In surely one of the biggest entertainment news stories of the year, WarnerMedia announced that it would be releasing its entire 2021 slate of Warner Bros. films simultaneously on HBO Max the same day as their theatrical releases. The planned list of films range from sci-fi blockbusters like The Matrix 4 and Dune, to franchise tentpoles like The Suicide Squad and Godzilla vs. Kong, to planned awards contenders like King Richard and The Many Saints of Newark. This came not long after director Patty Jenkins announced that Wonder Woman 1984 would be receiving this same HBO Max treatment on Christmas Day.
It’s far and away the most aggressive move we’ve seen a major studio make in response to how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all facets of life, including the entertainment industry. And personally, my reaction to the news is a strange cocktail of definite sadness, genuine excitement, raw curiosity, and a whole mess of confusion. So, pretty much 2020 in a nutshell.
While certainly not made lightly, this is clearly a business decision that WarnerMedia views as the best choice for its bottom line. And while shocking, this sort of thing felt like it was a long time coming, even before the pandemic. The breadth and ease of streaming services has made the idea of staying home and watching a movie more and more appealing than going to a theater. And despite housing massive event films like Avengers: Endgame, U.S. box office revenue in 2019 dropped 4% from the prior year, which was its most drastic decline in half a decade. The theater industry was already on fire before this year — the pandemic just tossed gasoline on it.
We saw even more signs of this trend as the lines continued to blur between theatrical films and television shows. It’s as easy to find Oscar winners like Nicole Kidman, Mahershala Ali, and Meryl Streep on streaming services as it is in theatrical movies. The next decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to be deeply rooted in Disney+ shows like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk. And Star Wars has found its surest footing since Disney’s 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm in the form of The Mandalorian, which exists solely as a home-viewing experience.
Once the pandemic hit, we saw studios implement a variety of strategies for the release of their films. Early 2020 theatrical movies like The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma quickly found their way to VOD in a shortened window. Pixar’s Onward was released on Disney+ shortly after it hit theaters. And from there, we’ve gotten dozens of movies released straight to streaming services, including I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Da 5 Bloods, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The King of Staten Island, Palm Springs, and this week’s Mank.
One strange case here was Disney’s Mulan. Its release as a premium-priced add-on for Disney+ subscribers now feels like a canary in the coal mine that didn’t make it out alive. If Warner Bros. is willing to offer its entire slate of movies at no extra charge on top of the monthly subscription fee, it’s hard to imagine other studios being able to get away with those premiums. That said, I’d happily pay a premium price to watch No Time to Die, The Green Knight, or The French Dispatch in the comfort and safety of my living room.
The other outlier here was Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated Tenet, which finally hit theaters in September after months of incremental delays. The “see it only in theaters” marketing felt like equal parts hopeful for the future of the theatrical experience and ignorant over the reality of the world. But as COVID-19 began to surge once again in the fall, it was clear that movie theaters weren’t going to become a part of our everyday lives again anytime soon, and the movie is finally seeing its home release this month. It’s ironic that in a way, Christopher Nolan’s strong insistence on Tenet adhering to a traditional theatrical release may have ultimately led to WarnerMedia’s decision to move its 2021 movies to HBO Max.
Watching the studios slowly delay their major movies over the past year into 2021 or to nebulous “TBA” release dates felt like everyone was just waiting for the first person to dive headfirst into the deep end of the pool. With Warner Bros. having done just that, it’ll be interesting to see what some of the other major players end up doing. News broke a few weeks ago that Disney was planning on moving some of its “smaller” movies like Cruella, Pinnochio, and Peter Pan and Wendy to the streaming service. But will Warner’s move have them reconsider larger projects like Black Widow? Will Sony do the same with its own Marvel movies in Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Morbius?
HBO Max didn’t launch with the same immediate success and excitement as Disney+ did last fall. Part of that was due to HBO not having a marquee series like The Mandalorian to hang its hat on. The original plan was for the Friends reunion to be that tentpole, but the pandemic delayed that production. And for as much as I love having the Studio Ghibli films and a massive library of TCM films at my fingertips, it doesn’t have quite the same punch to the general audience.
It also didn’t help that the messaging on just exactly what HBO Max was, and how it differed from standard HBO, HBO Go, and HBO Now, was not handled well at all. With all that said, the wealth of massive new movies that are going to hit the service throughout 2021 is undoubtedly going to grow its subscriber base tremendously.
But with this news, the work has only begun for Warner and HBO. As of now, HBO Max is only available in the United States and certain U.S. territories. On top of this, it still isn’t available on Roku, while only recently receiving compatibility with Amazon Fire. And while the news that Wonder Woman 1984 would be the first movie on HBO Max to support 4K, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and HDR10 was great, it’s going to be limited to specific devices. And as of right now, video game consoles aren’t on that list, even the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
Outside the realm of driving HBO Max subscriptions, it’ll be interesting to see how this paradigm shift pushes people to start seriously considering a home theater upgrade. If the release of the new consoles isn’t enough of an incentive to fully dive into the world of 4K OLED TVs and a Dolby Atmos sound system, confirmation that we’ll be able to watch some of the biggest movies of 2021 at home the day they’re released might do the trick.
And then of course, there’s the question of what will ultimately happen to the traditional movie theater business. While I don’t see movie theaters dying, it’s hard to imagine things going back to “normal” in 2022, when (hopefully) the world is pandemic-free. Honestly, that really bums me out. The ritual of going to a movie theater is one of the things I miss the most in 2020. Whether it was trekking to early-morning showings by myself, or opening night premieres with friends followed by drinks at our favorite bar where we’d excitedly break down everything about what we just saw, there’s a magical element to the theatrical experience that simply can’t be replicated at home, no matter how advanced of a setup you have.
There are still ample unknowns in this whole equation, from money-centric topics like what happens to actors who had contracts with clear backend deals that were based on theatrical ticket sales, to what the future holds for movies past next year. The announcement states that this is a move for 2021 only and that WarnerMedia will evaluate its slate for 2022 and beyond further down the road. But this move feels like it’s let the genie out of the bottle, and studios won’t be able to simply go back to the way things were on the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2022. The only thing that’s certain is that if 2020 felt like a year where the industry hit a collective pause button, 2021 is shaping up to be a deluge of wonderful movies… just not in the way we’re used to experiencing them.