Warner Bros. to return to exclusive theatrical releases in 2022

Last year, Warner Bros. drew the ire of theater owners and some in Hollywood as it announced COVID-induced plans to bring its entire 2021 slate of films to streaming platform HBO Max the same day as theaters. While some presumed that this move marked a paradigm shift in the movie business, Warner Bros. will apparently return to an exclusive, though abbreviated, theatrical release window in 2022. The studio announced a new deal with Regal Cinemas owner Cineworld for 2022, supplying its films to the theater chain 45 days before they are available for home entertainment consumption in the US. The exclusive window will be 31 days for Regal’s UK cinemas. So, HBO Max subscribers will have to wait along with everyone else for films to make their way to the home video market.

A 45-day theatrical window is a change for the industry; in years past, it had typically been 90 days. However, the rise in streaming services (and the critical role they played during the pandemic) has likely given some studio executives pause when considering more lengthy windows.

HBO Max has enjoyed a subscriber spike since it kicked things off with Wonder Woman 1984 in December. Most recently, the platform has been benefitting from the buzz around Zack Snyder’s remake of Justice League; the four-hour director’s cut benefitted from an additional budget of $70 million even after the original film lost around $60 million. While some may argue that’s tantamount to throwing good money after bad, HBO Max is giving DC Comics fans what they want, receiving a sizable marketing boost from the exposure, and it could generate additional subscriber growth.

Executives at parent company AT&T are currently forecasting upwards of 70 million subscribers for HBO and HBO Max by the end of this year, which would be 9 million more than it ended with in 2020. The big challenge as HBO Max enters 2022 will be securing exclusive content to maintain this momentum. The platform hasn’t had a hit on the scale of Game of Thrones since the show ended, which is why management is planning not one, not two, but six different prequel spinoffs, the first of which is expected next year. According to Interpret’s New Media Measure®, HBO Max subscribers in the US are far more likely than Disney+ or Netflix subscribers to pay for additional video services. While 27% of HBO Max subscribers pay for 4-5 other video services, only 12% of Netflix subscribers and 17% of Disney+ subscribers do the same, suggesting that HBO Max is seen as highly complementary to other options in the market.