Every 2021 Warner Bros. movie will be on HBO Max and in US theatres at the same time, the studio announced Thursday. Two weeks ago, when its parent WarnerMedia decided to release Wonder Woman 1984 — a major superhero title expected to gross a billion dollars at the box office — day-an-date on streaming and in cinemas, everyone thought it was a one-off. But that was the just the start. Warner Bros. is sending several potential billion-dollar titles to streaming (if they are not delayed), including the likes of James Gunn's soft reboot The Suicide Squad, Keanu Reeves-led The Matrix 4, and Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi franchise starter Dune.
And that's not all. Warner Bros.' expected movie line-up for 2021 includes crime thriller The Little Things with Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto; Judas and the Black Messiah starring Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield, a live-action/animated Tom & Jerry, the monsters-driven Godzilla vs. Kong, the video game adaptation Mortal Kombat, Angelina Jolie-led Those Who Wish Me Dead, horror sequel The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, stage musical adaptation In The Heights, LeBron James-led sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy, sci-fi drama Reminiscence from Westworld's Lisa Joy, James Wan horror Malignant, The Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, tennis Williams biopic King Richard, and Clint Eastwood's neo-Western Cry Macho.
That is a packed line-up and it signals WarnerMedia's intent to grow HBO Max — the streaming service launched back in May and is currently exclusive to the US — at the cost of billions of box office dollars. Of course, that's assuming that theatres will return to normal in 2021, and Warner Bros. believes that is not happening in the US any time soon. Those aren't my words, WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff said so herself in a statement (below). While this is great for Americans, it's annoying for everyone outside the US, since HBO Max has very limited international launch plans at the moment. India is not part of it, so far, so we'll still have to catch these movies at a theatre.
Even in the US, all the Warner Bros. movies will be available for 31 days only on HBO Max — in 4K HDR — as is the case for the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984. The studio expects them to play much longer in cinemas globally, especially given that cinemas have been facing a lack of product since March.
While WarnerMedia is certainly not the first to upend the theatrical distribution model, this is the boldest strategy yet for the future. While Disney+ has delivered some surprises this year — in Hamilton, Mulan, and Pixar's upcoming Soul — Disney is keeping all of its biggest titles from the Marvel Cinematic Universe secure for the cinemas. Universal Pictures has a deal in place with AMC Theaters that allows it to put its movies (such as the next Fast & Furious, F9) on pay-per-view 17 days after a release in theatres. But that's nowhere close to what Warner Bros. has proposed.
“We're living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group,” said Sarnoff. “No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know 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 likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021. With this unique one-year plan, we can support our partners in exhibition with a steady pipeline of world-class films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters or aren't quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see our amazing 2021 films. We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors, and we're extremely grateful to our filmmaking partners for working with us on this innovative response to these circumstances.”
WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar added: “After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia's motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months. More importantly, we are planning to bring consumers 17 remarkable movies throughout the year, giving them the choice and the power to decide how they want to enjoy these films. Our content is extremely valuable, unless it's sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.”
Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich said: “This hybrid exhibition model enables us to best support our films, creative partners and moviegoing in general throughout 2021. We have a fantastic, wide ranging slate of titles from talented and visionary filmmakers next year, and we're excited to be able get these movies in front of audiences around the world. And, as always, we'll support all of our releases with innovative and robust marketing campaigns for their theatrical debuts, while highlighting this unique opportunity to see our films domestically via HBO Max as well.”