The war between theatrical only release hardliners and streaming evangelists just warmed up again. Warner Bros have announced that their entire 2021 slate of releases will be available to stream at the same time as being screened in movie theatres.

The studio is pitching this as a short term solution in reaction to the pandemic. Having consulted epidemiologists they have drawn the conclusion that despite vaccines on the horizon, the public won’t be rushing back to movie theatres anytime soon. No doubt they have also consulted their accountants who have made projections based on all scenarios, it’s likely that this is the least loss-making path through it all for them.

It appears that Tenet was something of a canary in the coalmine, hopes were pinned to Christopher Nolan to somehow usher the droves back to the cinema. It didn’t work. Numbers were way down and hopes of drawing even for the movie are pinned to DVD and download sales for Christmas. It has to be said that poor word of mouth didn’t help here either, some critics said at the time that the convoluted movie made a good case for watching the release at home where you could switch the subtitles on (but that’s a different conversation for another time).

Reaction to the WB announcement is understandably mixed, theatre chains are up in arms whilst the public have a ray of sunshine in these grim times. The headlines are also, predictably, slightly misleading, the streaming window on HBO Max is for one month only alongside the US release date. The Hollywood Reporter secured an interview with Toby Emmerich, Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman, who argues that it will be good for theatres;

“It allows us to do a global release and a national release in what we think is going to be a checkerboarded theatrical market place for the bulk of 2021. We think where theaters are open, and consumers can go, that a lot of people will choose to go to the theater, especially for big movies.”

Predictably, the theatre chains are livid, AMC Theaters CEO Adam Aron slammed the decison “We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business.”

Warner Bros will have to dip into their pockets to keep the theatre chains on side in all of this, increased slices of ticket sales seems a given. Especially as they could threaten to boycott the studios’ movies, a tactic that will become less of a threat if any other studios decide to do the same thing.

A grand experiment?

The Warner Bros entire year’s slate includes Wonder Woman 1984 (out at Christmas), and then The Suicide Squad, The Matrix 4, Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong and Space Jam: A New Legacy. Other films include Tom & Jerry, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, In the Heights, Reminiscence, Malignant, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard and Cry Macho.

wonderwoman

The numbers must stack up for them to take this leap, but is it purely a financial decision? These releases promise to deliver a vast amount of data on viewing habits and preferences.

There have been rumblings for some years that the system is broken, theatres and studios rely on massive tentpole movies to drive their profits. Mid range films have been squeezed out (with the exception of horror films that continue to be a cash cow). Those films are all focused on a profit sweep in the opening weekend with hundreds of screens dedicated to them, the pandemic has stopped that desire to crush into seats. Despite Tenet, or perhaps because of its poor performance, studios have postponed all their releases. In the UK the Cineworld chain shut down completely on the announcement that No Time To Die was postponed till 2021 – there were no other films to tempt anyone into the cinema, our behaviour has shifted from just going to the pictures to it being an event to see the latest blockbuster.

Add to these odds the fact that movie fans now have a fantastic experience at home with their Ultra HD 4k screens, and sound systems that are attuned to their taste rather than the often distorted an over-loud theatrical presentation. Your snacks don’t cost the earth, you can pause it whilst you take a toilet break, and you can switch on the subtitles during Mr Nolan’s exposition scenes.

Warner Bros will analyse the figures microscopically. What if it adds up in the favour of streaming and rental for a premium? Can theatres pivot to a different offering that isn’t based on filling every seat and selling over-priced confectionary and snacks? Will the studios make significant savings on their marketing budgets? Is there any need for globe hopping press junkets if you don’t have to ensure screens are sold out in a narrow release window?

2021 could herald the biggest changes yet in the way we consume movies.

Hopefully lessons have been learnt from the mistakes made by the music industry, resulting in a broken system that fails to rewards the creative talent. It will be interesting to see how they market their slate, and if (or when) other studios follow their lead. Is  Adam Aron of AMC right when he says “…it is our expectation that moviegoers soon will be able once again to delight in coming to our theatres without any worry, viewing the world’s best movies safely in our big seats, with our big sound and on our big screens”.

It might just be a tactic to build the profile of HBO Max, but it seems something of a risk if that is the only reason.