Warner Bros. to bring its entire 2021 slate to HBO Max, further straining the relationship with movie theaters

With the film industry still coping with empty theater seats and a backlog of major releases, Warner Bros. is moving forward with its vision for the theatrical release window. The media giant announced at the start of December that it would bring its entire 2021 movie slate – which includes films like Dune, The Matrix 4, Suicide Squad, and Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark – directly to HBO Max on the same day as theaters.

Warner Bros. previously adopted this strategy for Wonder Woman 1984, which releases on Christmas Day, but the decision to do the same for its entire slate (17 films in total) is indicative of the company’s continued willingness to experiment during the pandemic – and its potential prioritization of HBO Max. In its recent announcement, Warner Bros. claims that this decision has been fueled by “unprecedented times” and uncertainty around when theaters might return to normal. At the same time, Toby Emmerich, Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman, told The Hollywood Reporter that it doesn’t mean Warner is losing faith in the theatrical marketplace overall.

“For many years, there has been this push-and-pull between studios and theater owners regarding the length of the theatrical release window,” said Brett Sappington, Interpret VP. “Theater owners need adequate time with Hollywood’s newest releases to fill theaters. Studios want to experiment with distribution to be relevant to the newest generations of viewers. COVID has forced an evolution that will affect movie distribution well into the future.”

The frustration among theater owners is palpable, however. One veteran glibly told Variety, “I guess the movie theaters will just be Halloween stores now.” Others believe that Warner is leveraging the pandemic as an excuse to double down on HBO Max. AMC CEO Adam Aron commented to Variety, “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.”

Interpret’s New Media Measure® shows just how much movie theaters have been struggling during the COVID-19 outbreak. Year-over-year, comparing Q2 2019 to Q2 2020, the data indicates a 66% plummet in the number of movies seen theatrically per quarter by Americans, age 13-65. That means, on average, Americans were seeing six movies in theaters per year before the pandemic, and that has dropped to just two in 2020. The big question for 2021, once vaccines are widely distributed and life begins to return to normal, will viewers choose home cinemas or traditional theaters? Warner Bros. isn’t waiting to find out.