The recent announcement that Warner Bros. Studios will be releasing their entire 2021 movie lineup exclusively on HBO Max simultaneously with the limited theatrical release is a bombshell to the entire industry.
If you missed it- Warner Bros. Pictures announced that all films on their 2020 (“Wonder Woman 1984“) and 2021 slate will premiere on HBO Max streaming service the same day they’re supposed to release theatrically, with no additional cost to subscribers.
Maybe you feel blindsided by this possible “brazen stance against theaters,” or you’ve long foreseen this outcome being the endgame- there is no disputing that this move solidifies a big change. Not just for the immediate or even foreseeable future, either.
The move to solidify a streaming service as a primary release option for blockbusters changes the movie landscape indefinitely. From here on out, films and their releases will be irreversibly changed, for better or worse. The age of the theater experience will forever be altered and what we know it as now will no longer exist. Let’s take a deeper dive into what this all means both for now and later, and if this really does mean the death of theaters.
Ok, let’s get a few things out of the way before we start looking at what this announcement does for everyone.
I know everyone is suffering from pandemic fatigue and no one really wants to bring up the realities of COVID and its long term effects on the world we live in, but it HAS to be addressed at least somewhat to understand just how significant this change to our movie experience is. The hard truth is, COVID isn’t going away any time soon. Sure, there’s talks about a vaccine, but just like “Tenet” (see, still movie related), it will not be the saving grace of the industry to return back to normal. If anything, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better, which means more lockdowns, more restrictions, and of course, less theaters. Simple math dictates that the higher the cases go, the longer it’s going to take to get the vaccine out. I only bring this up because it is a driving force as to WHY WB pulled the trigger in what may seem like a time where things were looking to get back to that very normal we miss so much. They aren’t, and they won’t be even when this becomes a page in history books. That’s right folks. The hard truth of it all is that 2021 will more than likely look very similar to 2020. And the studio knows this, too.
Second, it is important to understand just what Warner Bros. is ACTUALLY doing.
No, they are not eliminating theatrical releases in lieu of online streaming. It is very important to remember that all of the movies listed on the 2021 release schedule will be in theaters (that are opened) as planned, and the ones that are somehow still operating across the country will get their chance to host them. It is by no means a streaming service only release, they will just be released simultaneously. Also, it won’t be on HBO Max for long. The films will have a one month time period with which they will be available to subscribers, and then it will be pulled from the service, kept in theaters and then proceed with its regular digital and blu ray release schedule. We’ll talk more about how this relates to retention later, but for now, having a better understanding of what it is they’re actually doing will help better understand just what it means for movies in the future.
Lastly, though I’m not sure of its relevance to the overall understanding of the over impact, I love movie theaters. I love the entire experience. From the overpriced tickets to the even more overpriced food to the the baby that has no business being in a theater for an R Rated movie that starts at 9pm to overeating all my popcorn before the movie starts then immediately regretting it later when I can’t sleep because my stomach hurts, all while a couple who won’t stop commenting on the movie kicks my seat from behind. Yes, I miss anything and everything about the movie going experience. This is important because we need to understand just how much our lives have are going to continue to change, myself included. Things we never thought could possibly be different are now on the verge of either changing to the point of being unrecognizable or disappearing altogether. I want it to be known that I never thought the movie going experience could be threaten to the point of extinction, and it is with a heavy heart that I embark on the journey to understand just how much of this experience that has been an integral part of my life will never, ever be the same again.
The Waiting Game
With the realities and my love letter to the movie going experience out of the way, let’s talk about why this is the best possible move a studio can make right now. This goes without saying but sometimes the obvious needs to be said out loud: Movies are meant to be seen. A good movie requires all of our faculties to be engaged, from sights and sounds right down to the core of our emotions. Our responses to film affects us in so many ways because the medium requires it to be fully enjoyed. Even if you hated the film, it still draws things out of you and continues to trigger emotional and conversational responses for days, sometimes YEARS after your first viewing experience. In addition, we live a social media world, where the minute anything anywhere happens in Hollywood, there are 50,000 videos, articles, posts, parodies, and discussions on it immediately. We don’t have time to relax and get to it at our leisure because information just move too fast in a social media driven world.
