In early December, it seemed like a dam was about to break in Hollywood. With the pandemic certain to stretch on for more than a year and little hope of theaters worldwide returning to full capacity, WarnerMedia announced that it would release all of its 2021 movies on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously. The massive decision sparked concerns that other major movies would be rebranded as at-home experiences too. But by and large, other studios haven’t followed WarnerMedia’s lead. MGM’s No Time to Die, the James Bond film that was one of the first to be bumped by the pandemic, just announced a new release date of October 8—a reliable sign that Hollywood is still willing to wait, and that it can’t afford not to.
Originally scheduled for April 2020, No Time to Die had already been punted to November 2020 and April 2021, each time in anticipation of when people around the world might feel safe enough to return to theaters. The movie has been seen as an industry bellwether and its latest delay presaged a bigger exodus of titles that were due out this spring: A Quiet Place Part II, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Morbius, and Uncharted are among the movies from Paramount and Sony that have just been moved down the calendar, some to 2022. Disney, which unlike those studios has a robust streaming service, has also ignored WarnerMedia’s example for the most part, though its next animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, will be available online in March for a premium fee, much like Mulan was.
For almost a year now, a pattern has held: Films aimed at families and small children, such as Trolls: World Tour, Soul, and Netflix’s upcoming The Mitchells vs. the Machines (acquired from Sony), can find a big audience online and are thus more easily shunted to at-home viewing. Almost everything else is still perceived as a “big screen” movie that will generate buzz and draw impressive grosses only if it’s available in theaters to huge crowds. The revival of the Chinese box office after a decline in the country’s COVID-19 cases suggests that audiences will be eager to return in droves when they can. Even in North America, Wonder Woman 1984 has earned more than $37 million in theatrical grosses despite being available for free to all HBO Max subscribers for the past month.
All of that is good news for America’s beleaguered theater companies, which continue to muddle forward despite constant chatter about a pending bankruptcy declaration for AMC Entertainment, the country’s largest cinema chain. Today, AMC CEO Adam Aron announced that his company had raised $917 million in financing to steer things through the winter. “This means that any talk of an imminent bankruptcy for AMC is completely off the table,” he said in a statement. The hope is that AMC can stay solvent long enough for audiences around the world to get vaccinated, helping the coronavirus subside, although, as the company soberly noted in its own statement, “no one knows for sure the future course of this and other strains of the coronavirus.”
That uncertainty is why WarnerMedia’s choice to put all its 2021 releases on HBO Max befuddled so many in the industry. While moving Wonder Woman 1984 to the service to encourage new subscriptions seemed reasonable in December, declaring almost a year in advance that films such as Dune (set for October 2021) and The Matrix 4 (December 2021) will premiere online makes less sense. While the strategy is likely to earn sign-ups for HBO Max (a key concern for WarnerMedia), it comes at a giant cost. The profits of a successful global film release are far beyond anything a streaming release can achieve, helping cover blockbuster budgets and pay the salaries of major stars. Wonder Woman 1984 was moved to HBO Max only after WarnerMedia negotiated a huge extra payday for its director and star last year; no such deal was made in the case of Dune or other 2021 films.
WarnerMedia’s move prompted outrage from top-tier directors who advocate for the power of the big-screen experience. Christopher Nolan, a longtime collaborator with the company, called HBO Max “the worst streaming service” and said the decision made “no economic sense.” Denis Villeneuve, the director of Dune, wrote an open letter saying that WarnerMedia’s corporate owner, AT&T, “has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history” by sacrificing the “entire 2021 slate in a desperate attempt to grab the audience’s attention.” Dune was planned as the start of a franchise, but without theatrical grosses, Villeneuve pointed out, further entries won’t seem worth the financial gamble.
In essence, the short-term benefits seem outweighed by a number of long-term problems, the biggest one being retention of talent. Boosting one’s streaming service is hard if big stars and filmmakers don’t want to work with you, and The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Nolan’s long association with WarnerMedia seems to be over for now. Even as the studio insists that its streaming strategy is a one-off response to the pandemic, it might not be able to rebuild those bridges. Seeing the backlash is just another reason the rest of the industry’s major players continue to hold off from anything so drastic. Patience is hard, but it’s Hollywood’s surest path to profitability.