One of the biggest moves in the history of cinema is about to happen.
On Thursday, Warner Bros. Pictures announced all of its 2021 releases will debut on HBO Max alongside their planned theatrical openings. This so-called “hybrid model,” scheduled to occur only for the next calendar year, is a response to the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic.
“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group,” WarnerMedia CEO Ann Sarnoff said in a statement. “No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. 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.”
For our purposes, the list of hybrid releases includes key genre titles like The Suicide Squad, The Matrix 4, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Dune. It also includes films like Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In The Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and Tom & Jerry.
As with the upcoming hybrid release for Wonder Woman 1984, each of the films will be on the service for one month at no additional cost to HBO Max subscribers. All of the films will also be available in 4K Ultra HD and HDR on HBO Max — although, check out our discussion about 4K UHD availability from yesterday for more on that front. After the month-long period ends, each film will continue its theatrical run and presumably cycle back onto the service after the usual distribution windows close.
“This hybrid exhibition model enables us to best support our films, creative partners and moviegoing in general throughout 2021,” Warner Bros. Pictures Group Chairman Toby Emmerich added. “We have a fantastic, wide ranging slate of titles from talented and visionary filmmakers next year, and we’re excited to be able get these movies in front of audiences around the world. And, as always, we’ll support all of our releases with innovative and robust marketing campaigns for their theatrical debuts, while highlighting this unique opportunity to see our films domestically via HBO Max as well.”
Despite the cheery words, the news will no doubt cast a larger shadow on the viability of theatrical distribution. The move to streaming is WarnerMedia and corporate parent AT&T’s long term goal, and if it now sees reduced theater capacity as the norm throughout the next year, it is possible for these day-and-date releases of marquee films to remain a standard part of Warner’s strategy. The results will likely cripple the larger theater chains and almost assuredly annihilate independent theaters by this time next year.
Also, one wonders how Disney will respond. If both studios go with day-and-date releases in theaters and on streaming, the very nature of the film business will shift utterly. You might even apply the DC Comics meaning of “Crisis” to the potential impact.
For consumers, it means delays like the ones experienced this year will largely go away. The Suicide Squad will come out in August no matter the infection numbers or vaccine adoption rates. That’s a fairly good thing even as it puts people who operate or work at theaters at a terrible economic risk.
It is possible, of course, that WarnerMedia has arranged some sort of profit-sharing model with theaters a la the agreement Universal came to with AMC Theaters. Although, with HBO Max charging no additional fees to subscribers for the new releases, it is unclear if the money would be there to keep theaters afloat. As in all things streaming, the metrics are murky.
In any event, this is a historic announcement and the shockwaves will be felt for some time to come.