After a ground-breaking deal between studio giant Warner Bros. and streaming service HBO Max, on Christmas, viewers could watch Wonder Woman 1984 at home the same day it debuted in theatres. It’s an unprecedented move in film distribution—one that may influence other studios to follow suit.
Currently, Warner Bros. plans the same release model for all 17 of its 2021 films, including tent-pole blockbusters such as The Matrix 4, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Dune. Several prominent film industry figures, including directors Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve, have denounced the deal, specifically the lack of warning given to the affected filmmakers and actors.
The deal reflects a continuing trend within the film industry: shortening the time between a film’s theatrical release and its release for at-home viewing, also known as the “theatrical window.” Where most theatres would wait at least three months to release a film for home viewing, this agreement shrinks that window to no time at all.
According to WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, the deal exists in part to give fans the choice between theatre and home, a choice that filmgoers have never had on opening day. Theatres used to be the only place one could watch a film during its opening release. Even with this advantage, theatres have struggled with dwindling audience numbers for years. With the ongoing dangers of Covid-19, climbing ticket prices, and the convenience of at-home streaming, the struggle will only worsen.
Under this agreement, viewers no longer need to travel to theatres to be the first to see a new film, one of the major draws that movie theatres had left. If other studios follow in Warner Bros.’ footsteps, we may see even more theatres losing customers and closing their doors in the near future.
The new arrangement between HBO Max and Warner Bros. faced major backlash across Hollywood for several reasons. For starters, the 2021 release plans were reportedly kept secret from those affected until about 90 minutes before their public announcement. The decision brought uncertainty to actors, directors, and writers whose earnings often partially depend on in-theatre tickets sales. That number is likely to plummet, given the pandemic and the growing preference toward at-home viewing.
Although an alternative payment plan is now in place, it wasn’t shared before the deal was announced, leaving many industry workers feeling blindsided by the news. In an interview with ET Online, director Christopher Nolan condemned WarnerMedia, saying, “That’s not how you treat the filmmakers, stars, and people who’ve given so much for these projects. They deserved to be consulted and spoken to about what was going to happen to their work.”
Dune director, Denis Villeneuve, similarly criticized WarnerMedia and its parent company, AT&T, for its lack of collaboration and respect for audiences and cinema as a whole. He asserted that Dune’s massive scale is meant to be viewed on the big screen first. Before this deal, the cast and crew of Dune were assured an optimal viewing format in theatres before being available for home viewing. Now, without warning or consent, such films will immediately release to viewers in a completely different format than the creators intended, altering their artistic vision and minimizing the work they put in.
Both Nolan and Villeneuve insist that movie theatres are vital to the industry and will eventually recover, once again allowing large-scale films like Dune to be viewed as intended. The two filmmakers have valid reasons to believe audiences will return to theatres once it’s safe. The atmosphere, special viewing experiences such as 3-D and IMAX, and sharing the viewing experience with large audiences have pulled people back to theatres for decades. Despite these advantages, skyrocketing ticket prices and growth in streaming services have stunted the movie theatre industry. These issues predate the pandemic and will only continue to plague theatres long after.
Without question, the new HBO Max and Warner Bros. deal has pushed film release models into unknown and uncertain territory. This move will have major repercussions for payment structures, the future of movie theatres, and both companies’ reputations. After failing to keep affected parties in the loop, filmmakers are losing faith in studios and distributors’ commitment to cinema and the fair treatment of its workers. Unless that trust is restored, the HBO Max and Warner Bros. deal could prove detrimental to both companies. However, if their 2021 release schedule succeeds, the film industry could see a complete reshaping in years to come.