We are living in unprecedented times for the movie industry thanks to this virus. Which is why some film studios are being creative to figure out how to make a profit, and Warner Bros. is the studio who has dropped the biggest bombshell so far.
Following their simultaneous release of Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters and on HBO Max this Christmas, WB has announced that they will do the same thing with their entire theatrical slate of scheduled 2021 releases, which includes such films as Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad and Dune.
With people these days feeling less safe going out and more safe staying home, this is a good strategy, right? Maybe on the surface, but not when you go in depth.
I subscribe to HBO Max and I rarely go out to the movies so it’s easy for someone like me to be excited about this strategy, which is why I initially praised WB’s decision. But my enthusiasm was not shared by many. Upon the factors complicating this deal is the question of compensation for the many filmmakers and actors involved in making these 2021 films, many of whom were blindsided by Warner’s decision, which caused directors like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve to publicly criticize them.
When I first found out Nolan was criticizing WB after his film Tenet did poor business for the studio, I thought he sounded like a tone-deaf cinema snob who looked down on streaming services even though we are in a deadly pandemic, but when it comes to WB’s lack of transparency towards their talent, I agree that there are actual problems with how they handled this situation.
The reaction to WB’s decision from the Directors Guild of America (DGA) sums it up well. The DGA has stated that back in 2019, they were assured by senior executives that WarnerMedia (the parent company of Warner Bros. and HBO Max) was committed to the traditional theatrical release pattern and would not build on the success of HBO Max at the expense of WB’s feature film slate. According to the DGA, this recent tide change caused by COVID-19 warranted an advance call to the guild at the very least.
WarnerMedia’s strategy means that many filmmakers are suddenly making movies intended for the big screen for computer screens instead, which filmmakers disliked enough, but the DGA argues that this strategy will also affect their income, the DGA’s residuals formula for feature films being based upon a percentage of gross receipts paid to the director. The DGA is rightfully worried about protecting its members.
But even if WarnerMedia reaches a deal with artists and everyone is happy, that still leaves another debate about the effect of a major studio releasing every theatrical film on a streaming service on the same day and whether or not it will negatively impact the business of theatrical exhibition.
For WarnerMedia’s part, CEO Ann Sarnoff has stated that she wants films to stay on the big screen and that this is only happening to compensate for the reduced capacity of theaters during the pandemic, but we have already seen that stock market shares for theater chains like AMC and Cinemark have gone down since WarnerMedia made this decision and AMC said they will likely run out of money by January 2021. Although if the public continues to avoid theaters during this pandemic, WarnerMedia won’t so much be the killer of theater chains as the one speeding up something inevitable, depending on what happens in 2021 and whether or not WarnerMedia decides to reverse course on their decision.
One thing that’s for certain, WarnerMedia isn’t the one killing theaters. COVID-19 is. WarnerMedia may have handled this situation poorly and they do need to do damage control, but the simultaneous release strategy makes sense from a business standpoint.
Aside from knowing that artists who work for WB are getting fairly compensated, the only thing I want to know is if theaters can possibly return to normal after the pandemic. I have said in previous blogs that I do not see streaming services as the enemies of cinema so much as a safety net and a torch bearer for when traditional avenues for distribution become compromised, but I still want theaters to survive this pandemic.
While promoting his HBO Max film Let Them All Talk, Steven Soderbergh recently told The Daily Beast something that largely reflects my point of view: this is not the end of theaters. There is no realistic scenario in which you can release movies in theaters in 2021 nor indefinitely play leap frog with their release dates, and WarnerMedia was just the first studio to say this out loud. Soderbergh acknowledged that the bonanza of releasing certain blockbusters globally is unmatched in terms of profit and so it is therefore only a matter of time before the theatrical experience makes a comeback.
I will add that the popularity of going out to the movies is still huge around the world and many of my friends and fellow film fans would happily return to the theater once it feels safe to gather in large crowds again, no matter how long it takes for them to come back. I feel like we are going through a combination of what the industry went through from 1918 to 1920 with influenza and what the industry went through in the fifties during the rising popularity of television. Traditional cinema now, as then, is too big to disappear no matter the obstacles it faces, and I believe it will be revived in time and eventually come out the other side of this pandemic better than ever.
In the meantime, I can only wait for that day while I enjoy whatever entertainment I can on streaming services.