play ball. It’s not clear if theaters will receive any benefits from Warner Bros with their hybrid model.
Warner Bros., perhaps more than any of its rivals, knows how unforgiving the theatrical market can be amid a pandemic. When the studio released Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in September in an attempt to revive a nationwide return to moviegoing, the $200 million-budgeted sci-fi epic mostly fell flat. “Tenet” generated substantial ticket sales overseas, but returns were lackluster in the United States. As a result, the movie is expected to lose many millions.
In an interview with Variety, studio chief Toby Emmerich said the hybrid plan came about after exploring various options for “Wonder Woman 1984.” The international box office has significantly rebounded and even fielded some big hits in China and Japan. Alternatively, the domestic market hasn’t seen any movie come close to blockbuster levels in terms of ticket sales. HBO Max is only available in the U.S., so international markets won’t be affected.
“We thought it could be a win-win and give the consumers the best choice,” he said. “Unfortunately, the U.S. has been one of the most hobbled markets in terms of theatrical. Outside the U.S., in places like China, South Korea, Japan, parts of Western Europe, our films will only be available in theaters. We think those markets can perform better.”
“After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months,” said WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar. “More importantly, we are planning to bring consumers 17 remarkable movies throughout the year, giving them the choice and the power to decide how they want to enjoy these films. Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.”