Dec 3, 2020 - Economy & Business

Warner Bros. to release all 2021 movies on HBO Max and in theaters at same time

Scene from "Dune"
Scene from "Dune." Credit: Warner Bros.

In a move that will undoubtedly shape the future of cinema for years to come, Warner Bros. said Thursday that it will release its entire 2021 film slate on HBO Max, the streaming service owned by its parent AT&T, at the same time that the films debut in theaters.

Why it matters: It's the latest and most aggressive effort by a movie studio to get its titles in front of audiences at home during the pandemic. The move is a major blow to movie exhibitors, which are already struggling to survive the pandemic.

Details: Warner Bros. said in a statement that it will put all of its movies on HBO Max for one month in the U.S. After that month, the films will leave the streaming service and will continue to appear exclusively in theaters for the next 60 days (The traditional window of exclusivity for theaters has for decades been 90 days).

  • This means that many of the studio's biggest hits, like "Matrix 4" and "The Suicide Squad 2," will all be available to people at home when they debut next year.
  • Some movies that were already postponed from their theater debuts, like "Dune," will also be made available next year via streaming.
  • In total, Warner Bros. says it will make 17 films available via streaming.

Be smart: The move will undoubtedly delight consumers but anger theater chains who are dependent on having the exclusivity of airing those films in order to sell tickets.

  • Many of the biggest theater chains pushed to reopen this Labor Day weekend to get the Warner Bros. hit "Tenet" in front of consumers. But a lackluster opening forced more theaters to eventually shut in the weeks to follow.
  • In response to closed theaters and lackluster attendance, movie studios have delayed the release of their biggest hits this year, worsening the outlook for theaters.

By the numbers: Theaters have been one of the hardest hit industries during the pandemic, grossing about $2 billion in revenue in the U.S. compared to a whopping $11 billion last year.

  • Theater chains in August rolled out a joint set of industry-wide safety protocols to try to lure back consumers, but attendance remains low. Surveys show that until there's a widely available vaccine, most consumers are nervous about returning.
  • Analysts have said that the pandemic could put entire theater chains out of business.
  • Theater stocks sunk after the announcement Thursday. The industry has been begging Congress for relief packages to survive.

The big picture: Warner Bros. says that this "hybrid model" was created as a strategic response to the impact of the pandemic and that it will only last for a year, but it's hard to imagine that this initiative, in addition to efforts from other studios, will be temporary.

  • AMC and Cinemark earlier this year both brokered deals with Universal to allow many Universal films to appear on premium video on-demand services after being made available in theaters for 17 days (three full weekends).
  • Premium video on-demand is different from subscription streaming in that it requires consumers to pay outright to rent a single movie — usually around $20 in the days and weeks around its theater release.
  • Disney this year put two of its biggest hits — the live action remake of "Mulan" and Pixar's "Soul" — on its streaming service Disney+ in conjunction with their theatrical debuts.

The bottom line: The collective efforts from most of the biggest Hollywood movie studios to make their top films available to consumers at home spells trouble for the theater industry, which will remain in shambles for foreseeable future.

Go deeper: Theater windows shrink

Go deeper