Media companies are grappling with how to release big-budget pictures and highly-anticipated television series now that coronavirus has forced delays to production and the shutdown, or severe capacity restrictions, of theaters across the world.
Entertainment giants Warner Bros. and Disney have announced grand plans to debut their content on their own streaming services. But where Warner Bros. has decided to simultaneously release its 2021 film slate in theaters and on HBO Max, Disney has taken a more cautious approach to appease audiences, filmmakers, and distributors alike by deciding how to release films on a case-by-case basis. Meanwhile, it will use its Disney+ service to feature hit television series from Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and other blockbuster franchises.
"They signaled clearly that they are in the game," Patriarch Private Equity CEO Eric Schiffer said. "They politically handled the theater side in a very strategic and respectful way to the establishment creative community in Hollywood, against a Warner that has basically thrown up their middle finger, saying we're doing it our way to the theaters, and it's scorched earth now against Netflix."
Disney's Plus Side
Disney+ has been a bright spot for the company in a rough year due to the closure of its theme parks and the delay of live sports, with its valuable ad revenue. It now reaches 86.8 million subscribers, as of early December. Though Disney+ was used as a distribution vehicle during the pandemic, most notably for Mulan and Pixar's upcoming Soul, the company reiterated its commitment to the moviegoing experience. Still, it will experiment with releasing some films like Raya and the Last Dragon both in theaters and, for an additional cost, on Disney+ in March, similar to the premium video on demand (PVOD) model it used for Mulan.
"First off Disney didn't say what its windowing strategy would be," noted LightShed Partners general partner Rich Greenfield. "Clearly taking movies to market is the plan. But the only near-term movie is Raya, which is both PVOD and theatrical. Black Widow is theatrical, but a lot can change between now and May. I doubt theatrical attendance will be back in full by then."
During its Investor Day on Thursday, Disney earmarked upcoming Pixar movies Luca and the Toy Story origin tale Lightyear for theaters and confirmed they will be bringing over Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins from Warner for an upcoming Star Wars movie.
"It makes more sense for Disney to have some, rather than all, of their movies appear immediately on their streaming service," said eMarketer analyst Ross Benes. "It will be a while before theater-going is common like it once was, but eventually, people will return to theaters. And Disney wants to maintain good relationships with all the theater companies, so holding some movies from streaming immediately helps them do that."
Instead, it focused mostly on exclusive television series for Disney+, including two new Mandalorian spinoffs and three new series in the Marvel universe. It also teased anticipated series like Loki and Star Wars: Andor.
"Disney was brilliant to hedge the bet, they don't want to be seen as the killer or the death blow of cinema," Patriarch's Schiffer said.
Warner Goes to the Movies...and Streaming
More than 50 Disney projects were previewed, many paired with flashy trailers, portraying the notion the company kept up production during the pandemic. But many of these projects have a release date years from now. Pixar's first original animated series Win or Lose is slated for fall 2023, the same year the Tiana and Moana series will be available. Some are just in development.
Meanwhile, Warner's announced 17 feature-length films are ready-to-go to its HBO Max service next year.
"They still have not fully brought the power of Disney and the FOX acquisition to Disney+, but it's there," Schiffer said. "The fact that Warner now has put on brass knuckles is good for audiences, and Disney is going to step it up a lot faster."
HBO Max is now at 12.6 million subscribers and is hopeful that bringing headline movies to the platform will encourage more people to sign up. If HBO Max becomes a place known for movies, it may help investors value the company closer to Netflix, raising parent company AT&T's position in the market.
"Unlike HBO Max, Disney+ already has a massive number of subscribers. HBO is using the immediacy of movies to kickstart their audience growth," said eMarketer's Benes.
But the decision to release on streaming and in theaters at the same time has created a massive backlash from the creative community, which could include lawsuits from co-producers who were not notified about the streaming release decisions to long-term filmmaking collaborators who feel the company is prioritizing its fledgling streaming service over a more proven and financially beneficial theatrical model.
"Some of our industry's biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service," star director Christopher Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter. "Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker's work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don't even understand what they're losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction."
Overall, however, Schiffer feels people may want to escape their homes after the pandemic wanes — and waiting to see if theaters will return could be a smart approach.
"If this vaccine is strong as people say, there could be a whole new renaissance of the theater experience, where people are clamoring for the nostalgia for the smell of popcorn and the feel of carpet," he pointed out.