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6 Big Questions About Warner Bros.' HBO Max 2021 Release Strategy (And the Future of Theatrical Releasing)

Will other studios follow suit? How do filmmakers feel? And could WB reverse course? We're asking it all!

by | December 6, 2020 | Comments

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman 1984
(Photo by Clay Enos/©2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

During the summer of the pandemic, Warner Bros. was holding true to the optimism that a partial movie season could be salvaged. They had two of the season’s most-anticipated films under their belt – Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 – and even leaned into the branding that the former’s release could be the thing that saved movie theaters from months of shutdown. Though America saw some hope in major cities flattening the curve, it was short-lived and caution continued to influence policy and re-openings. As a result, Disney moved scheduled summer release Mulan to streaming and WB was forced to inch back its releases of Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984.

Ultimately, Tenet was released theatrically in August and did as well as one possibly could – especially internationally – when faced with limited venues, scared moviegoers, and a final product that some felt didn’t live up to everyone’s lofty expectations. After a few more shifts, WB finally decided to release Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day – but then decided to do so both in theaters (where safe) and on its affiliated streaming platform, HBO Max. The announcement of the dual release strategy was a volcanic moment for a debate that has raged since March about whether studios would, could, or should sacrifice potential hundreds of millions of dollars in theatrical revenue for their guaranteed blockbusters by going straight to streaming.

Then, two weeks later, WB went one further: It announced it would release its entire 2021 slate simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters – a slate that includes blockbusters like The Suicide SquadDune, and In the Heights. Many began to wonder: Was this going to be the way of the future? Were the days of theatrical releasing over? There are still many questions to consider before calling the time for the patient on the table, we think, and here are some of the most pertinent – and what you should know about them.


Will Other Studios Follow In Warner Bros’ Footsteps?

Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune
(Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Others studios have been exploring different release models since this mess officially kicked into gear nine months ago. Universal got the ball rolling with a temp fix, helping to ease a little parental stress by sticking with its Trolls World Tour release date, only to move it to streaming services for a price. After initial pushback from AMC Theatres about the movie, they eventually worked out a longer-term deal where the length of commitment of Universal’s films in their locations would be determined on immediate box office success. So, lower-grossing films would be moved to streaming after three weeks, at which time a lower split-profit model with the theaters would kick in; higher-grossing movies would stay.

Disney, too, experimented in changing the game with Mulan, but the title’s $30 price tag (comparable to a small family trip to a matinee) on top of the subscription price did not translate into the kind of headline-grabbing total that business and box office analysts would salivate over.

So now what? Is Paramount+ going to expand the revamped CBS All Access from television into their feature library? Can Lionsgate Play’s recent soft launch from India make its way over to the States? Would Sony be able to bring “Let’s Crackle and Chill” into the lexicon? Disney’s acquisition of Fox already reduced the number of these questions by one, but so far they have been skittish to move their blue chip titles over to immediate home viewing. Sending Artemis Fowl and The One and Only Ivan to Disney+ felt more like acceptable sacrifices rather than trailblazing.

However, the numbers on Pixar’s Soul (now directly competing with Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max over Christmas) could begin to shift Disney’s thinking. Universal’s Peacock service may be the one to watch in the near future. Trolls kicked off the conversation and any commitment from another franchise-heavy studio to simultaneous theatrical/streaming releases would send speculation into overdrive – and there may be officially no way back to the old model. On the other hand…


Is a Less-Crowded Marketplace A Great Incentive for Others To Stay in the Theatrical Game?

Black Widow
(Photo by © Marvel Studios, © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Warner Bros. is continuing to utilize theaters for its 2021 slate. But when a single ticket in certain areas will cost more than a monthly subscription to an entire library of content, the incentive to head out – in a still-new (presumably) post-vaccine landscape – may be reduced to the kind of purists who still buy albums. Socially-distanced or streaming-distanced, those who still like getting out and about could still have major event options in their local theater, which may not want to give up more than a single screen for the movies playing at home. A few shifts to the schedule and studios could take advantage of the voids left by The Suicide Squad in the August kickoff slot and Dune in October, the period that WB has recently taken up a bunch of space in with Joker, Gravity, and A Star is Born. The HBO Max partnership may have sent three potential $100 million grossers (Godzilla vs. Kong, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In the Heights) from May-to-July next year, but Universal and Disney still have scheduled Black Widow, Fast & Furious 9, Minions: The Rise of Gru, and Jungle Cruise in that frame, which could see double or triple those numbers. Again, this is all dependent on the success of the vaccines and the comfort-level of our society. WB bet on this and lost last summer and clearly did not want to again.


