In a potentially massive blow for the future of moviegoing, Warner Bros. announced Thursday that it’s releasing all of its 2021 movies on HBO Max the same day as theaters.
The films will be available to HBO Max subscribers at no extra charge and will stream for one month. After they leave the platform following the 31-day streaming period, the movies will still be available to see in theaters.
The studio’s 2021 slate includes hotly anticipated sequels and would-be blockbusters such as “Dune,”“The Suicide Squad,” “Matrix 4,” “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Mortal Kombat” and “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.”
“In the Heights,” an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway musical, and “The Many Saints of Newark,” a movie prequel to HBO mob drama “The Sopranos,” are also among the 17 movies Warner Bros. plans to give a concurrent streaming release.
‘The time has come’:‘Wonder Woman 1984’ heads to HBO Max and some theaters on Dec. 25
Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, said in a statement that it’s a “win-win” for exhibitors and movie fans.
“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions,” Sarnoff said. “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.”
The move should certainly alarm theater chains, and could very well sound the death knell for moviegoing as we know it, experts say.
“This is the game-changing moment that theaters have feared the most. It’s seismic,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “It’s a complete change to the Hollywood paradigm as we know it. You cannot put the genie back in the bottle. This is unprecedented.”
The news comes just two weeks after Warner Bros. announced that “Wonder Woman 1984” will be released simultaneously in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max Christmas Day. The $200 million superhero tentpole starring Gal Gadot saw its release date shift multiple times due to the coronavirus pandemic, from June 5 to Aug. 14 to Oct. 2, before landing on Dec. 25.
“I can see (the simultaneous release) with ‘Wonder Woman 1984,’ ” says Bock. “But to see the entire slate of 2021 go, it really, for me, knocked down the Hollywood sign.”
Scott Mendelson, a box office analyst for Forbes, was more circumspect on the impact.
“This could be the gamechanger, theaters are doomed, and so on. But this just might be a stop-gap measure due to the pandemic. There are too many unknowns due to the pandemic,” says Mendelson, who believes the move could lead to a short-term boon for consumers.
“A boon with a caveat,” he said. “The films consumers want to see will still be released on schedule. If they want to see it in theaters, they can. If they want to see it on HBO Max they can. The major caveat is, if this model continues, there’s a risk that the studios will not be able to make the big budget movies consumers want to see. Studios need theater releases to make back their $200 million for tentpole movies.”
Brian Welk, movie reporter for industry website The Wrap, points out that this is a “unique” one-year plan. “But if consumer expectations change for when they can expect to see massive blockbusters from their homes or if other major studios follow suit with a similar model, some of these changes to theaters and the distribution model could be here to stay.”
But after months pent up inside due to the pandemic, many consumers will also be hungry to return to theaters next year and experience sci-fi/fantasy epics like “Dune” on the big screen.
“I think there’s definitely an appetite for people to get back to safely see a movie in a theater,” Welk says. “People will still go to see movies in one form or another and will pay a premium to see certain movies on a big screen in a good, communal environment. But people probably won’t go out in the way they once did or at the same levels if they know they can get the same thing at home right away. We’ve already seen a shift with the number of event movies that are moving to Netflix and Amazon and are available at the push of a button, and this is the biggest disruption yet to the traditional distribution model.”
Warner Bros. was the first major studio to release a high-budget movie into theaters during the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., with Christopher Nolan’s wildly ambitious action thriller “Tenet.” The $200 million movie suffered from mostly lukewarm reviews and no A-list stars, and opened to just $20.2 million in late August, as coronavirus cases spiked across the country. It’s earned a disappointing $57.4 million in the U.S. to date, and will be available to rent or buy on digital platforms Dec. 15.
AMC is already pushing back on the move, saying that while the theater chain made an exception for “Wonder Woman” with the pandemic at its height, the theater business is expected to recover with a vaccine imminent.
“Clearly, Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidize its HBO Max start up,” Adam Aron, CEO and President of AMC Entertainment, said in a statement. “As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense. We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business,” and “have already commenced an immediate and urgent dialogue with the leadership of Warner on this subject.”
Disney has similarly tested different release strategies in response to the pandemic. The studio released its live-action retelling of “Mulan” on Disney+ in September, for an additional $29.99 fee. The film will be available to all Disney+ subscribers starting Friday.
The Mouse House will next release its new Pixar movie “Soul” on Disney+ Christmas Day at no additional cost. Pixar’s “Onward” debuted on the service in March, following a shortened theatrical run due to COVID-19.
Bock says he expects Disney to follow Warner Bros.’ lead and offer more major releases on Disney+.