Last week it was revealed that Warner Bros. was releasing its entire 2021 film slate — from Wonder Woman 1984 to Dune to The Matrix 4 — to HBO Max the same day they hit theaters. When the news hit, some wondered if the brash, potentially industry-shattering decision came in part due to Tenet underperforming in American theaters crippled by the pandemic, which no doubt scared its parent company. Speaking of, among the many critics of the move was Tenet’s director, Christopher Nolan.
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, the acclaimed filmmaker did not mince words. “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Nolan said. He added:
“Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”
In the deal, HBO Max would gain a total of 17 films, spread over the next year, starting with Wonder Woman 1984 on December 25. It’s true that new movies released to American theaters have struggled to turn profits, or even mediocre grosses. That’s driven Hollywood’s major studios to do the unthinkable. In the early days of the pandemic, Universal enraged theater chains by releasing Trolls World Tour straight to PVOD, while Disney has done both PVOD (with their Mulan remake) and simply dropped titles like Artemis Fowl (and soon Pixar’s Soul) onto their own streaming service.
But the idea was that theaters would one day be safe again. The Warner Bros.-HBO Max deal could dramatically transform the entire industry, if not put the final stake in movie theater chains. And it’s already angered filmmakers, who expected their films to at least eventually be first available on the big screen. THR reports that Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu had to be “soothed” when he learned his next movie, an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, would get the HBO Max treatment.
Other sources say James Gunn, who migrated to Warner’s for The Suicide Squad, “was not pleased” with the news, in part because of a “lackluster formula for compensating him and other profit participants in the film.” Dune director Denis Villeneuve is said to be a big proponent of his pricey Frank Herbert adaptation being seen on the biggest screen possible.
There’s even talk of legal action. On Monday sources were reported to have said that Legendary Entertainment, the production company behind Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong, both HBO Max-bound, may sue Warner Bros. While trepidatious film fans may applaud the chance to watch next year’s biggest movies without risking their lives, things are bound to get ugly very soon. In the meantime, HBO Max — which, to its credit, has possibly the most diverse line-up of the streamers, an embarrassment of riches that includes DC through TCM through Adult Swim through Looney Tunes — is still unavailable on Roku.