Will There Be Pushback From Filmmakers?

Tenet
(Photo by © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Someone who has definitely benefited from the seemingly unlimited pocketbook of the leader in streaming is Martin Scorsese. A three-and-a-half epic such as The Irishman, costing anywhere from $150 million to $250 million, likely would not have gone forward anywhere else but Netflix, and now Apple is backing his latest, Killers of the Flower Moon. Paramount is still slated to distribute the film theatrically, but that is another $180-$200 million price tag just as of today. Artists like Scorsese are not nearly as interested in bottom lines as the studios are, especially if he gets to keep working regardless. Will supporters of the theatrical experience as an integral component of cinema be so ready to give it up, though?

One cannot imagine Christopher Nolan is on board with Warner Bros.’ 2021 distribution model. (The studio has distributed seven of his 11 movies.) Many feel the filmmaker’s insistence on releasing his work on the biggest screen possible was one of the many reasons the studio felt it had no choice but to put Tenet in theaters (regular and IMAX) first. If WB does stand alone on this for the time being, is that going to hurt their standing with those filmmakers with the power to insist their movies play on something larger than a 55-inch screen? It is highly doubtful that James Cameron has spent 86 years working on the Avatar sequels only to watch Disney potentially shift gears on their event pictures.


Can Theaters Offer New Incentives to Get Us In the Door?

In the Heights
(Photo by Macall Polay / © Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection)

3-D engaged moviegoers in the 1950s, got a brief, largely lame revival in the ’80s. and then generated extra box office in the late ’90s and beyond; super-wide Cinemascope was utilized to dazzle home viewers away from their newly-bought television screens into a much grander experience. Today, theaters may have exhausted their technological innovations – and no one is making a special trip to have their seats vibrate with the noise. So they may be down to the best possible innovation of all in a post-pandemic world: savings. Depending on the theater chain, a trip to the movies for a family these days can feel like one to a professional ball game. MoviePass was a fun, if financially irrational, experiment that benefited weekly attendees. Would local theaters be able to manifest something comparable that would encourage movie fans to offer a bigger, traditional night out that will not have them weighing the savings versus a monthly subscription cost? More importantly, can they do it without being subjected to the ire of studios who feels themselves losing out on the scraps they may still be providing to the theaters if discounts, punch cards, and 2-for-1 specials become necessary.


Could Sneak Previews Make a Big Comeback?

(Photo by © Warner Bros. )

You may be revealing your age if you do not remember the practice of sneak previews. It actually was not that long ago and many faces would light up at the prospect of seeing a commercial or newspaper ad revealing that the movie they could not wait to see would not make me wait any longer with a one-time showing on Saturday night. Imagine you are just a week away from seeing Dune or Matrix 4, and WB announces that you can see them in theaters – for one night only – before the official launch. Would there be a flock comparable to recent Amazon “sneak preview” events like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Aquaman, which netted around $2 million each, or Fandango’s high-selling Early Access screening series? Films good enough to generate ecstatic word-of-mouth could certainly encourage more fans to rally around the big screens for their first viewing – and potentially discover the incentives theaters may develop to bring them back.


Finally, Could Warner Bros. Reverse Course?

The Suicide Squad
(Photo by © Warner Bros. )

The streaming of Universal’s Trolls World Tour was a big success early in our pandemic times; six weeks later, Scoob! failed to replicate it. Tenet tried to correct the blockbuster drought in theaters, but did not live up to Warner Bros.’ hopes, and eventually Wonder Woman 1984 comes home without the restraint of a separate $30 Mulan surcharge. The world is not out of the woods yet and while vaccines provide optimism, there are still so many unanswered questions. Who knows what the future will hold between now and the still-scheduled summer movie season slated to kickoff in May with Marvel’s Black Widow? If Disney holds course and we see a $100 million box office report on May 9, will WB consider delaying premieres of The Suicide Squad and Dune on HBO Max? It seems unlikely that the entire strategy would be abandoned in 2021 after all the headlines it has generated. That may also depend on how quickly other studios jump at the chance to make some of their own. Everything is an experimentation at this point, with various parties considering and even rooting for success or failure. Jumping right to a half-empty conclusion is premature… though there is no reason not to prepare for all possibilities.


Erik Childress can be heard each week evaluating box office on WGN Radio with Nick Digilio as well as on Business First AM with Angela Miles and his Movie Madness Podcast.


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Thumbnail image: Chiabella James for © Warner Bros. 

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