The Warner Bros. decision to make its 2021 movies available on streaming service HBO Max the same day they hit theaters comes after a long stretch that offered clarity on what studios want in terms of shrinking release windows, and what theaters want (or don’t) to protect their business.
Both sides are still guessing at what consumers want – a mood made even more difficult to read by the pandemic, and perhaps especially, how they’ll feel once there’s genuine light at the end of that tunnel.
The AT&T (T)-owned studio – part of WarnerMedia, as is CNN – jolted the entertainment industry by announcing its 2021 plans on Thursday. And it follows skirmishes between other studios and theater chains, including Disney (DIS) and Comcast (CCZ) unit Universal over “Trolls World Tour,” since coronavirus derailed theatrical release schedules earlier this year.
Studios have long sought greater flexibility in terms of releasing movies to digital and on-demand platforms, while theaters want to preserve their exclusivity for as long as possible. The pandemic’s impact has clearly given the former leverage in shrinking the standard 90-day gap between theatrical and home release on major films, which was already under pressure with studios intent on offering premium content to generate more streaming subscribers.
Breaking with those traditions as dramatically as Warner Bros. has sought to do comes with inherent risks to both halves of the equation.
MoffettNathanson, a media-analysis firm, estimated WarnerMedia could be sacrificing $1.2 billion in box-office revenue annually, a figure the studio hopes to make up through increased subscriptions for HBO Max.
As the Washington Post reported, the goal of boosting the service – the priciest of the studio-backed ventures – comes at the direct expense of theaters, who fear that the move “could further habituate Americans to receive their entertainment primarily at home.” The slump in their stock prices on the news suggests many investors share those concerns.
The great unknown, however, involves what theatrical demand will look like once vaccines and more in-person experiences become possible, and whether that might unleash pent-up demand for entertainment, in much the way some are predicting a travel industry boom next summer and beyond.
The advent of streaming has already threatened existing media models, including the cable/satellite TV bundle, with more “cord-cutting,” and linear TV viewing. Everything about the business that Netflix has championed – and the studios are largely emulating with their rival products – says you can have what you want, when you want it.
For smaller movies, there might be no turning back once the genie is out of the bottle, and viewers become accustomed – as many already have – to watching in the comfort of their living rooms.
That said, blockbusters, like Disney’s Marvel and “Star Wars” films, or Warner Bros.’ DC Comics entries – beginning with “Wonder Woman 1984,” which will inaugurate the streaming-theatrical combination Christmas day – could be another matter.
Early in the pandemic, a widely circulated clip showed an audience erupting in cheers watching “Avengers: Endgame,” a year after the movie’s April 2019 opening. For many, the sequence – in which Captain America catches Thor’s hammer – underscored everything they were missing about theaters.
The directors of that movie, Joe and Anthony Russo, told CNN in July that they expect the theatrical experience to recover. As Anthony Russo put it, the thrill of seeing films with a crowd in a darkened theater “is always going to be unique, in the way watching something at home can’t be.”
Many major movie talents have echoed those sentiments, although as Netflix has discovered, writing sizable checks for their services can help soften that resistance.
The last word on all of this, though, will be belong to moviegoers, many of whom haven’t been inside a theater for months. In an interview with Recode, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar cited fans as the key constituency whose interests were taken into consideration, along with theaters and talent. And if enough of them exhibit a preference for consuming movies like “Wonder Woman 1984” or the upcoming “Dune” remake on the biggest screen available, then the obituaries being written for movie theaters will have been premature.
Warner Bros. has taken another major step into the streaming universe, while potentially swinging a hammer at the theatrical model. Even so, it will be up to consumers, ultimately, to determine what the end game looks like.