Next year, Warner Bros. is going to release its entire 2021 movie slate, all 17 movies, on its HBO Max streaming service on the very same day those 17 titles are released in theaters. This is it, y’all. There is no coming back from this.
Warner Bros. is already releasing Wonder Woman 1984 that way on Christmas Day. Next year, you will be able to see Matrix 4, Dune, The Sopranos prequel, The Conjuring sequel, The Suicide Squad, Godzilla vs. Kong, Space Jam 2, and a whole bunch of others, from the comfort of your home on the same day they are released in theaters, and at no extra charge — if you are an HBO Max subscriber.
The following is not hyperbole… This move is as big as the coming of sound and the break-up of the studio system. This might even be bigger, because this could be the end of exhibition, the end of going to the movies.
The first thing is how this Warner Bros. move proves — and this is HUGE — that the studios are no longer afraid of movie theater owners. For more than a decade, I’ve been telling you how the studios have wanted to shrink the window between theatrical and home video release, have wanted to experiment with releasing titles on pay-per-view close to the theatrical release date, but have been bullied by theater owners into backing off. Do that and we won’t exhibit your movies! theater-owners threatened, and it worked because back then, theater owners had all the juice.
Well, those days are over and for two reasons…
The first is that the coronavirus forced the studios to experiment with something that had been unthinkable. What will happen if we take a big movie, one obviously meant for theaters, and release it on pay-per-view?
There was no way, pre-virus, the studios would risk a $100 million product like that. No way. The virus forced them to, and the results were good. The customers showed up.
They also saw how Tenet tanked in theaters.
And I’ll tell you something else the studios are seeing that none of the suck-up trades dare mention. The movies being released in theaters this year are not flopping because half of America’s theaters are shut down. These movies are failing even in theaters that are open. Look at the per-theater average on the flops. No one’s even going to the theaters that are open — even with all the social distancing and other safety features, no one’s going and nothing, and I mean nothing, terrifies the studios more than this.
The second reason is streaming. HBO Max costs $14.99 per month. How many people are going to sign up for $14.99 to see Wonder Woman 1984 and Matrix 4 and all those other titles? And how long will they keep paying that $14.99? The studios all see it — all see the billions — with a “B” — Netflix is making every month off that golden goose of subscriber base. They want a piece of that. A big piece. And in order to get a piece of that, you have to offer product on your streaming service, and what better product than first-run movies? And who has first-run movies? Warner Bros! (I laid out the financials and math of this in a little more detail here).
How do you come back from this? How do the movies come back?
Listen, there will always be movie theaters of some sort. People like going out to the movies. But movie-going as it had been? Doubtful. And don’t forget that a whole lot of these theater chains are now on the verge of financial collapse. How do you come back with Warner Bros. playing all their movies on TV?
But, yes, movie-going could come back, but only if people say, Nah, I don’t want to watch this at home. Let’s go out and fight for a parking spot and sit in a theater where people talk and munchies cost $25 and everyone’s on their phones. That’s so much better than silting in my own living room with microwave popcorn, surround-sound, and a 60-inch plasma.
Not bloody likely.