What Warner Bros. Putting Their 2021 Film Slate on HBO Max Means for the Future of Moviegoing

'Wonder Woman 1984' will be the first film on HBO Max & movie theaters. Here’s what the Warner Bros. movie slate in 2021 means for moviegoing.

HBO Max logo seen displayed on a smartphone

Image via Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

HBO Max logo seen displayed on a smartphone

Warner Brothers, which already announced that they would be releasing Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max and in theaters on Christmas Day, has responded to COVID-19 shutting down theaters with one swift action: declaring that their entire 2021 film slate would premiere on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously. This announcement was met with much shock; I know I had about six different chats going, all asking the same thing: is this the end of moviegoing as we know it?

It’s a question that comes with a loaded answer, honestly. On the one hand, this is the way of the world: for many of us, three-quarters of 2020 has been spent being unable to attend theaters due to COVID fears shutting down public spaces. This feels like a natural progression to a growing problem. However, this is a decision that doesn’t appear to be made solely based on the predicament studios are in due to cinemas being closed. It’s a lot to unpack, which is why I was glad when the homie William sent a note asking if I wanted to discuss this.

That said, here are some raw thoughts and opinions on what Warner Brothers releasing their 2021 film slate on HBO Max in conjunction with theaters might mean.

khal: So with the news that Warner Brothers has put their entire slate for 2021 on HBO Max, all I’ve been getting hit with privately was if this was the death of theaters. I’m...not really convinced of that, and it’s got more to do than just the films dropping on HBO Max and in theaters. I'm looking more at what’s been going on behind the scenes at what's now known as WarnerMedia. There’s been a shift in power over there that has included the formation of HBO Max, a service in a sea of streaming services that while having some of the best content (both new and back catalog), but is one of many services that are available for people during this quarantine period.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself, young William. I wanna know your thoughts on what this HBO Max news means for the future of cinema.

William: As the site’s resident defender of the theatrical moviegoing experience, the mood I’m feeling after hearing the news is basically “Not great, Bob!” Before I get into it, I think it might help to walk through a few of the things that lead us here.

The writing’s been on the wall for a studio to make this kind of sweeping change since the great Trolls World Tour fracas from earlier this year. The decision to release Trolls on PVOD (premium video on demand) was the first crack in the armor of theatrical windows (windowing refers to the period in which a movie theater chain has exclusive rights to show a movie). Once movie theater chains decided they were sort of okay with movie studios breaking windowing, the industry was in a position where WarnerMedia could move forward with deciding to just absolutely shatter the glass instead of taking another chip out of it.

HBO Max’s haphazard roll-out plays another role, too. While we still don’t have a damn Roku app, Max has quietly turned itself into a fantastic service with offerings like the Fresh Prince reunion special, smart new shows like The Flight Attendant, and a sheer amount of compelling movie offerings from Studio Ghibli, Turner Classic Movies, and HBO itself. The sheer depth and breadth of what you can watch on Max is, in my opinion, better than Netflix.

However, a service is only as good as its marketing, and AT&T (the owners of WarnerMedia) still haven’t quite figured out how to best address Max. No matter the number of explainers about the platform, consumers still aren’t sure how to properly access it. Deciding to trash HBO Now in favor of HBO Max confounds even to this day. And, again, still no Roku!

In their release, Warner cites that “The hybrid model was created as a strategic response to the impact of the ongoing global pandemic, particularly in the U.S.”. Still, I can’t help but look at this decision and not see it as a money grab from AT&T to try and goose Max numbers after such a bungled launch. If COVID was indeed the reason, why didn’t Warner talk to any exhibitors about their decision ahead of time, as detailed by The Hollywood Reporter? I understand the need for a studio to do something to generate profits during a pandemic but I am highly skeptical about the real intent behind this decision. Am I overreacting here, khal? 

khal: I don’t think you’re overreacting. While HBO figured out life after Game of Thrones, WarnerMedia is one of many companies that had to start laying off staff this year. I just learned the other day that the PlayStation 5 doesn’t currently have an app for HBO Max, which is...confusing? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been rocking with Roku devices and Roku TCL televisions for years now. Walmart and other big-box retailers keep Rokus in stock, primarily because they are cheaper and are still able to do what the bigger name devices can do. That’s a huge swath of the population that potentially is shut out of getting HBO Max thus far. Even if they already subscribed to HBO Now or HBO Go, the apps they use—I use—to check out the service don’t give you nearly the same experience.

