In a previous article published on November 7th 2020, I went over the impact that COVID-19 has had on the movie theater industry. Between thousands of employee layoffs and practically all films being delayed into the next year, the situation has been looking grim for the industry. An industry that was already struggling on account of streaming services growing more and more dominant in everyday life. It’s only been a month since that article was published and already the landscape has been shaken up in major ways.
With the pandemic intensifying so early into the year, not many films were able to release before lockdowns and stay at home orders started up. As a result the amount of films released in theaters this year has been minimal. One of the films that actually did release this summer was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. A much anticipated film, the action thriller was initially set to release in mid-July, before being delayed to late July, and then to the middle of August, until finally to the end of August in select international markets before finally releasing limitedly in the United States in early September. To the surprise of few, the film underperformed at the box office. It’s reported that Warner Bros. lost 100 million dollars on the film, and this fact may be the straw that broke the camel’s back with regards to what happened just a few months later.
In early December 2020, Warner Bros. announced that their 2021 film line, consisting mostly of delayed 2020 films, would be coming to HBO Max for a limited time simultaneously with theatrical releases. Wonder Woman 1984 will kick off this practice on Christmas Day and all of the studio’s major films will follow this model, even the biggest blockbusters like Dune and The Suicide Squad. This announcement blindsided consumers and filmmakers alike, as Warner Bros. had not told anyone of their plans, even movie theater chains. Despite the fact that all these films are still seeing concurrent theatrical releases, discussion has ramped up about whether or not this is the death knell for the movie theater industry that so many anticipated.
Things are obviously still very up in the air. The Pfizer COVID vaccine is still in its very preliminary stages of distribution. It’s still uncertain just how long it will be until enough of the population is vaccinated that things can begin to return to some semblance of normalcy. As a result, it’s likely that these theatrical release won’t see a ton of revenue, at least in the United States. Other countries with a better handle on the spread of the disease have already returned to sporting and entertainment events. Some of these films will do well overseas but many rely on a hefty domestic box office intake to really make back the bulk of their budget. It’s very possible that these theatrical releases will see Tenet level returns, possibly even less if enough people opt to just watch the film from the comfort of their own home instead.
There’s a twinge of irony here with Tenet’s possible role in facilitating this move by Warner Bros. Christopher Nolan has long since been one of the most outspoken supporters of movie theaters. His films are done in such a way to make maximum use of the visual and audio components of the theater going experience and has rejected a lot of the push to streaming. Part of the reason Tenet got delayed as much as it did was to ensure that it still released in theaters as Nolan didn’t want the film to be first experienced at home on the couch. Even ignoring the health risks of putting a large movie out and encouraging people to gather in a theater during a pandemic, this move by Nolan seemed like a bad idea. Each time the movie was delayed it ended up costing the studio a few hundred thousand dollars. In a cruel twist of fate, Nolan’s insistence on a theatrical only release may have ended up directly convincing the studio that theaters weren’t working and films needed to stream as well.
The HBO Max decision has also had some unexpected ramifications within the film industry itself. Legendary Pictures was the co-financer for two films slated to go to streaming with Warner Bros, those being Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong, and is currently considering legal action against WB, seeing the move as a violation of their agreement, as well as being an announcement that they were given little to no prior warning about. Denis Villeneuve, director of Dune feels similarly, preferring to wait for a proper, full theatrical release. This is a story that’s still developing. Earlier it had been reported that both Netflix and HBO Max had been vying to get the rights to stream Godzilla vs. Kong. If Legendary Pictures pulls out of this agreement with Warner Bros, the film could wait for theaters or go straight to Netflix instead, but there’s no way of knowing just yet.
Warner Bros. has stressed that they don’t plan on doing away with theatrical releases. They’re insistence of same day theater and streaming releases helps prove that. Once there’s more of a lid on the pandemic maybe they will go back to just theatrical releases. However, if Warner Bros sees middling theatrical revenue but a massive rise in subscriptions from the upcoming slate, they may very well shift their focus. A lot of this is also dependent on other studios. Disney recently announced a wide array of new content for their Disney+ service, but is still confident in eventual theatrical releases for many of their biggest films. Just like every other aspect of the coronavirus pandemic, the situation seems to shift radically from week to week and sometimes day to day. The studios might make another huge decision or there may be a new huge breakthrough in combating the disease, but there’s really no way of knowing.
What is known is that the HBO Max decision is a severe blow to the movie theater industry. This next year will be the true test of just how effective streaming services are. If theaters do stick around, will they adopt more of a specialized niche akin to an opera house or a traditional theater for seeing plays? As I said in my first article on the topic, I love the movie theater going experience, and I’ve expressed my displeasure with streaming in the past as I much prefer physical media. The world has changed however, and the world right now is in a situation where not only is going to a theater no ideal, it’s potentially deadly. No amount of love for the theater going experience would make me risk getting a dangerous disease. I’ll have to adapt, and so will theaters if they want to stick around. HBO Max presents an interesting challenge and the power will ultimately fall to the consumers to decide. Is streaming the convenient thing everyone wants, or will people be willing to wait to regain that theater going experience.