Well, by now, you’ve probably heard the big news: Warner Bros. announced earlier on Thursday that all of their 2021 titles — 17 as of this writing — will debut day-and-date on HBO Max and in theaters. They’ll remain on that service for 30 days, and then respect the normal theatrical window after that time, and Warner Bros is clear in saying that it is only for 2021 titles at this particular moment, and only in the United States. I’m just going to be frank and honest with you here: I’ve been despairing about these decisions in the past, like when Mulan moved on to Disney+ or when Wonder Woman 1984 piloted the strategy for the AT&T-owned studio, but, honestly, I’m not freaking out about this one here. In fact, I think this might actually be the best possible result for theaters and the studio in the interim between a vaccine brings about herd immunity and we adapt to some sort of normal again (I refuse to say “new normal,” because I’m not a public-service-announcement).
Here are the titles on that list:
The Little Things Judas and the Black Messiah Tom & Jerry Godzilla vs. Kong Mortal Kombat Those Who Wish Me Dead The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It In The Heights Space Jam: A New Legacy The Suicide Squad Reminiscence Malignant Dune The Many Saints of Newark King Richard Cry Macho The Matrix 4
Putting beside the initial thought of “well, looks like the telecom finally snapped the whip” one is hit with, this news actually seems to have some silver-linings to it. It feels like WB has learned a key lesson from both the NFL and MLB, where the most important goal was to push forward, making hefty concessions to The Gods of Profit in order to have their seasons progress and finish on time, even if they were a bit truncated (it may take an actual nuclear war for the Super Bowl delayed, and even then, Patrick Mahomes would probably still be throwing touchdowns as the ICBMs rained down on Florida). There’s only so much they can do with a schedule that’s been perpetually delayed, and this release schedule ensures that the movies will still come out, regardless of whatever the issue is.
This will enable a steady release schedule of top-tier titles and allow for skittish chains like Regal to reopen their doors with the insurance that last-minute rug-pulling delays in response to a tick up or spike in the numbers won’t fuck over the business further, and coupled with the different deals that are being cut between studios like Universal and other chains, you’re likely to see a sturdier theatrical calendar in 2021, precisely because that risk has been mitigated. Even if theaters in California are shut down because the Mayor of San Francisco ate at the wrong Michelin-starred restaurant and infected all of City Hall, Californians will still be able to see Dune on time, and their counterparts across the country will be able to keep their doors open without fear of its release date getting pulled.
It’s also possible that Warner Bros. only feels emboldened to do this because their golden goose, Matt Reeves’ The Batman, has been pushed to 2022, and that the money spigot will be turned on then as the skittish have received their two doses of vaccine (or their single dose, depending on whether or not Johnson & Johnson gets theirs approved in 2021), the masks are fully off and in whatever waste receptacle of your choice (I am personally holding out hope for that wonderful Summer 2021 bonfire, post-vaccination), and the popcorn smothered in delicious yellow chemical sludge flows like the Spice Melange. Because frankly, when you look at their slate, there are approximately three viable titles for WB in the line-up in terms of having legitimate blockbuster status: Matrix 4, The Suicide Squad, and The Conjuring 3.
We can argue all day about whether or not Dune or Space Jam will be profitable, but the important thing to note about the former is that it was always accompanied by a high-ticket superhero offering like Wonder Woman, and the latter will really depend quite a lot on the population’s love for LeBron. But back to the Big Three: Each of them is inherently limited by the fact that they are sure to be rated R, which cleaves off a sizable portion of their audience. And if family moviegoers do return to the multiplex in droves in 2021, they’re going to see No Time to Die, Black Widow, and Fast 9 before Mom and Dad consider hiring a sitter for Matrix 4.
Even then, one needs to consider the downstream effects that this will have: National ad campaigns will start up for these films again, even if it’s in a truncated fashion. Warner Bros. can send their awards candidates to festivals again, knowing that they’ll be able to release them regardless of what happens with shutdowns or dimmer switches, or theater closures. Those are just small-scale examples of impacts this will have on other sections of the film world, and this means that people will still be able to be employed in those roles. Couple that with financial help from a Biden administration (who might do something about restoring the Paramount Decrees while they’re busy trust-busting), and this might actually be a decent trade-off, even though I do wish that there was an element of profit-sharing there, like in the deal that AMC and Cinemark have with Universal. The chains will be fine (even more so, as Deadline points out, if they wind up being able to charge as low as $1 a ticket and make money off of rentals and popcorn). The problems will remain for independent cinemas, and real aid needs to come to them, the same that it does for venues of all stripes, and we should continue fighting for them, no matter what the giants do.