That said, I believe the Warners are in a no-win situation. While studios like Disney might be more than content in waiting out the pandemic (Ed note: wear a fucking mask!) before making these kinds of decisions, the fact of the matter is this: theaters in cities like Los Angeles and New York are still not open. Hell, my local AMC closed last month! Back in June, it looked like we may be back in movie theaters at this point, but we aren’t. With no vaccine readily available for the masses (yet), there’s no telling when the theater business can attempt to rebuild itself. I’m not surprised that WarnerMedia’s decided to drop its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max in addition to whatever theaters are open at the time. Being a homebody hermit, I’m a-OK with checking out films from the comfort of my couch. My homies aren’t, though, and I’m going on nine months of not touching down at an AMC. It sucks, and no matter what kind of soundbar I can afford, it just doesn’t beat going to the cinema.

I’m curious to see what happens when Wonder Woman 1984 drops on Christmas Day. Is WarnerMedia expecting hundreds of thousands of subscribers for that film? What’s the data on current DC fans and HBO Max subscriptions—I’d imagine that folks looking for The Snyder Cut might already be on-board, especially if they were already HBO Now subscribers. And what if Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t yield the return they envision? Could we see changes to their release—maybe the aforementioned PVOD route will be examined? But are you down to pay $29.99 in addition to the $15 you’re paying for HBO Max now? We didn’t get hard numbers on what Mulan did, but Pixar’s Soul is skipping theaters to hit Disney+ as well.

We’re only, currently, talking about two production companies, though. Do you think we could see more studios going the PVOD route? Could Universal be trying to mold Peacock in a similar HBO Max vein?

"Theater Closed" signs are posted in front of the AMC Montebello.

khal: I’m not. I was having a conversation with someone about what this can really mean for the movie industry at large. At some point, assuming theaters open back up, one has to imagine that theaters will be trying to bring in legacy flicks—classics that will draw audiences back into theaters to try and recoup some of that money. The problem is, what will this mean for the next couple of years when it comes to movies that studios decide to produce? Will we be seeing more of the larger “universe” films that have saturated the mainstream? If so, what will that mean for the smaller, indie companies trying to fight for those same silver screens? Could we see those companies being shut out, especially if the smaller theaters are closing up shop because they didn’t have the funds to last the COVID theater closings?

No, I’m not ready for this future. I’m also unsure if the hobbyist structure you spoke of will be the future. Cineworld was able to secure finances for Regal Cinemas to avoid bankruptcy. AMC is closing theaters (RIP to my easy commute to see Spider-Man: Far From Home in a Dolby theater), but I can’t imagine they are dead in the water...yet. I’m enough of an optimist to believe that we can make it out on the other side of this thing. I’m also old enough to realize that things like COVID-19 shutting down the globe means that it’ll take time to recover. If Disney is betting on theaters opening up, I have to believe that moviegoers will be ready once vaccines have run through the country and cities start to open up again. It will just take a lot longer than I initially thought it would.

Look, if the world starts to return to normal come June or July, this whole conversation could shift. If things go back to normal, what’s to say that WarnerMedia won’t walk this back? Either way, I do have a soundbar, and my TV is nice enough. Hopefully, HBO Max will arrive on Roku devices by that point.

William: With all of that said, WarnerMedia does seem committed to theatrical. In a new interview with Deadline, CEO Jason Kilar stated, “We’re here for the long term, in terms of theatrical exhibition and obviously in investing heavily in motion pictures and also investing heavily in the marketing of those motion pictures.” Now, what this all means when theaters do return remains to be seen, but it looks like some chains are still willing to play ball. Cinemark announced they’ll be “making near-term booking decisions on a film-by-film basis” even though “Warner Bros. has not provided any details for the hybrid distribution model of their 2021 films.”

We’re all going to have to take this step-by-step as it unfolds. But one thing is for sure: moviegoing just dramatically and rapidly changed. It’s just the latest unprecedented change to the status quo in a year full of titanic shifts. Although, HBO truly embracing the Home Box Office Channel of its namesake is one move I don’t think we ever anticipated. 

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