Updated to include Academy member reactions to Warner Bros.' original December 3 announcement.
It takes a lot to surprise us these days. But Warner Bros’ recent announcement—that its next 17 titles will debut in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously—was the plot twist in a movie year we already never saw coming.
It’s quite a character arc, really: the same studio that, just months ago with Tenet, was heralded as theaters’ only hope is now the one dealing them what many see as their harshest blow yet.
We’ve known for a few weeks now that one Warner Bros. film, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984, would be implementing this release strategy. But news that the studio’s subsequent 16 movies will follow suit—among them, Dune, Judas and the Black Messiah, In the Heights, Godzilla vs. Kong and Matrix 4— is arguably the most definitive statement made in an industry that, for months, has been playing it by ear.
Certainly, this move is a substantial (and sustained) encroachment on the window of exclusivity theaters are used to. That hurts. The fear is: If consumers get used to seeing top-tier, tentpole product at home—on the day they premiere and at a competitive price—will they ever return to theaters once all this is over?
But is Warner Bros.’ move really such a dark development, all things considered?
Things haven’t been so great in the absence of top-tier, tentpole product at the theater. Ticket sales have been dismal: Since the arrival of the novel coronavirus, the combined gross of a weekend’s top 10 movies (a number which in 2019 never dipped below $52 million) has a median that barely crosses $1 million. The only films to resuscitate that box office stat to a number north of $15 million have been big studio titles like Tenet and The Croods: A New Age.
With that in mind, perhaps Warner Bros.’ plan is the lesser of two (or even three) evils? The studio could have delayed WW84 for a fourth time, retreating into next spring and summer like No Time to Die, Black Widow and Top Gun: Maverick. Or, they could have hoarded it exclusively for an HBO Max debut (keep in mind Warner Bros. and HBO Max are owned by the same parent company), much like Disney+ is doing for the once theater-bound Soul on Christmas Day. Either decision would have left theaters in yet another release desert. Instead, they chose to make desperately needed content available, and have committed to doing so for another 12 months.
Also, to make up for any hurt feelings on the theatrical side, Warner Bros. has allegedly taken a cut in their share of box office return: When the first Wonder Woman debuted in 2017, theaters kept only 40% of its gross; for the WW84 terms, that number is rumored to be as high as 55-60%.
While WarnerMedia chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff insists that “no one wants films back on the big screen more than [they] do,” Academy members might beg to differ.
In a fiercely persuasive essay published by Variety, Dune director Denis Villeneuve writes that “there is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience” in Warner Bros.’ decision. “It’s all about the survival of a telecom mammoth, one that is currently bearing an astronomical debt of more than $150 billion.” Members of the sci-fi cast like Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa have shared Denis’ essay on social media, adding, “Long live the theater experience!”
The surprise nature of the announcement came off as uncouth to many more directors. As Christopher Nolan shared in an ET Online interview, the news was “a real bait and switch. It’s not how you treat filmmakers and stars. They deserve to be consulted and spoken to about what was going to happen to their work.” And Judd Apatow told Variety, “It’s somewhat shocking that a studio could call what appears to be nobody. It’s the type of disrespect that you hear about in the history of show business. But to do that to just every single person that you work with is really somewhat stunning.”
Gal Gadot, on the other hand, appears to be making the best of the situation, telling Digital Spy: “The truth of the matter is we just didn’t have other better options. We felt like we were sitting on [Wonder Woman 1984] for such a long time… You come to a place where you’re like, ‘OK, I just want people to watch the movie.’”
Director Steven Soderbergh, producer of the upcoming 93rd Oscars, seems to agree. “[Studios] would love to have movies in theaters now. They’re just trying to figure out what to do with these assets that are sitting on the shelf, getting stale,” he tells the Associated Press. “Blockbusters are not going away. Anybody who thinks the studios have somehow lost faith in people going to the movies—no. That’s just too lucrative to ever abandon.”