Warner Bros to the rescue with HBO Max?

We promised not to write another blog dealing with the state of the movie industry. And just when we thought we were out they pull us back in! (a shameless callback to our Godfather Coda episode).

Last week Warner Bros, much to the surprise of everyone-especially their talent, made an announcement that all of their movies slated for 2021 will be released simultaneously in theaters and the new streaming service HBO Max. This prompted one of Warner’s biggest cash cows Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight Trilogy, Dunkirk, Tenet) to call HBO Max “the worst streaming service” on the planet.  We knew Wonder Woman 1984 was releasing this way on Christmas Day, but their entire 2021 repertoire?  Is this a good idea or the final nail in the theatrical release coffin?  Well, if you ask Christopher Nolan it’s definitely not good.

When we last visited this topic our solution was to shut things down. The state of California is finding this out the hard way as a majority of the state is facing total lockdown, not because they want to but because of the lives at stake if they don’t.

Warner Bros’ proposal falls short of what we believed was necessary. In fact, they have no interest in closing a single theater, but rather want to get their product out by any means necessary. HBO Max is mostly on the radar of hyper Zack Snyder fans with his 12 hour Justice League cut aka Justice League: The Snyder Cut.

HBO Max is diving in a pool without swimming lessons. Netflix is clearly the king of the hill, but Warner Bros is not using their model. Disney+ got off to a great start and combining their own library with Pixar, Marvel, Fox and Star Wars content including the hugely popular Mandalorian it’s not shocking they’ve amassed 86 million subscribers in just over one year.  Not only does Warner not have the content libraries Netflix and Disney have, but they are currently priced higher at $14.99 or a meager discounted rate of $12.99 if you sign up for six months.

Given Warner’s lack of content, is it wise to put their movies for 2021 on the streaming platform at the same time as their release in theaters? Not really and a big part of the problem is the deal was not announced to the stakeholders (directors, actors, producers, etc..) until they heard about it in the press. Perhaps Christopher Nolan and others are a bit ticked off because they stand to lose a ton of money based on deals they make with studios to get a piece of profits from theaters which has traditionally been the biggest slice of the movie pie.

Jack Nicholson, when making his deal to play the Joker in 1989’s Batman took less money up front, but he gets profits for every Batman movie made by Warner Bros.  People may think they’re just being greedy and perhaps that’s true. But does Warner Bros really believe it’s good business to upset a filmmaker such as Nolan who’s had the biggest money-making movies for the studio?  Even Tenet the only blockbuster released in normal fashion this year took in $56 million (which many called a flop because it cost $200 million to make).  The bigger picture was the international take currently at $357 million because of some countries doing a better job of combating the pandemic. As of this writing, the United Kingdom actually began vaccinating people. Vaccinations are still a ways off for everyone and because we’re going at “warp speed” we have no idea of the side effects.

There is no arguing streaming is here to stay and Warner Bros getting their platform up and running is something they have to do to be competitive. But they need to learn from those already achieving some success including Netflix and Disney+ and even they’re not exempt from certain missteps.  

Netflix cut a deal with Martin Scorsese to stream The Irishman, but problems arose when Regal blocked the streaming release because most movie chains have deals with studios to show their films exclusively in theaters before streaming or release on blu-ray/DVD. This hiccup caused problems for Scorsese’s film because of the long runtime and it became more of a joke than a sure-fire academy award winner for, out of retirement actor, Joe Pesci. 

Disney hopefully learned a lesson making Mulan 2020 a “premier access” offering charging subscribers an additional $30 to see the film a few months before “non premier” members. Even CEO Bob Chapek admitted to shareholders this was pretty much a shake down to try to get lost movie theater revenues. Ah, that Disney magic. Chapek claims the strategy was successful, but with no way of demonstrating it and now they’re releasing Pixar’s Soul (which likely would have made a hefty chunk of box office cash) on Christmas day without charging subscribers a “premier access” fee. 

With even the big boys of streaming occasionally still stumbling over themselves, do Warner Bros truly believe giving away their entire 2021 slate of theatrical releases is a gateway to streaming success? Or could the late psychologist/writer Timothy Leary‘s famous quoted line of the 1960s end up being a more fitting headline for the outcome of the Warner experiment?

“Turn on, tune in, drop out”

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