For decades, movie theaters held outsized sway over the distribution of films across the world. Want to get your movie in front of theater audiences? Agree to a lengthy period of exclusivity before you can even think about selling it elsewhere.
This model was never going to last forever. The dawn of direct-to-consumer releases in the 1970s foretold the eventual end of the theater middleman, a demise only slowed by the sluggish advance of technology and public nostalgia about seeing films on the big screen. But now we live in an era of direct-to-consumer streaming services, the fight over the summer box office season recast as an all-consuming battle for content fought by an increasingly shrinking number of consolidated media conglomerates looking to get a piece of public’s monthly subscription budget.
The pandemic didn’t kill the theaters, but it may well be the backdrop to their demise, a fate all but ensured by today’s blockbuster announcement that every WarnerMedia film released in 2021 will premiere on HBO Max day-and-date with theaters. It’s a remarkable escalation of months of tension between the studios and the mostly-closed theaters, as the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed essentially an entire year of film releases. If you’re an HBO Max subscriber, you’ll be able to stream releases like Dune, Suicide Squad, the new Space Jam, and Wonder Woman 1988 for no additional cost. For the first time in a generation, the theater exclusivity window has been shattered.
There’s a lot to unpack here. For WarnerMedia, it’s a stunning bet on HBO Max, the nascent and arguably struggling streaming service launched earlier this year. It’s also the culmination of a whirlwind half a year for new CEO Jason Kilar, who has wasted no time in transforming one of the world’s largest entertainment companies. Under Kilar, Warner has completely refocused HBO Max, recentering the service around the respected HBO division by scuttling the service’s labyrinthian content development structure, and gutted dozens of old Hollywood film and television executives. Now, he’s taking on the entire entrenched movie distribution industry. If you had any doubt that Kilar sees WarnerMedia’s future as a content incubator for HBO Max, today’s news should assude it.
And I guess he’s right? WarnerMedia, Disney, CBSViacom, and NBC Universal are shifting their content resources steadily to direct-to-consumer streaming, mirroring the strategy pioneered by Netflix. NBC tested the waters when it announced it would be shifting to a 17-day theatrical window with the approval of theaters back in July, Disney shuffled a number of its summer tentpoles to Disney+ earlier this year and is likely to announce further moves at an investor day next week. Warner is the first one to jump into the deep end.
A couple of glimmers for the theater industry: Warner is very intentionally only saying that the 2021 slate will be heading to HBO Max, leaving the possibility for a return to the theatrical window in a post-pandemic 2022. (I doubt it, but hey at least there’s a chance!) We know that Universal’s deal included some kind of payment structure to theaters in exchange for the shortened window, it’s been speculated that something is happening here with Warner. At least someone is bailing out the movie theaters!
I’m sure this is small comfort to the people running AMC. And while I certainly wouldn’t want to be them, I’d also be skittish about being Netflix right now. At least domestically, the future for Netflix is getting increasingly complicated. It’s burning through money, it lacks the cushioning of a telecom parent or iconic set of brands, it doesn’t have a true path to profitability, and it’s on the wrong side of a content war that increasingly prizes established IP. If Disney announces a similar same-day strategy at that previously mentioned event next week, it suddenly becomes that much harder to justify a monthly fee to the original streaming subscription service.
Crazy times, truly. Theaters will always exist in some form—too many people love the shared experience of watching movies on a big screen for them to ever truly go extinct. But the way we watch films has been changing for a long time, a shift the pandemic has only accelerated further.