Warner Bros. Moving Movies To Streaming Is Great For Us, But Cinemas Will Suffer
Dread it, run from it, streaming arrives all the same. Warner Bros. shifting all of its 2021 releases to HBO Max is good for ‘cinema’, but troubling for cinemas.
Of all the platforms, HBO Max’s release was rather dormant compared to, say, the initial eruption of Disney+. However, the tide is about to turn – next year in the US, all of Warner Bros’ films will debut in cinemas and on its streaming platform concurrently.
This includes: Judas and the Black Messiah; Tom & Jerry; Godzilla vs. Kong; Mortal Kombat; The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It; In The Heights; Space Jam: A New Legacy; The Suicide Squad; Dune; The Many Saints of Newark; and The Matrix 4. Sounds incredible right? Yes and no.
The news comes after the announcement of Wonder Woman 1984′s innovative distribution. In the US, it’ll drop in cinemas and HBO Max on Christmas Day. In the UK, we’re set to get it in cinemas on December 16, before it drops on Sky Store just six weeks later (another blast to the traditional theatrical window of 16 weeks).
The studio’s press release notes, ‘Warner Bros. will continue to exhibit the films theatrically worldwide, while adding an exclusive one month access period on the HBO Max streaming platform in the US concurrent with the film’s domestic release.’
For the Brits, WW1984‘s release will be echoed across Warner Bros’ slate. The positives: we’ll likely continue to get access to films prior to the US, so to protect overseas viewers from piracy; and film fans no longer need to wait as long to rewatch a movie.
As HBO has a deal with Sky until 2024, don’t expect HBO Max in the UK anytime soon. The likelihood? PVOD films on Sky Store until that contract expires, or perhaps the addition of a ‘Sky Premium Cinema’ add-on to current subscriptions, which includes new releases. I would suspect the latter, considering the genie is about to exit the bottle.
Carolyn Blackwood, CEO of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, told Deadline this is a ‘temporary 2021 plan’ – but think about how Netflix changed our TV habits. Once upon a time, weekly episodes were the norm. Now, as witnessed with Amazon Prime’s The Boys, the idea of having to wait any portion of time encourages dummy-spitting. Once they give people new movies at home, there’s no taking them away.
Piracy is an unavoidable, inevitable concern. Regardless of safeguards and potential watermarking, illegal streams and torrents always, always make their way online, as seen with Disney’s Mulan upon its drop on streaming earlier this year.
While that also affects revenue for HBO Max and Sky Store, the biggest question is: how will cinemas survive? How can an industry built upon exclusivity – flickers of Nolan’s ‘Only in Cinemas’ tenet for Tenet play softly in the background – live in a world where blockbusters are being screened right to someone’s sofa, often in absolute comfort, with food and bathroom breaks at will?
Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, 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 US will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.’
It’s a bleaker scene for cinemas in the US, where moviegoers visited theatres an average of four times in 2019. People’s familiar multiplexes will get through on ubiquity alone, but locals across more suburban areas of the country are likely to struggle. After a month, films will leave HBO Max and only be available in cinemas – but will there be enough numbers to justify further screenings? Doubtful.
It’s better for the UK – some good news after being battered by blockbuster delays (none more impactful than No Time To Die). A week-long grace period where we get to see films in the cinema before they drop in the US has likely inspired somewhat of a relief for the likes of Odeon, Cineworld and Vue… but what about after that week?
Think about how long Avengers: Endgame stayed in the cinema for, amassing that world-breaking box office sum. Would it have been possible had it gone to streaming, even in another part of the world, just a week later? Those with faith may believe it so, especially considering how much it lends itself to the big-screen experience. The cynic in me sees the reality: our perception of the box office is about to shift, big time.
Cinemas will need to change, the degree of which can’t be certain. Luxury additions, similar to Everyman? Cheaper prices for IMAX? There needs to be a draw, not just because people are nervous to sit in a public space, but premium streaming drives a hard bargain. Will chains be forced to close some of their branches amid even lower turnout? Perhaps.
That said, the doomsday rhetoric is way too overblown. This isn’t the death of cinemas – better yet, it’s one of the first major examples of a studio deciding, firmly and groundbreakingly, to adapt to the new age, still with consideration for theatrical distribution. Yes, COVID-19 has probably fast-forwarded us by around 10 years, but we’re here now.
Also, the bankability of a streaming service with a major release, if not two, added to its roster every single month, could mean sturdier financials post-virus – ergo, more interesting projects coming out of Warner Bros.
Tenet’s worldwide box office was moderately impressive at $356 million, considering social distancing and fewer venues – but the US market, arguably the most significant for any big movie, was woeful at $3.4 million. HBO Max’s upgrade has to be seen as a result of this – and maybe its own unpopularity too. Blackwood added, ‘We don’t think we’re changing the economics of these movies any more than the pandemic has.’
Purists may decry the move as a shot to cinema’s head. Movies will live on, as will theatres in some form – like it or lump it, it’s just another evolution of the medium. As Vulture said, ‘The world’s changing, it’s time we change too.’
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