A Speculative Look at WarnerMedia’s 2021 Distribution Model

Closed Movie Theater during COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic
TT: The Batman, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, WW84

What if I told you that I think the movie industry will be healthier after the dust settles on this pandemic. Would you call me crazy? Would you say that I’m a blind optimist? Let me state my claim clearly, a claim that has been rattling around in my brain since the bombshell HBO Max news from two weeks ago, and I will leave the response up to you.

In the hubbub surrounding the destabilization of the film industry, studios have taken radical action to mitigate the effects of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. Box Office returns are at a 40-year low and new habits have taken root as people get used to watching new releases at home.

This has led to an unprecedented move by WarnerMedia to release their entire Warner Brothers 2021 slate in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time. This slate just so happens to include behemoths like Mortal Kombat, Godzilla V. Kong, The Suicide Squad, Dune, and The Matrix 4 (yep you read that last one right).That kind of slate for a streaming service has rightly never been matched, which is why it’s such a great tool to market the company’s young streaming service.

Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max and theaters
Wonder Woman 1984 leads the charge for WarnerMedia’s upcoming 2021 release schedule!

Releasing a blockbuster like Wonder Woman 1984 or Dune day-and-date has never been attempted on a scale like this in the film industry’s 100+ year history for two reasons:

  • It destroys the exclusive relationship that theaters have enjoyed with studios.
  • You can’t make a billion dollars at home like you can at the theater. For these studios, there is nothing like the goldmine of a billion-dollar movie.

So where does that leave movie theaters? Their viability seemingly plummeted the moment this announcement was made. The most attractive thing about a movie theater to the average customer is the exclusive rights they hold to the latest Marvel entry for at least 90 days.

When taking all the above into account, why would this game-changing HBO announcement make me optimistic about the future of theaters?

2 reasons:

  • This is a necessary correction for the film industry.
  • It will allow for more types of films, not less, to be seen in theaters.

To highlight my point, take a movie like Freaky; studio heads at Universal are not treating this horror comedy like the next Jurassic Park film and neither should theaters. Freaky does not need to be in theaters for 90 days like a superhero film. It would benefit from a shorter window where theaters and studios can both participate in the profits. Movies come in all different shapes and sizes and they should not be treated as if they are the same type of product meant for the same type of audience. This lack of nuance in the form of a 90-day window for all movies, no matter the size, has hurt the film industry and kept more movies out of theaters than necessary. It’s been utilized as a blunt weapon instead of a finely tuned one.

I believe that this move from WB will light a fire under the butts of theaters. This shift will create the necessary tension needed to fix the lack of nuance found within the 90-day window between theaters and streaming.

Movie Theater Struggles during COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic
Barren theaters in October may not be a reality next Fall, but only time will tell.

So, will there be less theaters for a time? Yes. Will there also be more movies in theaters playing for a shorter amount of time? Yes.

This is only good news for the customer. More creativity, more competition, and more choice.

Movie theaters aren’t necessarily competing against streaming, they are competing against bowling, a night out on the town, and eating out with the family. It’s for this reason, among many others listed above, that I don’t think movie theaters are going anywhere long term. It’s a part of the American way of life, and the tension between studios and theaters, for lack of a better word, could produce positive results because of the creativity and nuance that will stem from it. Constraints like COVID-19 (and what a constraint it has been) usually have the effect of spawning real ingenuity, and I think we are going to see a lot of ingenuity in the film industry over the next few years.

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Carter Bennett owner of Film Junkie Reviews Instagram Contributor and Host on Cinematic Doctrine

Carter Bennett is a Contributor and Cohost at Cinematic Doctrine. He’s a ravenous cinephile who loves looking at the film industry through the lens of a Christian worldview. He never went to film school, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a certified Film Junkie! His ultimate desire is to faithfully give an account of his savior Jesus Christ through the world of filmmaking!

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