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Warner Bros. is plotting a sweeping response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered movie theaters around the country. After announcing that Wonder Woman 1984 will go to HBO Max as well as theaters Dec. 25, the studio has laid out a similar path for its 2021 slate amid uncertainty about when moviegoing will get back to normal.
The studio announced Thursday day-and-date releases for its 17-film slate, which will hit HBO Max for a one-month window that starts the same day they will be available in U.S. theaters.
The studio’s 2021 slate includes projects such as The Suicide Squad, The Matrix 4, Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong and Space Jam: A New Legacy. Other films include Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In the Heights, Reminiscence, Malignant, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard and Cry Macho.
The unprecedented move is likely to catch theater owners off guard and upsets a model that has been in place for decades. Warner Bros. stresses that these are pandemic-only rules, but once something is broken, can you really put it back together again? This also raises serious concerns about the landscape of moviegoing in 2021.
Toby Emmerich, Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman, argued the move would be good for the theatrical business in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“It allows us to do a global release and a national release in what we think is going to be a checkerboarded theatrical market place for the bulk of 2021,” Emmerich told THR. “We think where theaters are open, and consumers can go, that a lot of people will choose to go to the theater, especially for big movies.”
Despite word of coming vaccines, the company decided to put the entire 2021 slate on HBO Max after consulting with epidemiologists. Emmerich said the move was “to guarantee as many movies as we could for the year for the global theatrical marketplace.”
Sources say these discussions were kept close to the vest and not shared with many exhibitors. Warner Bros. will likely have to agree to far more generous terms with theater owners to avoid them boycotting their films. Insiders say the Wonder Woman 1984 split of ticket sales is far better for exhibitors than normal. Sources also say the studio did not inform partners such as Legendary, which has Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong, that their films were included in this plan.
Emmerich would not comment on possible terms the studio might give theaters to show these films. He also noted he was excited for other studios to share their own plans, saying, “having movies out there is good for cinemas.”
In a statement announcing the news, Ann Sarnoff, CEO, WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, cited “unprecedented times” that “call for creative solutions.”
“No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do,” said Sarnoff. “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. With this unique one-year plan, we can support our partners in exhibition with a steady pipeline of world-class films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see our amazing 2021 films. We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors, and we’re extremely grateful to our filmmaking partners for working with us on this innovative response to these circumstances.”
WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said in a statement, “After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months. More importantly, we are planning to bring consumers 17 remarkable movies throughout the year, giving them the choice and the power to decide how they want to enjoy these films. Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.”
Kilar expanded upon his thinking in a blog post Thursday.
Emmerich said in a statement, “This hybrid exhibition model enables us to best support our films, creative partners and moviegoing in general throughout 2021. We have a fantastic, wide-ranging slate of titles from talented and visionary filmmakers next year, and we’re excited to be able get these movies in front of audiences around the world. And, as always, we’ll support all of our releases with innovative and robust marketing campaigns for their theatrical debuts, while highlighting this unique opportunity to see our films domestically via HBO Max as well.”
HBO Max is only available in the United States, and Warners’ 2021 slate will roll out internationally in theaters as planned. The move comes after Warners released Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in theaters this summer amid challenges faced by the pandemic.
Universal has already shortened theatrical windows via its unique VOD plan, which was put in place because of the pandemic.
When asked how long it took to get to this decision and to gain the support from across the company, Emmerich noted, “It took a minute as a company.”
“We have these movies just sitting on the shelf,” said Emmerich. “Consumers are starved for content.”
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