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Warner Bros. to Release Its 2021 Films on HBO Max, Theaters Simultaneously

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. | Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Worries arise over what the move could mean for the future of movie theaters

Thursday, Warner Bros. announced that it will release its 2021 17-film slate in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously.

A film from the studio will hit HBO Max for a one-month access period that begins the day it is released in U.S. theaters. All films on the streaming platform will be available in 4K Ultra HD and HDR. Following the one-month HBO Max access period, each film will leave the platform and continue theatrically in the U.S. and international territories.

Warner Bros. Pictures Group’s 2021 expected release slate currently includes “The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In The Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Reminiscence, Malignant, Dune, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard, Cry Macho and Matrix 4. 

The move garnered immediate criticism and concern for the survival of movie theaters. The studio had already announced that the long-awaited “Wonder Woman 1984,” which was supposed to premiere this summer, would be released in a similar fashion on Christmas Day but many assumed it would be a one-off and were shocked by the studio’s announcement. Warner Bros. executives, however, say the policy is temporary.

“We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021,” explained Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group.

Sarnoff also said the one-year plan will provide moviegoers with options if they aren’t ready to visit a theater in 2021.

“Clearly, Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidize its HBO Max start-up,” AMC’s CEO Adam Aron told Variety. “As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense. We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business.”

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar thinks the outrage is overblown.

“Everyone should take a breather,” Kilar said in an interview, according to CNBC. “Let’s let the next six, eight, 10 months play out. And then let’s check back in.”

But will movie theaters survive the next six to ten months?

Theaters were already struggling to survive before the pandemic and their woes have only been exacerbated by the current public health emergency.

According to Backstage, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) reports that “96% of U.S. cinemas have reported over 70% in losses in 2020. They’ve estimated that 70% of their small and mid-sized theaters will go bankrupt or go out of business by January.”

In early November, the organization called on Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act, which would authorize $15 billion in grants for independent venues, producers, promoters and talent representatives. The grant authorizes the Small Business Association to make an initial grant of up to $12 million dollars to an eligible operator, promoter, producer, or talent representative; and a supplemental grant that is equal to 50% of the initial grant.

“American movie theaters need help now,” said John Fithian, president and chief executive of the association in a statement at the time. “Soon, a vaccine will allow our industry to return to normal, but without bipartisan action now in the lame-duck session of Congress, hundreds of movie theaters will not make it. Local communities across the nation are and will be permanently damaged.”

The Washington Post’s chief film critic, Ann Hornaday, remains optimistic about the future of U.S. cinemas. “But theaters, while embattled, are nowhere near obsolete,” she writes. “Once a vaccine is available and uptake has hit critical mass, the pent-up demand will make itself felt — whether it’s people flocking to the next superhero blockbuster or sleeper hit a la ‘Magic Mike’ or ‘Girls Trip’ — good movies that turned into great fun once the communal experience kicked in.”

This cinephile, who thrives on the unique electric energy of the communal film-watching experience, hopes the optimists are right.

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