On Thursday came very surprising news... big enough I pushed back my original planned blog post for today to write this one instead. Warner Bros. announced it's releasing all of their movies for 2021 simultaneously to theaters and their HBO Max streaming service. The latter will get the films for a month, then things go back to theater-exclusivity and regular home video releases.
Some of the movies to be released this way in 2021 include: "Godzilla vs. Kong," "Tom and Jerry," the LeBron James-starring "Space Jam" sequel, and "The Suicide Squad."
While Warner initially planned to do this only with "Wonder Woman 1984" (due out on HBO Max and in theaters on Christmas), seeing this expanded to an entire year's worth of movies is surprising. Unsurprisingly, it's also resulted in a lot of buzz online.
Delving into further thoughts about all this...
Movies vs. television
Ever since television became commonplace in the 1950s, Hollywood filmmakers have often viewed TV as a "poor cousin" of the movies. Given the latter's lower budgets in early decades (and its made-for-TV movies, smaller screens, worse audio, etc.), this initial view seem plausible, if snobbish. That said, moviemakers (and movie theater owners) also lived in fear (however unfounded) of TV, or new TV-related technology (VCRs, streaming, etc.) taking away paying moviegoers. Never mind the studios have owned both TV and movie arms for decades, or that people still went to movies even with these innovations.
In recent years, TV has greatly improved in technological quality: high definition, Blu-Rays, streaming services, cable TV, home theater systems, big-screen TVs, etc. are now commonplace. These days, it's possible to have a very nice home theater setup without costing a fortune; a far cry from the 20-inch dial-tuner TV my family had when I was a kid.
The multiplex experience
As for the moviegoing experience, the rise of the modern multiplex in the 80s and 90s brought with it some technological improvements: recliner seating, digital projectors, improved surround sound audio, etc. A few chains have even started serving a wider variety of food.
However, the multiplex moviegoing experience still leaves much to be desired, and often comes off as the "fast food" of cinema: serviceable, but not exciting. Between the cost of concessions and tickets, the interminable ads and trailers before the film starts, the lack of intermissions, and occasionally annoying strangers, it's hard to get excited about a trip to the movies for anything but the film itself. For all the talk about "movie magic," most Americans' moviegoing options are more "McDonald's" than "fine Italian restaurant"/"neighborhood bistro."
The cost of HBO Max
Warner's simultaneous release plans helps make the cost of HBO Max justifiable to beyond just existing HBO fans. No matter what, $15/month for a streaming service is expensive. However, for the same $15 (what a pricier evening movie ticket can run), HBO Max will provide new films and access to WarnerMedia's library.
Why is Warner Bros. doing this?
AT&T's already billions in debt from buying WarnerMedia, and the pandemic clearly isn't easing up fully anytime soon. While a vaccine's around the corner, it's still going to be quite awhile before movie theaters will be like they were in 2019.
Warner's also pushed back a lot of its films already, and (like the other studios) is also reeling from a lack of movies. Trying to release "Tenet" and defying pandemic worries didn't work.
AT&T's also likely hoping to avoid the fate of AOL when they bought Warner Bros. back in the early aughts. The short-lived "AOL Time Warner" merger was so disastrous, it was undone after several years.
Is this the death of the movie theater?
Despite all of my grumbling above, I don't feel this is the death of movie theaters. Theaters still have a few advantages over watching movies at home: namely getting out of the house, a shared experience, and a bigger screen. That said, if other studios (like Comcast/Universal or Disney) pick up on doing the same thing, at minimum this will force existing theaters to improve their product to stay competitive.
However, in a worst case scenario, I think this might be the end of the modern multiplex theater era. (No, multiplexes didn't always exist; apparently they were rare before the 1980s.) Similar to the current decline in the popularity of shopping malls, I could see a permanent shift away from generic multiplexes. Alternatives include simultaneous streaming, smaller chains, independent theaters, and/or theater chains that provide a more pleasant moviegoing experience, such as Alamo Drafthouse or iPic. In my previous town (before moving), I used to enjoy going to an iPic theater, as well as a local theater that served food.
The traditional generic big chains are already in trouble, but the HBO Max news makes things worse; AMC alone is already on the ropes. My only concern is where the demise of such big chains would leave smaller towns; for example, my family's hometown in Indiana has only one movie theater, an AMC multiplex.
Otherwise, I can't say I'd miss the big chains going under, especially when the remaining options are cheaper, more convenient, and/or more pleasant.
How long will this last?
WarnerMedia says this will last through just the end of 2021. However, some are wondering if this will last longer. As The Verge also notes, after something this big (and after an entire year), it'll be hard to simply revert back to the way things were done before the pandemic hit. Not to mention, why go back to paying the same price as HBO Max for tickets to mediocre movie theater experiences (aka "business as usual")?
Will HBO Max finally reach Roku?
HBO Max made a deal recently to be carried on Fire TV devices, leaving Roku as the only platform left. Hopefully, this will soon change; Roku is one of the most popular streaming platforms, and HBO Max not on it hasn't helped the streaming service's subscription numbers. Ultimately, Roku availability and the simultaneous release plans should see these numbers change.