The movie world was rocked Thursday when Warner Bros. announced a bold new release strategy for its 17-title 2021 slate, debuting its films simultaneously in theaters and the streaming site HBO Max, where they will play for one month.
The studio had already announced a similar policy for the superhero blockbuster “Wonder Woman 1984,” which will hit big and small screens on Christmas Day. But in deference to the coronavirus pandemic that has upended lives, businesses – and, most likely, to help shore up business at one of its sister companies – Warner executives have faced the facts: While some theaters are open and some moviegoers feel comfortable going back into them, there are still great swaths of the American public who prefer to keep watching movies at home.
It’s sobering, if not heartbreaking, to imagine enjoying such cinematic extravaganzas as “Wonder Woman 1984,” “The Matrix 4,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights” and Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of “Dune” on anything but the biggest screens. But Warner Bros. realized that the better part of valor was to make them accessible to the widest number of people.
As my colleague Omari Daniels noted when he heard the news, for movie studios these days, “there are no good or bad decisions – just decisions.” And Warner Bros. made an agonizing but understandable one.
“No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do,” WarnerMedia chairwoman and CEO Ann Sarnoff said upon announcing the new policy. “We know that new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will probably operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.” (Tellingly, just hours before, the country’s biggest theater chain, AMC, had announced it was selling 200 million shares of stock to bolster its liquidity.)
I’ve been tough on Warner Bros. in the past, most recently regarding its decision to screen Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” for critics only in theaters, without the option of viewing links. That stance had nothing to do with my reverence for the theatrical experience. I took issue with a policy that, at the time, felt out of step with the reality of public health and changing behaviors during a pandemic – the same reality the studio is now bravely acknowledging despite inevitable pushback and pressure to hold the cinematically correct line.
Detractors suspect that WarnerMedia and its corporate parent, AT&T, threw theaters under the bus to funnel business to sister company HBO Max, which has been short on subscribers since launching in May. And they worry that the new release plan – which the studio insists will only be in effect for 12 months – will strike a fatal blow to an exhibition industry that has already been battered as people become increasingly accustomed to watching movies at home.
The pandemic has exacerbated the trend. Baby boomers and Gen Xers, the most likely theatrical holdouts, are now committed binge-aholics. Their children never acquired the habit of paying for the things they watch and listen to. The 90-day window that theater owners have long insisted was crucial to their survival now looks as though it will be reduced to an ever-narrowing crack. Between transformed viewing habits and Warner Bros.’s capitulation to them, purists are understandably afraid that the ripple effects will kill off theaters faster, and continue long after those that survive have reopened their doors.
But theaters, while embattled, are nowhere near obsolete. As any parent of a teenager can tell you, movies are still the preferred excuse for adolescents to get out of the house with their friends, especially if a new “Avengers” installment or horror flick is involved. Even the most committed fan of cult-hit series is itching to go out and see something – anything – that they can’t watch half-prone in bed. Once a vaccine is available and uptake has hit critical mass, the pent-up demand will make itself felt, whether it’s people flocking to the next superhero blockbuster or sleeper hit a la “Magic Mike” or “Girls Trip,” good movies that turned into great fun once the communal experience kicked in.
As tempting as it is to think that studios are eager to bypass theaters and reap a movie’s box office revenue entirely for themselves, they also know that those theaters provide valuable marketing for their products, whether in the form of coming attractions, lobby promotions or reviews. Even if movies wind up making most of their revenue when they get to on-demand and streaming platforms, their enduring value is still created and unleashed during theatrical runs.
And, if streaming has taught us anything, it’s that infinite choice is only as good as the curators who help us find the good stuff. At their best, theaters function in that trusted capacity – especially the independent art houses and small regional chains that are best positioned to survive the uncertainties of 2020 and, just maybe, open their doors in 2021. (About 60% of American theaters remain closed because of COVID-19 concerns.) Small, personal and deeply connected to their communities, these venues have not only been able to fundraise during this period to keep their staffs paid, they’ve also created vibrant virtual platforms that have kept their loyal audiences engaged and challenged until they find a glide path to recovery.
That glide path, of course, won’t be smooth: Too many theaters will have shuttered before we get back to popcorn-as-usual. And studios and exhibitors will each have to give up something they hold dear, either in the form of more generous terms or shorter exclusive windows. (A realistic middle ground was struck by Universal earlier this year, when the studio agreed to play its movies for three weekends in AMC and Cinemark venues before going to streaming.)
Warner’s decision might be condemned in some quarters, and accepted with weary resignation in others. But, ultimately, whether theaters come back as impersonal multiplexes or bespoke spaces for connoisseurship, it will be audiences who make or break them.
The pandemic has demanded a new form of civic-mindedness from citizens who see it as their duty to protect each other by wearing masks, maintaining physical distance and sacrificing fellowship right now for the greater good down the road. With luck, we’ll see similar cinema-mindedness from viewers conditioned more than ever to getting what they want, when they want it, without leaving the comfort of home. And with luck, filmmakers will make movies that are too big, beautiful and blazingly fun to watch to be limited to the living room.