So a big budget movie sitting on a shelf waiting for a pandemic to end in hopes that people will flock back to the theaters in droves serves absolutely no one. The uncertainty of resolution can only push back release dates so far before the film gets locked away in a vault and is forgotten in the fast paced world of cultural relevance. Movies need to be seen, but they also have a small window in which being seen matters. When it comes to film releases, patience isn’t always a virtue. The fever pitch of fandom is not everlasting, and no matter how anticipated a film may or may not be, no film is exempt from the potential of missing their relevant window. Add to that a streaming service like Netflix who continues to throw everything at the wall until something sticks, these marque films do nothing sitting collecting dust waiting for a vaccine.
So, if you can’t beat em, join em. Warner Bros seems to know that they’ve rarely been the first to anything recently, so getting the drop on Disney for once is a smart move, possibly their only move. Studios can’t wait out the pandemic AND Netflix, and these blockbusters need an audience, so WB’s decision to give the people what they want is truly what’s best for their films. Yes, it is a crippling and albeit backstabbing blow to the already struggling theaters (more on that later), but the future and invention is never paved in gold. Changing the landscape of something as big as the very nature in how we consume media will always have casualties, and while it’s sad that it has be theaters, Warner Bros will ultimately come out the victor in the end.
See? I do have an outline! It’s not just some stream of consciousness (although the jury may still be out on that one). The gamble for Warner Bros and HBO Max can ONLY pay off if their subscribers are retained. It is the secret to Netflix everyone knows but no one can seem to duplicate. Not even the controversial “Cuties” (please don’t get hung up on this) could put a dent in their ability to not only continue to garner new subscribers but KEEP them. This is one of the few instances where Disney seems to be shortsighted in their vision of the future. “The Mandalorian” is great, but ONE show does not account for an entire service. The spikes in viewership and subscribers is a testament to just how little Disney+ has to offer. The promise of Marvel tie-in TV series have been derailed to the point that their overall cultural relevance has essentially been forgotten, or least pushed to back of our minds instead of being on the forefront of it.
On that note, the MCU was the crux from which all of Disney’s streaming service was pinned on. The television shows ONLY matter if there are films to continue to relate them to. But now, 2020 is the first year without a major Marvel Studios film release, and that is having devastating effects on both Marvel films and their streaming service.
Think about this- “Spider-Man: Far From Home” came out 16 months ago. That is a very, very, VERY long time to be silent in the overall cultural zeitgeist, especially one in which you were practically the creator of for the better part of a decade. It all ties back to our two previous points: movies need to be seen and streaming services need to retain subscribers.
By contrast, Warner Bros. has the opportunity to set the stage and tone by which all affiliated streaming services and big budget films will HAVE to follow suit. That is, IF this results in retaining subscribers. Their one month limit structure is certainly an attempt to make this happen, and if it IS successful, you can bet they will continue to do so even after the world returns to whatever the new normal turns out to be. If this decision puts HBO Max into title contention for both new and KEPT subscribers, more theaters simply means more people watching their film. It negates the WHERE they watch because they’ve made it available to every kind of person. Reaching the people who don’t love the theater while also reaching the people who do love the theater means Warner Bros has doubled their reach in a time where growth seems impossible. Remember, even when we CAN go outside again doesn’t mean everyone will, and time will tell if this move puts them at the forefront of change. I suspect it will and kind of already does, and for once in probably 30+ years, Disney will have to play catch up. If that’s not a sign of the times a changin’, I don’t know what else is.
But What of the Theaters?
I hope you read that heading in a boisterous British accent. Regardless, it is a question, perhaps the biggest question that needs to be asked: what happens to theaters NOW? Well, a lot. Probably too much to even fathom because the dust hasn’t completely settled just yet. We’re still in the middle of terraforming and don’t really know what the full, new landscape will look like. But WILL theaters actually go the way of the dodo? Well, yes and no. The move by Warner Bros. certainly puts the one two KO combo to the industry. While theaters will inevitably survive (more on how later), they will never be the same again and the aforementioned described experience will be a thing of the path.
Yes, it breaks my heart to even have to write that sentence, but it is unfortunately true. The mom and pop theaters that we take our families to on the weekends? Probably gone, forever. The big chains like Regal and AMC? drastically diminished and reformatted in new and yes, far more expensive ways to the point where instead of having 3 or 4 of them within a 5-10 mile radius, you may find you only have one in 30+ mile radius. Going to theater will no longer be a pastime, it will be an event. This isn’t necessarily a new revelation, as the writings on wall have long predicted something like this. But the Warner Bros. move makes it less speculation and more an absolute certainty. The days of casual moviegoing are numbered, and the Warner Bros. move all but ensures that it isn’t just a temporary result of the current climate, but that it becomes the new normal.
