Last week’s news that Wonder Woman 1984 was going to be released in both cinemas and on HBO Max simultaneously on Christmas Day potentially signalled a major shift in Hollywood’s future. There might not be a need for the word “potentially” with this announcement; Warner Bros. has announced that all their 2021 titles will be released in cinemas and on HBO Max at the same time.
So that includes Dune, The Matrix 4, The Suicide Squad, Godzilla vs. Kong, In The Heights, and Space Jam: A New Legacy. The films will still be released theatrically worldwide, where HBO Max is either still yet to be rolled out or not able to be due to a complex set of rights issues. Still, domestically in the U.S., these huge blockbusters will be available to watch on opening day at home.
The films will stream on HBO Max for one month. After that period is over, the film will depart the platform and continue to be available in cinemas worldwide, before later following all customary distribution windows. So it will still have a full Digital and Blu-ray/DVD release, before eventually returning to the streamer down the line.
This is obviously huge news that could legitimately be the beginning of the end for movie theatres. If other studios decide to follow the Warner Bros. model, it could very much become the norm to release any movie, no matter how big, on a streaming service concurrently with its cinematic release.
If that’s the case, most consumers would likely take the easier option of watching the movie in the comfort of their own homes, without having to pay for multiple tickets or buy expensive food and drink. Cinemas, who make most of their money from concessions, would be left out in the cold.
“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group”, said Ann Sarnoff, Chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group.
“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 theatres or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see our amazing 2021 films. We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors”.
Jason Kilar, CEO, WarnerMedia, added: “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 […] Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone”.
Sarnoff and Kilar both mentioned this being a one-year plan, which it probably is, at least at this point. But this is the slippery slope theatre chains have been worried about for years. If you cut down the distribution window, and in this case cut it to literally zero, how are cinemas going to stay in business?
Their only draw was movies not yet available to see anywhere else. If that disappears, what do they have left? Cinemas were already struggling to make it through the pandemic while having to navigate things like limited capacity and local and national lockdowns, but this cold be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
There’s still plenty of questions up in the air, like will indie movies and prestige, Oscar-y ones still get theatrical-only releases? And what will the other studios do? They might not want to follow the same model. And of course, if we ever escape this pandemic, will Warner Bros. revert back to the traditional release strategy, or is this now the norm?
We’ll just have to play the waiting game. But make no mistake, this Warner Bros. announcement is historic for Hollywood, and will change the industry forever.