For years now, cynics in the world of film have been crying the downfall of movie theaters. To them, each new advancement in home video drives another nail into the theatrical coffin. In recent years these fears have only accelerated with companies like Netflix and Amazon chipping away at traditional industry norms. All that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Warner Media’s decision to completely blow up exclusive theatrical windows for 2021 landed heavily among those in the world of film.
Traditionally, when a big studio film is released into theaters, the only way to see it for the first few months is in theaters. This exclusive window is meant to insulate the theatrical business from home video. Already teetering on the edge of insolvency, theater chains are rightly concerned that a major studio releasing their entire year’s slate day and date on HBO Max could finally do them in. For a few reasons, I think that worry in ultimately misplaced.
Before we dig into the effects of the Warner/HBO plan, lets talk a bit about exactly what is happening. This is, after all, the same studio that ham-fistedly released Tenet exclusively into theaters amid a once in a century pandemic. It seems that the studio big wigs learned their lesson from that decision, as indicated by their complete 180. Understanding that theatrical releases of their biggest films can only lead to massive losses so long as COVID remains a threat, Warner Brothers made the call to release every one of their 2021 films on HBO Max on the same day they go into theaters.
Obviously its a huge deal. Never before has a studio just thrown out theatrical windows and naturally many of the stakeholders are upset. Theaters rely on big blockbuster movies to sustain them and now they’ll be missing out on tent poles like Wonder Woman 84, Dune, Suicide Squad and Matrix 4. Filmmakers themselves must be a little concerned as well that their films won’t be seen in the way they intended. Jon Chu, director of In the Heights, was reportedly “shell shocked” by the decision and it’s not hard to imagine others feeling the same way. Clearly the inclination to panic is there, but there is still plenty of reason to keep calm.
Critical to this whole story is financial incentives. Warner weighed its options and decided that juicing their subscriber base would bring in more than a pandemic dampened box office. Believe it or not, that’s actually the strongest case for theaters. Cinemas have historically, and should continue to be the most profitable mode of releasing blockbusters. So long as Avengers movies can break a billion dollars at the box office, theaters will continue to exist.
Let’s not forget that the dollars are driven by consumers. People have an appetite for communal experience. If you love movies, and even if you don’t, you can probably remember a time when a jump scare in a horror flick landed better because it got a crowd of people around you as well. Or maybe some triumphant battle sequence gave you chills when the whole crowd erupted. Who can forget openly weeping with a group of strangers at the emotional climax of Roma... or was that just me... Anyways, the point is that if we all continue to support theaters when it’s safe to do so, studios will have incentive to keep theaters running.
I could be wrong, and in an ideal world ruthless capitalism wouldn’t be the only way to keep movie theaters around. The access that this HBO Max deal will give people is genuinely exciting. Exclusive theatrical windows are a barrier, they make it tough for folks in rural areas to see the latest films and the cost of a night at the movies can be prohibitive to lots of people. Wouldn’t it be great to have the flexibility of seeing the big crowd pleasers on the big screen and more intimate fare at home?
We, of course, don’t live in that ideal world. We live in the one where news that one of the biggest studios in the world is releasing its schedule on HBO is terrifying instead of exhilarating. Rather than celebrating the fact that many more people may be able to see Judas and the Black Messiah, we’re in fear that streaming Suicide Squad may bankrupt our local cinemas.
The financials of the movie business should keep theaters viable, for now. So really, it’s that qualifier, not the Warner/HBO news that should be our concern. Governments, federal and local, should be propping up independent theaters as they would any other institution of art. There is a value in seeing good cinema with others and people are right to fear for the spaces that allow us to do so. If they did that, a mixed theatrical and streaming system would give greater opportunity for independent films reach folks and not be crowded out by blockbusters.
So don’t let the panic overcome you. As long as those blockbusters keep getting made, theaters will be around to show them. The film world should never let go of that concern for theaters, but they should also enjoy having Warner’s whole 2021 slate at their fingertips amid a deadly pandemic.