Watch: Warner Bros bringing 2021 movies to HBO Max
If any word has been used more than usual in 2020, it’s “unprecedented”. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed just about everything and transformed many unthinkable things into absolutely thinkable realities.
It doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say that Warner Bros fundamentally changed the future of film distribution yesterday when they announced that the entirety of their 2021 slate would debut simultaneously in cinemas and via the HBO Max streaming service.
That decision includes movies of the gargantuan scale of Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong and The Matrix 4.
Read more: Best films new to UK streaming this week
It is not clear whether HBO Max subscribers will have to pay any further fees in order to access these new movies. The service currently costs $14.99 (£11) per month in the USA, but is not available outside of that country.
How have cinema chains reacted?
Deadline reported that cinema chains were only given an hour’s prior notice of the Warner Bros announcement before it was widely revealed.
US chain Cinemark delivered quite a level-headed and corporate-speak response, saying: “In light of the current operating environment, we are making near-term booking decisions on a film-by-film basis. At this time, Warner Bros. has not provided any details for the hybrid distribution model of their 2021 films.”
The world’s biggest cinema company AMC — which owns Odeon in the UK — came out swinging, however, with CEO Adam Aron criticising the studio for making this decision at a time in which vaccine news presents real hope of a return to something like normal in the coming months.
He added: “Clearly, Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidize its HBO Max start up.
“As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense. We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business. We have already commenced an immediate and urgent dialogue with the leadership of Warner on this subject.”
The much-treasured idea of the theatrical window has been threatened for much of this year, with Aron notably engaging in a dispute with Universal earlier this year after the success of Trolls World Tour on digital platforms during a time in which cinemas were closed. He accused Universal of “breaking the business model and dealings between our two companies”, though a deal of a truncated 17-day window was ultimately reached.
Warner Bros, however, has seemingly decided to collapse that window next year and it’s tough to believe other studios won’t follow suit in some form. The likes of Disney+, Peacock and Paramount+ could very well join the party.
How does this affect the UK?
This is a good question. HBO Max is not available in the UK, with the long-running partnership between HBO and Sky being deployed on a case by case basis to bring movies and TV shows across the Atlantic. When Warner Bros opted to send the Robert Zemeckis version of The Witches directly to HBO Max earlier this year, it was released in Britain across various premium video-on-demand platforms including Sky Store, Amazon Prime Video and Google Play.
The next interesting test case is Wonder Woman 1984. Warner has opted for a hybrid model, debuting the film in US cinemas and on HBO Max from 25 December. After a month, the movie will be yanked from the streamer, becoming exclusive to the cinemas which have been able to open.
On these shores, the release is — initially at least — far more conventional. The movie will be released theatrically on 16 December, playing in cinemas which are able to open in areas classified by the government as either tier one or tier two. It has been reported that Warner Bros and Sky are working together on a deal, which could see Wonder Woman 1984 available in homes as soon as one month after its cinema release. This could either be as a PVOD offering, or as part of the Sky Cinema subscription service.
Warner Bros has not commented on its plans for the UK in 2021. It’s worth keeping an eye on Wonder Woman 1984, though, as a likely early warning of what the future will hold for movies showing up on HBO Max next year.
Is this the future?
This has the feel of a genie which, once removed, will be impossible to shove back into its bottle. Once it has become clear that studios can release major blockbusters into homes, audiences will expect that to happen. Warner Bros has claimed this is temporary and will only happen for a year, but that seems like a hollow promise.
Dan Thomas, senior analyst at research firm Third Bridge, says: ”Warner is using a relatively weak 2021 film slate to experiment with streaming. If successful, one should expect a greater number of tentpole franchises landing on streaming services first.”
Warner Bros is certainly carrying out an experiment with this move and the future of the model will largely be based on whether this proves to be a financial success in driving subscriptions to HBO Max, which is lagging behind Netflix and Disney+ in the streaming wars.
This has already been a year of experimentation, whether that’s in the form of the Trolls World Tour release or Disney+ trialling its pricey “Premier Access” concept with Mulan. With this latest move, Warner has taken the biggest swing yet. If it pays off, it could change the Hollywood landscape forever.
Watch: What the Warner Bros/HBO Max deal means for moviegoing