With The Suicide Squad, The Matrix 4 and Dune amongst those heading to streaming at the same time as cinemas, a look at Warner Bros’ game-changing plans – and their UK impact.

Yesterday evening, the film industry was rocked for what felt like the thousandth time this year. Warner Bros, the studio behind the Harry Potter films and the DC Extended Universe, announced that it would release the new movies on its 2021 slate both in cinemas and streaming via HBO Max at the same time.

The programme, which currently comprises 17 films, will be available in theatres as well as on the company’s in-house streaming service on the same day, and will continue on both platforms for a limed time. First launched on back in May, HBO Max is owned by AT&T’s WarnerMedia and features several popular films and TV shows including the animated Harley Quinn series and the latest adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Currently the service is only available in the United States.

Speaking to Deadline, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar justified this momentous decision by noting the prevalent and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everyone we talked to in the medical community suggests that this will persist in terms of consumer behaviour and the medical situation for a bit of 2021, if not all of 2021″, he argued.

It seems that, even with a vaccine on the way, the expectation from the studio is that business will remain stagnant for much of the coming year. Given that Warner Bros was the one studio to attempt a major theatrical release over the summer with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, it can hardly be accused of not trying the other option.

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Whilst Tenet did good business in the UK, its worldwide gross inevitably fell far short of original expectations. Now, the company has calculated that cinemas alone cannot recoup production and marketing costs. Its latest dramatic move then seems designed to uphold the theatrical experience (which Kilar remains a defender of), while allowing those who need to isolate the opportunity to view new releases.

This is obviously huge news for cinemas, studios and film goers alike. Since 2010 cinema chains such as Odeon and Cineworld in the UK have only carried films with a release window of 74-76 days before the film can be made available digitally (with exceptions for smaller releases). Films produced by streaming services such as Netflix’s Roma and The Irishman have been denied a wide theatrical release when the company was unable to arrange a 30-day cinema exclusivity window. That’s why Netflix films that get a cinema release only ever playing in independent venues.

Now though, with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping audiences out of the auditorium and studios constantly delaying releases, it appears that the dam has finally broken on the exclusivity window.

Cinemas have been suffering since January 2020, when thousands of venues were closed across mainland China in response to the pandemic. As COVID-19 proceeded to spread across the world, box office fell heavily (appreciating that are other tragic ramifications of this awful virus).

In response, several studios pulled major releases including No Time To Die, A Quiet Place: Part 2 and the aforementioned Tenet. As infection rates rose national governments instituted lockdowns, fully closing the doors of cinemas for the duration.

Without box office revenues coming in several studios pushed their major properties to early, and in some cases exclusive, digital release – The Invisible Man, Artemis Fowl and Trolls: World Tour being among some of the bigger names available on-demand. In fact no small amount of controversy was caused when NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell announced that Trolls: World Tour had earned over $100 million dollars through digital release and going forward the studio would seek to operate the same hybrid model announced by Warner Bros. This prompted backlash from AMC and Regal Cinemas who argued that such a distribution model would breach existing agreements and threatened to boycott all Universal films until a compromise was later arranged.

It’s an argument that seems quite quaint now, given where we are.

Thus far the response to Warner Bros’s decision has been mixed but less incendiary.

A spokesperson for the Cinemark chain in the US  commented that “In light of the current operating environment, we are making near-term booking decisions on a film-by-film basis.”, noting that no details such as a timetable were available for Warner Bros’ model.

Far more piqued was AMC CEO Adam Aron, claiming that “Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of [the company’s] profitability…to subsidize HBO Max…[AMC] will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense.”

Given that pre-pandemic cinemas were already struggling to compete with streaming services and other forms of home entertainment, you can understand the concerns. Given the high cost of ticket prices, drinks and popcorn, the expense of the theatrical experience becomes hard to justify compared to a $15 per month subscription.

The stock prices of major cinema chains did not go up on hearing the Warner Bros news.

As for the movies themselves, the films included in the proposed hybrid model include some of the most heavily anticipated big names of the coming year. They include Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (pictured, and heck, imagine seeing that for the first time on a mobile phone), an adaptation of the seminal science fiction novel by Frank Herbert; The Suicide Squad, James Gunn’s sequel to the 2016 DC Comics film starring Margot Robbie; and The Matrix 4 the long-awaited fourth instalment in the Wachowski sisters’ groundbreaking sci-fi franchise, seventeen years after The Matrix Revolutions in 2003.

Other releases include Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, Tom & Jerry and Space Jam: A New Legacy.

These are not small movies. These are the very films that big cinema chains had been counting on to lure people into multiplexes. As we wrote yesterday, it’s a strange new world for cinemas.

Warner Bros’ schedule for this model will kick off on Christmas Day in the US with the digital release of the long-awaited Wonder Woman 1984.

The sequel to 2017’s critical and commercial hit Wonder Woman, the film has been one of the most anticipated releases of 2020 as a key indicator of the direction the DC Extended Universe intends to take going forward.

Wonder Woman 1984 was expected to be a one-off, a testbed for this way of releasing films. For Warner Bros for the next year, it’s the new normal.

As such, in the States the film will be released theatrically and digitally on December 25th, following a staggered international release (UK cinemas will screen the film from December 16th).

Following this announcement there was speculation over whether the film would be available digitally in the UK given that cinemas were largely closed in many regions.

It was only reported earlier this week that Warner Bros. and Sky were in negotiations to host the film, either as a premium on-demand purchase or as part of the Sky/Now TV subscription service. That whilst Wonder Woman 1984 will be getting a theatrical window outside of the US, it may be down to around a month.

Similar speculation is now taking place over the digital release for the rest of the Warner slate outside of America. The announcement thus far makes no mention of international releases and Kilar’s comments to Deadline stress that “what we announced today is just for the United States.”

HBO Max is set to launch in Latin America and parts of Europe in the latter half 2021, though a fixed timetable is still forthcoming.

What’s clear is there are no immediate plans to bring it to the UK, with HBO instead committing longer term to its existing relationship with Sky.

As things stand, it’s looking very likely that films available on streaming in the US will go through a more traditional release pattern in the UK, with cinema just getting a much shortened window of exclusivity. Obviously there’s likely to be a piracy knock-on there too, and it’d be naïve not to acknowledge it.

For the minute nonetheless, it remains to be seen if Warner Bros. will make the likes of Dune, The Suicide Squad and In the Heights available to UK audiences through Sky, or come up with a broader agreement that involves other platforms too. Might this too be the start of the path to bringing HBO Max to Britain?

More immediately though, whatever agreement Sky and the studio reach over Wonder Woman 1984 is likely to form the UK template for the next year.

Furthermore, whichever method of digital distribution Warner Bros chooses the company remains confident in the viability of the theatrical experience. “I believe ten years from now, 20 years, 50 years from now, there is going to be a robust theatrical marketplace…” Kilar insisted, “…very few things that can compete on a Friday night when you’re going out with someone that you love, to a cinema, and being told a great story on a gigantic screen…”.

However, with cases continuing to rise in the US and many cinemas still closed across the UK it is uncertain if that experience will return in the near future.

Nonetheless, whilst Warner Bros is thus far insisting that its latest move will affect 2021 releases in the hope of going back to some kind of normality, it’s hard to see this metaphorical genie ever being put back entirely in a metaphorical bottle…

Certain images: BigStock

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