Following a very bad year 2020 for the film industry, next year already shows signs of a potentially worse year, even before it has even started. Worldwide box offices have fallen billions of dollars during the pandemic as cinemas have closed at closed or limited capacity, while the popularity of streaming has skyrocketed, but until now the return of cinema attendance has seemed like part of a waiting game. But this wait for the full reopening of multiplexes and the release of delayed blockbusters to save the industry now increasingly seems like an unfulfilled dream, as Warner Brothers today announced that every single one of its films will debut simultaneously in cinemas and on HBO Max in 2021.
And the sheer volume of potentially huge moneymakers on the list is staggering. These include Tom & Jerry; Godzilla vs. Kong; Mortal Kombat; The Magic: The Devil Made Me Do It; In the Heights; Space Jam: A New Legacy; The Suicide Squad; Dune; The Many Saints of Newark; King Richard; Cry Macho; and Matrix 4. Prior to this announcement, the eagerly awaited Warner Bros. 1984 Warner Bros. production Wonder Woman, a duel theater/HBO Max was released on Christmas Day in mid-November.
HBO Max and Warner Bros. called this move a “strategic response” to the coronavirus pandemic because it no longer seemed feasible to keep putting off release dates only to push them back in the face of an ongoing public health crisis that would last much longer than many had predicted. The release plan foresaw that the films would only be available on HBO for one month after initial release, so Warner could still make additional profits if someone did not subscribe to HBO’s premium streaming service and later decided to rent or buy digital copies or DVDs. In theory, the same movies could be shown in theaters with extended runtimes or new releases if the COVID 19 vaccine and prevention protocol eventually proves successful enough to open more theaters with more seats available.
For the independent cinemas, of course, this means getting lost in the discussion about large multiplex chains that go bankrupt or close down locations altogether. One must also consider the consequences for the actual independent films, many of which are only partially brought to the cinemas by the support of the studios financed by blockbusters. This trickle-down effect seems likely to be much more devastating for those who make films outside multi-billion dollar companies.
It remains to be seen whether any of the other major film conglomerates known as “The Big Six” – 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Walt Disney Studios – will follow Warner Bros. But even if they all do, it seems a little premature to write off the live moving-going experience completely as dead – as many critics quickly did after today’s news was made public. It will again be possible to watch movies in the cinema, as well as to eat indoors and attend major music festivals. But for now, the waiting game will be to wait and see how many cinemas will be left when the pandemic is actually over.