WW84 at Home? Dune on the Couch? Huh?

Hi, all! Hope everyone has been keeping safe and sound recently. It’s been a weird week, but let’s give it up for Pfizer and BioNTech, huh? I’m going to get political, just saying it’s an incredible scientific feat and hopefully this means COVID’s eviction notice gets put up soon. Anyway, the topic I wanted to discuss today is one of the most, well, controversial in a long slew of pandemic-related changes in the entertainment world. We’ve seen rumors of movie theatres been doomed since the start of this pandemic, but so far it has seemed many chains have tried their best to work with studios to maintain a healthy and sustainable relationship. This week, though, HBO Max and WarnerMedia really frustrated virtually everyone in the film world.

For those who are not aware, this all pretty much started last month involving ‘Wonder Woman 1984’. Distancing itself from Disney, WarnerMedia announced the film would be released Christmas Day both in select theaters globally and officially on the HBO Max streaming service. On paper, eh. The film was bound to come out at some point, and not only that, but it needed to come out for financial reasons (if anyone is curious, the longer a film sits in the post-production phase at a studio, the more interest it accrues, thus becoming a problem for the studio). It is a monumental shift, though, because it marked an even more alarming foreshadowing for movie theaters. I know in my case, I would LOVE to watch ‘WW84’ in theaters. Heck, it needs to be. But, until I feel safe myself and around other people (which, here in Denver, I don’t), I will happily open my USC-gifted HBO Max subscription and watch the film at home. Possibly with a small group. Again, this was only one film. It’s also important to note that, according to Rebecca Rubin of Variety, “WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar emphasized the company’s commitment to the exhibition community. Theater operators have been especially grateful to Warner Bros. during the pandemic because the studio took a bold bet in the summer to open Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in cinemas despite enormous headwinds facing the box office. ‘We believe in theaters because hundreds of millions of fans around the world value going to the movies,’ Kilar said in a statement. ‘And for as long as fans seek out the theatrical experience, we will be there to serve them with great movies in partnership with exhibitors,’”. So, clearly, it’s not like Warner Bros. and their subsidiaries have been actively destroying any moviegoing experiences, right?

Well, some would now argue otherwise. This week, WarnerMedia chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff (and company) revealed their plan to unveil their ENTIRE 2021 slate of films both in theaters and on HBO Max — and yes, you guessed it, on the same day(s). She called it a “unique one-year plan”, and said “We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group… No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.” Some of the films include ‘The Suicide Squad’, ‘The Matrix 4’, ‘Dune’, and many more (both blockbuster and smaller-budget).

Part of this move is rightfully due to the uncertainty of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, news of incoming vaccines loom happily over us all, but until the majority of Americans and the global population can receive their respective doses, the world is continuing to build creative solutions to various problems. One of those problems is the institution of movie theater experiences. In this respect, I appreciate WarnerMedia offering customers and audiences the chance to stay safe and still enjoy these highly anticipated films. However, it is no shock that this move is also a promotion tactic for the abysmal HBO Max streaming platform. Don’t get me wrong, I have sat many an hour watching DC films and Cartoon Network throwbacks. But, if we have learned anything from the streaming experience, it’s that a lackluster launch leads to a lackluster performance. HBO Max got hit hard this year thanks to COVID, and this is their way of trying to gain new customers going into the new year. This motivation has rubbed filmmakers, actors, and other creatives the wrong way though.

Christopher Nolan, director of ‘Tenet’, is just one of many creatives who offered his own opinion of the plan. “Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction,” (he even called HBO Max the “worst streaming service”). Judd Apatow, another established filmmaker, publicly argued, “[The plan] creates a financial nightmare, because most people are paid residuals — they’re paid back-end points. What they get out of it for years and years of hard work is usually based on the success of their films. And so now what does it mean to have a movie go straight to streaming? How do they decide what to pay you? Do you even have a contract that allows you to negotiate, or is it really just up to them at this point? It raises thousands of questions, which I’m sure are very complicated,”. What he’s talking about is that with traditional film releases, people involved with said films get their pay in a simulated, pre-determined way from the minute they sign a deal. Then the box-office profits are mitigated their own, etc. It’s complicated, but it has been a certain way for a reason. With this emergence of same-day streaming releasing, actors and others are left in the dark as to how they will be financed given their films are already signed and (I believe) ready to go. Even CAA President Richard Lovett said these kind words — “[WarnerMedia] made a decision to release our clients’ movies in an unprecedented manner — a simultaneous release theatrically and on your own streaming service, HBO Max — without consideration of our clients’ desires or contractual rights. It plainly violates the rights of a number of our clients who hold approval rights over distribution plans and streaming selections,”. Yikes.

If anything, I’m concerned for movie theaters. I know the normal world is so close, but if films are now able to be viewed at a theater or at home, how would audiences react if suddenly in 2022, this option was taken away? Clearly there would be no ground to that, even though WarnerMedia is trying to promote that idea. It just does not seem feasible. I’m also pretty sure many people will not want to go back to movie theaters for a very long time, and so that complicates things even more if they rely on these same-day releases to streaming platforms. The good thing is, Warner Bros. is getting dragged through the mud now, so hopefully that will energize Hollywood enough to prevent any fatal damage from happening.

I want to go back to theaters. I really do. And I will when I feel safe to do so (probably after I get vaccinated). This decision is incredible, and I’m curious to see what happens in the coming weeks and months when these films do come out.

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