Warner Bros has taken a historic move during this pandemic, when it decided to release all its 2021 movies simultaneously in theatres as well as HBO Max. This includes some of Warner Bros’ most overlooked projects like new Matrix movie, Godzilla vs. Kong, and the Lin-Manuel Miranda adaptation In the Heights – all of them will be streamed online and released in Box Office.
Among the myriad release plan changes wrought by the pandemic, no studio has so fully embraced streaming as a lifeline. But after disappointing domestic ticket sales for Tenet, and with the majority of US theaters currently closed, the AT&T-owned Warner Bros. will turn to a hybrid distribution model next year.
Films will debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max in the US. After one month, they will stop streaming and continue to play only in theaters. The move follows Warner Bros’ decision to put Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max in December, along with a concurrent theatrical run. If that pivot sent shockwaves through the industry, Thursday’s announcement rattled Hollywood to the core.
“Given the unprecedented time that we’re in, we needed a creative solution to address our fans, our filmmakers and our exhibitors,” said Ann Sarnoff, chief executive of Warner Media Studios, in an interview. Big and bold is a necessity right now. Sarnoff called it a temporary solution and a one-year plan. The studio said other options releasing big-budget films solely in reduced capacity theaters or delaying films another year weren’t appealing.
“Warner Bros’ move amounts to an acknowledgment that any full rebound for theaters is still a year or more away. We’ve got to get people back in theaters at full capacity at some point. If you read the medical experts that’s going to take a while to work its way through the system,” said Sarnoff adding, “If we saw an end in sight to the pandemic, we might have a different strategy. But we don’t see that at this moment.”
HBO Max is only available in the United States. Internationally, the studio’s 17 films planned for 2021 release will roll out exclusively in theaters. Warner Bros’ decision resonates especially because the 117-year-old studio of The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca has long been a market-leader in Hollywood and one known as especially supportive of theaters. The studio has generally ranked among the top two studios in market share over the past decade most recently dwarfed only by Walt Disney.
Warner’s films typically account for $1.5-2 billion annual in ticket sales in North America a lot of money to compensate for in HBO Max subscribers. Warner Bros. Confirmed the films will be available to subscribers with no further charge.
“I can’t comment on the economics of how it will all work I’d need a crystal ball for that, said Sarnoff. But I’m very optimistic that this is a win-win-win for our fans, our filmmakers, and our exhibitors. We’re getting the movies out. We’re allowing them to be seen on the big screen which is what they were made for but giving an alternative. The hybrid approach also allows us to market them in a fuller way than we would have had we just looked at the less-than-full capacities in theatrical right now,” she said.
Warner Bros’ 2021 slate includes many of the expected top movies of the year, including Dune, The Suicide Squad, Tom & Jerry, The Conjuring: The Devil Make Me Do It, King Richard and Judas, and the Black Messiah.
The move by Warner Bros only makes the pain being felt by exhibitors all the more acute. Having been shuttered for much of the year, cinemas reopened nationwide in late summer except in some key locations, including Los Angeles and New York. But with most major releases postponed and virus cases surging, about 60 per cent of theaters have since closed again.