Warner Brothers announced they will be releasing their movies slated for a 2021 release in theaters and HBO Max simultaneously, allowing home viewers to stream a new release for 30 days--a move that garnered various reactions from theater chains, cinema associations, and directors.
The films expected for a 2021 release are The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In The Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Reminiscence, Malignant, Dune, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard, Cry Macho, and Matrix 4.
A major factor in Warner Bros.’ decision was the pandemic’s effects on cinemas.
The state-by-state restrictions on re-opening during the pandemic allowed some cinemas to open and some to remain closed. 36 states were permitted to open movie theaters in August. However, areas with the largest market for films, such as New York City and California, did not receive permission to re-open due to constraints. Now, with a national winter surge of coronavirus cases, 646 movie theaters shut down again.
Ann Sarnoff, Chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group said in a company statement that the reality is “most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.”
The partnership with HBO Max, according to Sarnoff, will allow Warner Brothers to “support [their] partners in exhibition” and give audiences “who may not have access to theaters or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see [their] amazing 2021 films.”
AMC Theaters, Cinemark, and Regal Cinemas all responded to the recent deal.
CEO and President of AMC Entertainment Adam Aron said their company only agreed to an HBO Max hybrid model for Wonder Woman 1984.
“Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of profitability [. . .] to subsidize its HBO Max start up, said Aron. He added that AMC will “aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve [their] business.”
Cinemark stated that Warner Brothers has not shared details on how cinemas will operate in their hybrid distribution model. Cinemark will be “making near-term booking decisions on a film-by-film basis.”
Cineworld Group, the cinema company that owns Regal Cinemas, also said that they were aware of the streaming deal for Wonder Woman 1984. Cineworld said they believe Warner Brothers will “look to reach an agreement” on film distribution on “terms that will work for both sides.” Cineworld hopes that the recent developments in vaccines “will generate significant relief for [their] industry and enable [their] cinemas to make a great comeback.”
The Independent Cinema Alliance, an advocacy group for independent theaters, said that they were disappointed in Warner Brothers’ “questionable decision.” They also stated that they welcomed short-term distribution models for movie releases during the pandemic. However, they believe that it is “imperative” that movie release guidelines for the pandemic “do not reflect long-term, formal shifts in distribution strategies for studio films.”
Prominent director Christopher Nolan also criticized the streaming deal publicly.
Nolan said filmmakers and actors “went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio” and found out that they were “working for the worst streaming service.” Nolan said that Warner Brothers “don’t even understand what they’re losing,” adding that the decision “makes no economic sense.”
Sarnoff responded that the low box office of Nolan’s new film Tenet, a Warner Brothers film, also contributed to the decision.
Tenet was released in some U.S. theaters back in September as the first new big-budget movie shown in theaters during the pandemic. While Tenet did perform better internationally, it made less than $60 million in the U.S. compared to its $200 million budget.
Sarnoff says that Warner Brothers learned through the low performance of Tenet that “the U.S. is not quite ready yet to fully reopen and have full engagement of fans back into theaters.”
Prior to the pandemic, several films by notable directors were already sent to streaming services alongside theatrical releases, such as Roma by Alfonso Cuarón, and The Irishman by Martin Scorsese.
The Warner Brothers-HBO Max deal, along with the financial impact the coronavirus pandemic had on theaters leaves the future of cinemas unknown.