There are many questions to answer after Warner Bros decided to release its entire list of films for 2021 both in theaters and in streaming. The main, most striking and provocative is: how many cinemas will disappear?
Most things change quickly in 2020, the year we all were forcibly introduced to the concept of exponential growth. Few things, however, have been as quick as WarnerMedia's decision to change its entire approach to theatrical releases, and perhaps that of the entire industry, to streaming movies.
Just two weeks ago, the giant said that Wonder Woman 1984, Warner Bros. 'most expensive 2020 project, would be released simultaneously in theaters and as a movie streamed on the HBO Max service.
This news alone would be enough to induce observers to resort to salts, like Uncle Scrooge after a faint.
But we went further: now WarnerMedia announced which will stream everything. Yes, it will expand this strategy to its entire slate of 2021 films including Dune, Denis Villeneuve's Matrix 4 and the highly anticipated Space Jam sequel.
Streaming movies, the concept of "window of exclusivity" shattered
It is almost a desecration. The once-sacrosanct concept of the window of exclusivity, often months long between a movie premiere and home release, has become irrelevant.
No intermediaries. The company will take its films and send it directly from Warner Bros to HBO Max without relinquishing any exclusive control to theaters.
Now it seems a choice dictated by necessity, in a period of closed rooms, but it will have far-reaching consequences well beyond the era of social distances.
The pandemic is not going away and neither is its impact on films
Not to forget, Warner Bros. is the same studio that jumped through hoops to make Tenet the first big hit of the post-lockdown era. After months of delays and poor box office sales, oddly enough the strategy of trying to wait for the pandemic to end and / or get over it with sheer willpower didn't work. Tenet grossed only 350 million euros worldwide. 800 would have been needed to balance costs and advertising.
It is probably in order not to repeat this debacle that WarnerMedia now focuses on prudence. That is, betting that the new coronavirus will tangibly affect our lives for the foreseeable future and plan accordingly.
Moreover, it is a scenario close to objective reality: Vaccines are unlikely to be widely distributed until mid-2021 at best. And theaters will not be able to operate safely or at full capacity until there is widespread immunity.
WarnerMedia is fortunate to have an integrated backup plan. A privilege that restaurants, private spaces and assorted small businesses do not have. But he is resorting to Plan B with the full knowledge that Plan A simply won't be on the table for months, and possibly years.
Is this the end of cinema as we know it?
It's the obvious, distressing question, and it must be said: theaters have no power over this. Cinema chains have already fought tooth and nail against any potential decrease in the window of exclusivity. It happened not long ago, for example, with Netflix on streaming films when even in contention for the Oscar, such as Rome and The Irishman.
Before the pandemic, cinemas could threaten not to allow a given release on their screens, putting potential earnings and winning prizes at risk. Now, this leverage simply no longer exists.
They are unable to operate in many countries and are half empty in others. For this reason, already in the summer, the window of exclusivity was reduced to just 17 days from the cinema to the streaming film. Now the WarnerMedia announcement eliminates the window altogether, an offering that cinemas already weakened they can just take it or leave it.
A future of streaming and on demand movies
And it could be just the beginning. Just as Tenet has become a "guinea pig" for other studios debating what to do with their 2020 releases, other companies with their own distribution mechanisms are likely to follow the WarnerMedia model.
What better way to launch Paramount Plus? And Disney + didn't launch Mulan?
I leave you with another half a kilo of questions about this horizon of streaming movies. Can all this be undone, when is it safe to go back to the cinema again? How many rooms will disappear? Will the pent-up demand bring the numbers back to what they used to be? Or will cinema become a niche experience for movie buffs while the average fan stays on the couch?
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