On Thursday, Warner Bros. announced that their entire 2021 slate of films, which includes The Suicide Squad, Dune, Matrix 4 and a whole host of other films, will be premiering on HBO Max for a 30-day window, alongside a traditional domestic release (or as traditional as this can be right now considering the circumstances of an ever-worsening pandemic). This news has sent shockwaves through the industry, with many on social media lamenting this will likely be very bad news for movie theaters. Obviously, no one knows if that will be the case long term, but for now this decision seems to make sense for the studio. Let me try to explain why.
On Thursday afternoon I had a lengthy phone conversation with a Warner Bros. studio insider and from that conversation I got a better idea of what their thinking is with this rollout (which they were clear to point out is domestic only, and temporary). After listening to what this studio insider at Warner Bros. had to say, I do believe that they made a serious effort with “theatrical only” with Tenet, and if any studio knows what works and what doesn’t right now as far as “theatrical only,” it’s Warner Bros. And with the infectious disease experts saying things are about to get a lot worse in the United States, I get the sense they made a decision based on that forecast and their experience domestically with Tenet. In reality, spending the money to market films for people who can’t even see them doesn’t make a lot of financial sense.
My biggest takeaway from the whole conversation with the Warner Bros. insider was that it’s just a bad situation for literally all of us these days and they just made the best decision they thought they could for the foreseeable future. As for what this means beyond 2021, I honestly don’t think anyone really knows yet. So, ahead, let’s just say this is an informed opinion on what I gather is going on with this decision for 2021.
Let’s go back to the release of Tenet, a movie that for all intents and purposes performed fairly well internationally, but underperformed in the United States, by a filmmaker who is notorious for his approach to a “theaters only” distribution. (I personally was critical of the decision for that movie to play only in theaters.) This past March and April were a nightmare in New York City, where I live, and the thought of going to a movie theater seemed both frightening and ludicrous. By the time Tenet came out over Labor Day weekend, COVID cases were at a relative plateau and the conventional wisdom was that the movie theaters that were closed in New York City and Los Angeles would be reopening soon. Of course, that never happened. Here in New York City, movie theaters are still closed and, to this day, I have not seen Tenet. Though I still saw all the marketing for Tenet, which went wasted on me since I was never in a position to see the movie unless I left the state.
And therein lies the crux of a problem, spending millions of dollars on marketing for a movie that many people aren’t even able to see. And as we head into the winter, by all accounts, things are about to get a whole lot worse. The prediction by the experts is that by the time Wonder Woman 1984 comes out at the end of December, we could have, if we don’t already, a full-on health crisis on our hands and the idea of going to a movie theater in the United States will not be realistic for a lot of people.
Look, for me, I can’t be critical of Warner Bros. for releasing Tenet in theaters (which I very much was), then turn around and be critical of them for letting people see their movie slate, safely, in 2021. Like I said, I still haven’t seen Tenet and it’s literally my job to see movies and I have had no way to see it without traveling out of state. That, to me, seems unsustainable right now. I love movie theaters. I can’t wait to get back to a movie theater. But even with a vaccine on the horizon, experts still think that things won’t start looking like normal again until at least the third quarter of 2021.
And so, again, spending loads of money to market films for people who can’t even see them just doesn’t make financial sense.
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