AT&T-owned WarnerMedia shook up Hollywood when it announced on Thursday that it will release all of its 2021 Warner Bros. films to its HBO Max streaming platform at the same time the movies hit theaters.
After one month of streaming on HBO Max, the films will leave the platform and continue to play in theaters, the company said, calling the plan a “unique, consumer-focused distribution model” and a “strategic response to the impact of the ongoing global pandemic.”
Yahoo Finance industry sources say the move was driven by Jason Kilar, the founder and former CEO of Hulu, who became CEO of WarnerMedia in May and quickly initiated an executive shakeup.
The experiment will begin with “Wonder Woman 1984,” which WarnerMedia had previously announced will hit HBO Max and U.S. movie theaters simultaneously on Dec. 25.
The 2021 Warner Bros. lineup has 17 movies, including “Dune,” “Matrix 4,” “In The Heights,” “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” and the “Sopranos” prequel film “The Many Saints of Newark.”
WarnerMedia’s move is an obvious effort to boost subscriptions to HBO Max, which launched in May, and to compete with Netflix, and it is also the latest pandemic-prompted salvo struck by film studios against the traditional “theatrical window” theaters enjoyed.
A survey last month by Yahoo Finance and Harris Poll found that 81% of Americans have not gone to a movie theater since before March, even if theaters have reopened in their area. 56% of respondents said they are concerned about getting COVID-19, while 20% said they fear theaters are not being cleaned well enough, and 12% said they don’t want to wear a mask while watching the movie. But another 22% said there was no movie they wanted to go see, and 19% said they’d rather stream movies at home.
Early on in the pandemic, Universal made waves when it put “Trolls World Tour” straight to digital rental for a $20 fee. Universal made more from rentals in three weeks than the first Trolls movie made in theaters in five months. Movie theater chains were furious.
Since then, Disney followed suit in September by pushing “Mulan” straight to Disney+ for a $30 digital purchase fee (with limited success) and delayed three Marvel movies deep into 2021, while Warner Bros. delayed “Wonder Woman 1984” for a third time, both studios signaling that they do not see moviegoers returning to theaters in large numbers for a long time, even though theaters have been permitted to reopen in most of the U.S.
As COVID-19 cases have continued, the situation for AMC and other chains like Cinemark is dire, and WarnerMedia’s latest move makes the outlook worse.
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers the streaming wars. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.