HBO Max Gets the Picture

It’s the end of the movie theater as we know it…

Weeks after the Warner Bros. Pictures Group announced it would release Wonder Woman 1984 simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on Christmas Day, the company made a staggering new announcement: It will employ that same hybrid distribution model for its entire 2021 slate of films.

That release slate consists of 17 films, including Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong, In the Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad sequel, and The Matrix 4. And viewers will be able to choose whether or not to see them in a theater or from the comfort of their own couch for a month from release day, as long as they have an HBO Max subscription.

Warner Bros. also killed off the trial period for HBO Max Thursday, meaning consumers are starting off paying a full subscription price right out of the gate.

“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,” WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group Chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff wrote in a Thursday news release. “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.”

Many film lovers and other theater chains did not see it as a win-win. AMC Entertainment CEO Adam Aron, who wrote last month that “AMC is fully onboard” with the Wonder Woman announcement, wrote Thursday that “Clearly, Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidize its HBO Max startup. As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense. We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business.”

After the news broke, AMC and Cinemark stocks both dropped substantially by the closing bell Thursday.

And over on Twitter, where nuance is nowhere to be found, film critics and moviegoers alike exhibited Chicken Little level screeches of calamity.

The sky is falling

“dumb and bad,” IndieWire critic David Ehrlich tweeted Thursday about the HBO Max news.

“i feel like cinema is going to become a niche/elite thing out of pure economic necessity and that’s really weird and sad,” Vanity Fair TV critic Sonia Saraiya tweeted.

True, this news does not bode well for megaplexes, many of which have declared bankruptcy. Most normal people, if given the choice, will stay home and stream something on TV instead of going to the theater. North American box office receipts were down in 2019 from 2018, and movie ticket prices are the most expensive they’ve ever been. It’s easy to see the logic in paying less than $20 a month to see multiple first-run movies from the comfort of your couch.

But these movies are still being released in theaters, and most of the films Warner Bros. has on its slate for 2021 are massive tentpoles that are begging to be seen on the big screen. And even if cinema does become “niche,” that also might not be a bad thing in the long run. Vinyl records were niche for a long time, and now they’re completely mainstream. What’s more, many people want to go back to the theater, and Dune or a new Wonder Woman or Matrix might finally get some (socially-distanced) butts back in seats.

‘We live in a twilight world’

Many people blamed Christopher Nolan and his zeal for the theatrical experience of seeing Tenet in person for Thursday’s HBO Max news.

“ALSO (I’m still angry about HBO Max) the AUDACITY for Warner Bros. to encourage cinemas to open up for Tenet, saying about the importance of the cinematic experience, a move which caused cinemas to lose money (!!) in the long run and close temporarily, and then DO THIS ? Fuck off,” Twitter user @harrietnking tweeted.

“Did Nolan just kill cinemas? 😂😅” Twitter user @frederikwolter tweeted.

Sure, Tenet flopped, but something weighed down that much by expectation might not have fared well even in non-pandemic times. Staking the salvation of an entire medium on one film probably wasn’t a great idea. Twitter philosophizers figured that Tenet’s financial woes were the sole reason behind the hybrid move, and that’s probably part of it, but the truth is that distributors have been trying to figure out a way to do a hybrid model for a very long time.

Napster guru Sean Parker tried it with The Screening Room in 2016. A Palo Alto-based startup tried a riff on it a year later. Universal got close this year, and Disney+ tried and failed with a premier access version of Mulan. HBO Max just figured out how to get the right mixture of ingredients going.

In HBO Max’s case, it helps when the company that owns the distributor also owns a streaming service. Now that the Paramount Decrees are a thing of the past, studios can also own their own theaters again. And now that there’s a streaming platform for everything, it would make sense for a studio to integrate that into its business model. It was the perfect opportunity waiting for someone to strike.

To the future

Warner Bros. says its hybrid model is only a one-year plan. Many moviegoers and business owners are hoping that by the end of next year, a coronavirus vaccine might have gotten everything somewhat back to normal.

One theater programmer is excited for the brave new world this HBO news brings. Houston Alamo Drafthouse programming director Robert Saucedo writes over at What To Watch that the theatrical experience isn’t going to die, but it will significantly change.

“People can cook hamburgers at home, but McDonalds remains extremely popular,” he writes. He envisions a moviegoing environment that’s both very broad — theme park-type environments where studios, free from the Paramount Decrees, can own everything in the park and show their own films for a fee — and very niche, with smaller independent theaters acting in their communities the way independent bookstores do today, with lots of local support.

“People will want to be told stories and, for the right stories, people will want to experience those stories with other people,” he writes.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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