How will Warner Bros. streaming impact moviegoing? Three questions.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
Cardboard cutouts of movie characters block seats to prepare for social distancing at the 60-seat independent theater, Arena Cinelounge, in Los Angeles, June 17, 2020. But with theaters in LA currently closed, the business has been operating a drive-in since Dec. 1, 2020.

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Would you rather stay home and see that first-run film or go to the theater? Beginning with the latest Wonder Woman movie, fans of Warner Bros. Pictures have the choice. But not everyone is happy.

Streaming service HBO Max will offer each Warner Bros. movie at the same time that it’s released in theaters, because both companies are owned by the same parent. WarnerMedia called the strategy temporary and creative. Hollywood creatives and theaters are skeptical. The strategy has fanned fears that moviegoing as we know it is over.

Why We Wrote This

It’s a shake-up to how this business is normally run: One entertainment conglomerate is releasing each of its 2021 movies simultaneously in theaters and on its own streaming service.

Paul Moore, professor of sociology and a media historian, doesn’t think so. “Going to the movies is always about going out in public, with friends and family, but also with strangers,” he says. “That excitement of a sold-out blockbuster ... that’s something that we never get with television.”

With more shows made with streaming in mind, Dr. Moore also says, “What will probably happen is that movies will get smaller and movies will end up more like TV. The boundary between a television series and a blockbuster movie could collapse.”

Warner Bros. Pictures will debut its entire 2021 movie slate – which includes sci-fi flick “Dune,” the highly anticipated “Matrix 4,” and Sopranos prequel “The Many Saints of Newark” – on HBO Max. This is the first time a major studio has decided to put a year’s worth of would-be blockbusters online. In a Dec. 3 announcement, the chief executive of WarnerMedia Studios, which owns both Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max, called the move a “creative solution to address our fans, our filmmakers, and our exhibitors.” Not everyone agreed. Actors, directors, and theaters were quick to denounce Warner Bros.’ move as a bait-and-switch tactic to buoy an underperforming streaming platform, and for moviegoers and moviemakers alike, this streaming shakeup leaves many questions.

Q: Can I see these 2021 films at the theater?

That depends. Warner Bros. will release each of these 17 films online and simultaneously in theaters, and after the first month, a title will leave HBO Max and play exclusively at cinemas. Outside the United States, they will roll out as usual.

Why We Wrote This

It’s a shake-up to how this business is normally run: One entertainment conglomerate is releasing each of its 2021 movies simultaneously in theaters and on its own streaming service.

So if your local theater is open, at full or partial capacity, the films may be available. If viewers are comfortable attending the movies, and willing to pay roughly $20 for a ticket (a monthly HBO Max subscription is $14.99), they can watch Timothée Chalamet face alien sandworms on the big screen.   

For American audiences, the decision offers flexibility and positions in-house streaming services as a viable distribution mechanism, a trend that predates the pandemic but has accelerated.

Q: What does this mean for theaters post-pandemic?

Although Warner Bros. calls the hybrid release schedule a “temporary solution,” critics worry it could carry over into 2022 if it helps turn HBO Max – lagging behind Netflix by roughly 180 million subscribers in the third quarter  – into a real challenger. Even before Warner Bros.’ announcement, industry leaders were wondering what the moviegoing experience would look like as theaters reemerge from the pandemic with tougher competition from streaming services, and now this latest streaming strategy has fanned fears that moviegoing as we know it is through.

Paul Moore, professor of sociology and media historian at Ryerson University in Toronto, doesn’t think so. He says the rise of VHS in the 1980s inspired similar apocalyptic predictions, but home videos never replaced a night at the multiplex.

“Going to the movies is always about going out in public, with friends and family, but also with strangers,” he says. “That excitement of a sold-out blockbuster ... that’s something that we never get with television.”

And it’s more than fuzzy feelings, he adds – it’s part of the business. Since the ’80s, movie ticket sales have only been the tip of the iceberg of studio revenue. Professor Moore says most profits come from rebroadcasting, movie rentals, and everything else that happens after a film leaves theaters. Yet the theatrical release is crucial for generating that momentum.

“It’s really not clear if [streaming platforms can] generate enough buzz and awareness to have a franchise like Toy Story or Star Wars,” says Dr. Moore.

Q: How will streaming affect future movies?

Even if moviegoing survives, a hyperemphasis on streaming could change the industry in other ways.

James Schamus, professor of professional practice at Columbia University School of the Arts, says the straight-to-streaming setup would certainly complicate the moviemaking process, in part because streaming platforms are famously opaque about their program ratings.

“If you make a hit movie, it’s just one more piece of content in a gigantic pile and [without ticket sales] it’s very difficult to understand the value of that success,” says Dr. Schamus.

And just as TV has become more movielike on Netflix and other streaming platforms, Dr. Moore imagines that boundary will continue to blur as movies are made with streaming services in mind.

“What will probably happen is that movies will get smaller and movies will end up more like TV,” he says. “The boundary between a television series and a blockbuster movie could collapse.”

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