Following an announcement by Warner Bros. that its 2021 slate of movies will all debut on HBO Max at the same time they open theatrically, AMC claims WarnerMedia is attempting to boost the success of its streaming service at the expense of beleaguered theater chains.
Today, Warner Bros. Pictures Group made an unexpected announcement about its roster of films slated for next year. Rather than releasing the films with exclusive theatrical windows or sending them straight to digital, the company has instead landed on what it calls a “hybrid distribution model.” It’s the same release model being used for its anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 film: The film will debut on Christmas Day not only in theaters but also as an exclusive on WarnerMedia’s streaming service HBO Max. The hybrid model will apply to 17 major titles scheduled for next year, including Dune, Matrix 4, and The Suicide Squad, among others.
It’s not clear what terms were discussed with theaters prior to WarnerMedia’s announcement. Adam Aron, CEO and president of AMC Entertainment, said in a statement that the theater chain had “already commenced an immediate and urgent dialogue with the leadership of Warner on this subject.”
“These coronavirus-impacted times are uncharted waters for all of us, which is why AMC signed on to an HBO Max exception to customary practices for one film only, Wonder Woman 1984, being released by Warner Brothers at Christmas when the pandemic appears that it will be at its height,” Aron said. “However, Warner now hopes to do this for all their 2021 theatrical movies, despite the likelihood that with vaccines right around the corner the theater business is expected to recover.
“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 start up [sic],” Aron continued. “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.“
Cinemark, meanwhile, did not appear to have a clear idea about how the hybrid release model would impact its own theaters.
“In light of the current operating environment, we are making near-term booking decisions on a film-by-film basis,” a Cinemark spokesperson said in a statement by email. “At this time, Warner Bros. has not provided any details for the hybrid distribution model of their 2021 films.”
When asked whether the films would be free to subscribers or available for an additional premium fee, as with the Premier Access platform on Disney+, a WarnerMedia spokesperson told Gizmodo that there will be “no additional charge to HBO Max subscribers.”
An exhibition executive who asked not to be named so as to speak freely about the announcement said that the response from theaters has been “mixed.” Many theaters just want movies right now, and it’s possible that WarnerMedia has negotiated terms that are favorable to theaters. Having a movie at all for a theatrical release would likely be preferable to having no movie because a studio has opted for a PVOD release, for example.
But the executive stressed that theaters do not expect the hybrid model to be a “precedent” for how the business operates going forward, adding it could be less likely for such a model to become standard in the future when there are a greater number of films in the pipeline. Still, at least at present, things do not look especially great for theaters—some are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. And the slippery slope of ever-eroding windowing practices doesn’t exactly help soften the blow.
“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,” WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar said in a statement. “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.”
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