By Jake Coyle
In the most seismic shift by a Hollywood studio yet during the pandemic, Warner Bros. Pictures on Thursday announced that all of its 2021 film slate — including a new “Matrix” movie, “Godzilla vs. Kong” and the Lin-Manuel Miranda adaptation “In the Heights” — will stream on HBO Max at the same time they play in theaters.
Among the myriad release plan changes wrought by the pandemic, no studio has so fully embraced streaming as a lifeline. But after disappointing domestic ticket sales for “Tenet," and with the majority of U.S. theaters currently closed, Warner Bros. will turn to a hybrid distribution model. Films will debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max in the U.S. After one month, they will stop streaming and continue to play only in theaters.
The move follows Warner Bros.' decision to put “Wonder Woman 1984” on HBO Max next December, in addition to in theaters. If that pivot sent shockwaves through the industry, Thursday's announcement was likely to rattle Hollywood to the core. It amounts to an acknowledgment that any full rebound for theaters is still a year or more away.
“No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do," said Ann Sarnoff, chief executive of WarnerMedia Studios in a statement. "We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021."
Warner Bros. called it a “unique one-year plan.” The studio has generally ranked among the top two studios in market share over the past decade — most recently dwarfed only by Walt Disney. Warner's films typically account for $1.5-2 billion annual in ticket sales in North America — a lot of money to compensate for in HBO Max subscribers. A spokesperson for Warner Bros. confirmed the films will be available to subscribers with no further charge.
Warner Bros.' 2021 slate includes many of the expected top movies of the year, including “Dune,” “The Suicide Squad,” “Tom & Jerry,” “The Conjuring: The Devil Make Me Do It,” “King Richard” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
HBO Max is only available in the United States. Internationally, the studio’s 17 films planned for 2021 release will rollout in theaters.
The move by Warner Bros. only makes the pain being felt by exhibitors all the more acute. Having been shuttered for much of the year, cinemas reopened nationwide in late summer except in some key locations, including Los Angeles and New York. But with most major releases postponed and surging virus cases, about 60% of theaters have since closed again. Regal Cinemas, the country's second largest chain, has shut all its doors. The National Association of Theater Owners didn't immediately comment Thursday.
Under chief executive Jason Kilar, the former Hulu chief, the AT&T-owned WarnerMedia recently reorganized to further prioritize its streaming service. He has moved aggressively to boost HBO Max, even if it comes at the expense of the theatrical marketplace.
“Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone,” said Kilar in a statement. “We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.”