Warner Bros. isn’t waiting to see how Wonder Woman 1984 performs when it’s released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max later this month to upend its entire release schedule for 2021.
Warner Bros. Pictures Group announced Thursday that it will release all of its 2021 releases on HBO Max in the U.S. while releasing its films theatrically both domestically and internationally. As with Wonder Woman 1984, HBO Max will have a one-month exclusive streaming window for HBO Max subscribers at no additional cost and will be available to watch in 4K Ultra HD and HDR. After the one-month period, films will continue to screen in movie theaters.
“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group,” Ann Sarnoff, WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group chair and CEO, 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.”
Warner Bros. Pictures’ currently has 17 films slated for release in 2021, although the studio does acknowledge that the list of films might change. Those films are a mix of awards contenders, family affairs, long-awaited sequels and prequels, and blockbusters that, in pre-COVID times, might have yielded Warner Bros. a massive box office haul. The current slate includes The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In The Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Reminiscence, Malignant, Dune, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard, Cry Macho and Matrix 4.
“After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months,” WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said. “More importantly, we are planning to bring consumers 17 remarkable movies throughout the year, giving them the choice and the power to decide how they want to enjoy these films. Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.”
The shift by Warner Bros. to a more hybrid release model was both a long time coming and an acknowledgment that things aren’t returning to normal anytime soon. Warner Bros. was one of the first to try returning to theaters with an exclusively theatrical release for Tenet, but despite assurances from movie theaters about safety protocols in place, domestic box office returns for Tenet were much lower than expected (even with lowered expectations due to the pandemic). Simply put, people largely didn’t feel safe risking their lives to see a movie, and movie studios (including Warner Bros.) delayed releases, took movies off the schedule, shortened exclusive theatrical runs before pivoting to VOD releases, or relegated releases to streaming platforms. Amid a vast rise in COVID-19 cases, it’s only going to get worse.
The hybrid shift will guarantee that more people will be able to safely see these films—and give more access to areas that might not have movie theaters—while giving HBO Max, which has struggled with low subscriber numbers and branding confusion, a massive boost. On the other hand, it’s hard to say what the HBO Max hybrid shift will mean for movie theaters that are already struggling to stay afloat now. But it’s much harder to predict the ripple effects for the industry at large now that the prospect of simultaneous theatrical and streaming releases are now firmly on the table, making it much harder for studios to argue that it’s something that’s just not possible.