In an unprecedented move spurred by a muffed streaming launch, the persistence of a global pandemic, and the shifting leverage between studios, streamers, and theaters, Warner Bros. has announced that its 2021 film slate will get simultaneous same-day releases in both theaters and on HBO Max. Basically, the thing it’s doing with Wonder Woman 1984? It’s doing it for everything coming out next year.
2020 made the downsides of the traditional film distribution model as clear as a projector on a dark wall. Now WarnerMedia, owner of both HBO Max and WB, is looking to capitalize. The move, which gives the studio’s 17 films planned for a 2021 release—The Suicide Squad, The Matrix 4, Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In The Heights, Reminiscence, Malignant, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard and Cry Macho—a one-month window beginning the day they hit U.S. theaters where they’ll simultaneously play on HBO Max.
As our TV Editor Allison Keene has pointed out repeatedly, HBO Max needs all the help it can get from this power play/year-long subscription drive. “What should be a slam dunk of a new streaming service, with the combined powers of the Warner Bros library, Turner networks, and HBO (as well as Studio Ghibli, streaming for the very first time!) has started out as a muddled and confused combination of inexplicable secrets,” she wrote at the start of the year.
Five months and an iffy launch (defined more by its odd naming and lack of Roku deal than anything else), and she weighed in with the following: “The Roku and Amazon issue came out of failed corporate negotiations. But even if AT&T (WarnerMedia and HBO Max’s parent company) feel like Roku and Amazon are trying to fleece them in the deal (and I’m not saying they aren’t), what is the price of the loss of consumer confidence in the HBO Max brand, not to mention the tangible barrier of missing out on … 80 million households?”
Some of that lost ground from the launch will certainly be made up with this new direction, especially since—ostensibly—this is only for one year. And it’s likely that theaters are going to be able to negotiate some good deals on their end since WB seemingly blindsided them. The only problem is, once this new method of distribution has had a full-scale year to set a precedent, theaters may never have the same kind of power again. Putting the genie back in the bottle, or putting the blockbuster back exclusively on the big screen, may be a difficult task that will only become easier if consumers feel safe going to theaters and theaters somehow maintain control over movies worthy of the experience.