Just a few weeks ago, we learned that Wonder Woman 1984—whose release has been delayed multiple times in the face of continued theater closures due to the pandemic—will keep to its new December 25 theater release date. The catch: it will also debut on HBO Max that same day. Now WarnerMedia has announced that it will follow a similar concurrent digital/theater launch plan for all the movies slated for release in 2021, Variety reports. It’s yet another staggering blow to movie theaters still struggling amidst a raging pandemic that shows no sign of slowing down, particularly in the United States.
“After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months,” said CEO Jason Kilar in a statement. “Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.”
Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate of films will be available to HBO Max subscribers for 31 days, after which they will only be playing in theaters. Once the traditional time has elapsed between theater and home release, the films will be available to rent via the usual online platforms (Amazon, iTunes, or Fandango). The current slate includes 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, and Matrix 4.
In a statement, WarnerMedia chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff referred to the model as a “unique one-year plan,” given the unprecedented challenges inflicted on the industry by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This is not expected to continue into 2022. Per Sarnoff’s statement:
We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group. No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.
With this unique one-year plan, we can support our partners in exhibition with a steady pipeline of world-class films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see our amazing 2021 films. We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors, and we’re extremely grateful to our filmmaking partners for working with us on this innovative response to these circumstances.
Just how many movie theaters can survive another year like 2020 remains an open question. So far, only one chain has responded to the news. An unnamed Cinemark rep told Deadline Hollywood: “In light of the current operating environment, we are making near-term booking decisions on a film-by-film basis. At this time, Warner Bros. has not provided any details for the hybrid distribution model of their 2021 films.”
At least HBO Max subscribers won’t have to pay extra to watch these films, unlike the Disney+ strategy for Mulan. The streaming platform charged a $30 premium purchase to Disney+ subscribers, although it was released theatrically in territories where the streaming platform is not available. (FYI, Mulan will become available free of charge to all Disney+ subscribers this Friday, December 4, 2020.)
Wonder Woman 1984 will face off against Disney-Pixar’s animated film Soul, which is launching on Disney+ the same day. (It, too, is included as part of the standard Disney+ subscriptions.) And for those (like Ars’ own Samuel Axon) who had been put off by the prospect of watching Wonder Woman 1984 at a measly 1080p with no HDR and sluggish bit rate, Director Patty Jenkins tweeted that Wonder Woman 1984 will be the first film to stream in 4K HDR (UltraHD) on HBO Max when it premieres. It will also stream with Dolby Atmos audio. Hopefully that bodes well for the digital future of the 2021 releases, too.