Warner Bros.’ Release Slate Pivot Is Both an Omen and Opportunity

Warner Bros.’ Release Slate Pivot Is
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

Don’t believe Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff when she says the studio’s jaw-dropping announcement Thursday is a “unique one-year plan.” 

The reverberations from the studio’s move to release every film from its 2021 theatrical slate on HBO Max, day-and-date with their debuts in theaters will be felt for many years to come. And not just at Warner Bros., but the entire entertainment business.   

The news comes at a time of great restructuring across parent company WarnerMedia and its various divisions, making it fairly obvious Sarnoff’s boss Jason Kilar is behind this, as he aims to reconfigure the AT&T-owned media company around the streaming age 

Make no mistake: The movie business will never be the same given the sheer scale of this slate pivot, and that’s going to hurt exhibitors, which are projected by analysts to make a slow, years-long comeback from the pandemic. 

But this move also grants a big opportunity for Warner Bros. to gather hard data on how its tentpoles, family titles and awards fare perform in the streaming space vs. the theatrical market. 

Prior to COVID, Warner Bros. was already experimenting with sending its top properties to streaming, spending up to $30 million to restore Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of 2017 DC film “Justice League” as a 2021 miniseries for HBO Max.

Plus, DC’s one-off “Joker” film about the notorious “Batman” villain in 2019 became the highest-grossing R-rated film of all-time and one of DC’s top-performing films alongside PG-13 titles like “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” leading VIP to surmise the studio would further reconfigure the comic-book brand’s overall diversification of its IP.

Streaming video has already proven itself to be full of surprises, as it can subvert expectations of a property’s ability to gather an audience, notably seen when Netflix turned the cancelled Lifetime series “You,” which drew in less than a million viewers per episode on the cable network, into a hit garnering 40 million viewers after the first season began streaming on the platform. 

As Netflix and Amazon continue to invest in and build their presence at film festivals and awards shows, with newer streaming entrants like Apple TV Plus inking first-look deals with the likes of Martin Scorsese, it’s clear there is still a lot to be discovered and tested when it comes to how the film industry can thrive on streaming services. 

Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate is a perfect opportunity for such discovery. Films like “The Suicide Squad” and “Matrix 4” would have been surefire box office hits pre-COVID, and could still be given that the vaccine front continues to look promising.  

But the performance of smaller films like “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to HBO classic “The Sopranos,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a biopic about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, and horror film “Malignant” from “Aquaman” and “The Conjuring” director James Wan, will likely determine how the studio divvies up its releases across theaters and streaming from 2022 onward. 

This streaming pivot comes at a time when Warner Bros.’ rivals are also experimenting with their slates, as Disney has already fallen into a pattern of moving theatrical titles to Disney Plus, the biggest of which have been the live-action “Mulan” remake and Pixar film “Soul,” as well as a “Hamilton” taping moved up from 2021 that became an absolute smash in the SVOD space. 

More interesting though is Universal, which, like Warner Bros., has also unveiled an all-encompassing strategy for its release slate, sending its films to VOD platforms between 17 and 31 days after they bow in theaters, per multiple deals with exhibitor groups. 

Likewise, ViacomCBS is in the process of beefing up its streaming strategy as well, with CBS All Access set to rebrand as Paramount Plus in early 2021 in order to offer up a far more diverse offering of series and films across the company’s post-merger portfolio, which includes Paramount Pictures.

This means that not long into 2021, we will see four of the five biggest film studios able to explore more robust OTT alternatives for their theatrical film slates, a necessary move for all given the lackluster reopening of the country’s theaters worsening due to new statewide lockdowns, with the exhibitors’ main organizing body begging Congress for federal relief. 

There is simply no circumstance in which these tentpole-dependent studio slates fully resemble their pre-pandemic selves once coronavirus is no longer a massive hindrance to theatrical releasing, as the industry will have had ample time to observe how a plethora of films big and small perform outside of their traditional theatrical windows. 

Until then, the assortment of apps on your smart TV or streaming device beckons you.