Of course, the last piece to this puzzle of a question is what if it doesn’t kill the theater? What if, against all odds, the movie going experience endures and we get to keep our beloved tradition? While the moviegoer in me wants to hold out hope for this outcome, the sad truth of the matter is that it won’t. This move by Warner Bros again all but ensures the theater as we know them can’t and won’t endure. Let’s say, hypothetically, that theaters were to reopen in 2021. When you consider the pushbacks, rescheduling, and scrambling to maintain a theatrical release schedule, think about how many movies that is to cram into one year.
Now, instead of fighting it out for the home service viewers, you’re fighting for box office tickets in an overcrowded theater, even competing against yourself. I don’t mean butts in seats, I mean the number of movies available at any give time. 1 or 2 marvel movies a year? Try 5 in 6 months. Even the most avid filmgoer would have difficulty trying to see all of them in that time, not to mention everything else that would be available. And with less theaters comes less ability to get to them all. And that’s just one studio, and one type of movies relegated to one single film universe.
See the problem now? With that many movies, movies people want to see but don’t have the time out all at once, so what will they do? Wait for it to stream at home, of course. And there it is, the wheel being broken by Warner Bros. making the bold, first move. And all of that is only IF all of those movies on the release schedule are even made yet, which a lot of them aren’t, which means, on the flip side of the deadly coin, even if theaters don’t overcrowd their marques, they don’t have anything to offer moviegoers in the first place. No matter how you frame it, theaters on their own, as they exist right now, can’t and won’t survive, leaving only streaming to plot the course for the future. And that’s not even the end of it, either.
Dinosaur Eats Man, Studios Inherit The Earth
I promise I’m reaching the inevitable conclusion to this madness. There are so many implications and changes that this move by Warner Bros brings that even as long as this has turned out to be, it’s not even scratching the surface for what’s in store for us in the new decade. And this is only one medium in one industry that we’re discussing. Concerts, nightclubs, and other large gathering venues will all have undergo these types of massive overhauls to better navigate through the new world that is currently being shaped. For theaters, it means that Studios themselves become the new kings of the industry and eliminate all competition outside of themselves.
Even with the move to stream, it’s merely a preemptive strike to muscle out the one thing that stands in the way of total domination: theater owners. Studios still need theaters for box office hauls, but they don’t need another hand in their cookie jar. And given the current trends, theater owners will be left holding the bags of insurmountable debt accumulated over the pandemic, leaving them no choice but sell their stake for pennies on the dollar to….that’s right, Studios. The move by Warner Bros demonstrates this has been the plan all along, and don’t think for a second others won’t follow suit. The big reveal is that by driving up their subscribers by releasing their lineup on HBO Max, it continues to stack the odds and debt against the theaters. So when it all comes crashing down as we’ve discussed at length that it will, the hero (or villain) that steps in to save the theater is none other than the one that put them out in the first place.
Now, a studio like Warner Bros. has the potential to buy Regal for next to nothing, monopolizing the viewership on all fronts. Sure, they’ll be some regulation pushback, but at the end of the day, it’ll be the one and only way to keep the dream alive. Now, theaters, even big chains will be more of an event experience rather than a pastime. And the others will follow suit. Why see “Black Panther 2” at Regal cinema owned by Warner Bros that is obligated to show one or two none studio movies when you can see it at Disney’s Marvel’s AMC Theater Event Experience with SWAG and some special previews and behind the scenes you can’t see anywhere else? Theaters become the new bailout monopoly, and event based experiences are owned and produce by the Studio, no more middle man. And if that’s not your scene, don’t worry. You can STILL stream it at home so long as you’re a current subscriber to the streaming service that, surprise surprise, the Studio ALSO owns.
So let’s make this all make sense. Lightening round: Warner Bros. makes the first move to take the power away from the theaters, the theater experience changes forever, Studios buy theater chains, and in the end we all sell our kidneys back to Disney. The real point is, the world we know is no longer the world that will be. We have to be ready for massive upheavals like this one. Warner Bros. didn’t create it, but their new strategy is the catalyst for change that cannot be stopped or slowed down. Love it or hate it, this is a snapshot of what’s coming. We can come to it kicking and screaming, but the reality (see, another full circle) is, if we want to continue to be a part of the cultural conversation concerning film, we have to be prepared for how different that conversation is going to be.
This is the way.