HBO Max will stream movies like The Matrix 4, Dune and all of Warner Bros. new movies set for theatrical release next year, making them available to watch at no added cost online the same day as their debuts on the big screen. Each film will be on HBO Max, which is $15 a month, for one month, and then the movies will be available exclusively in theaters.
It’s the latest in a series of titanic shifts in how movies make their way to you. In the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, studios and cinemas are experimenting with new release strategies that would’ve been inconceivable a year ago, especially for the most epically expensive of films, like Wonder Woman, Dune and The Matrix.
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Warner Bros. is calling the approach a “hybrid model” and says the unprecedented strategy is a response “to the impact of the ongoing global pandemic, particularly in the US.” All films will be available in 4K Ultra HD and HDR on HBO Max. Once the films leave Max, they’ll follow the regular route from theaters to home viewing, like online rental and purchase, DVD and Blu-ray and eventually streaming again.
The move comes three weeks before mega-budget movie Wonder Woman 1984 is set to stream on Max the same day it debuts in theaters in the US. Warner Bros. is essentially morphing its Wonder Woman release strategy into its new normal for next year.
HBO Max is owned by telecom giant AT&T, through its WarnerMedia entertainment unit — which also operates Warner Bros.
Also Thursday, HBO Max confirmed it has killed off its weeklong free trial three weeks before Wonder Woman 1984 drops to stream. That means if you want to stream Wonder Woman or any of these other movies, you either have to pay $15 for at least one month of the service, or you need to figure out if your regular HBO subscription includes a free upgrade to a Max account.
Other big Warner Bros. movies set to come out next year include expected box-office heavyweights like Godzilla vs. Kong, Hamilton-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights and The Suicide Squad, James Gunn’s latest take on that DC Comics crew. Retro revivals like Mortal Kombat and Space Jam: A New Legacy are on the slate too.
The pipeline also includes The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Reminiscence, Malignant, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard and Cry Macho.
Ann Sarnoff, the chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios (where Warner Bros. resides), characterized this as a one-year-only plan.
“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions,” said Sarnoff. “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.”
She added that this “hybrid model” is a way to support cinemas with a steady pipeline of films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters or aren’t comfortable returning to theaters the chance to watch the movies too.
“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,” she said.
Jason Kilar, the CEO of the entire WarnerMedia unit, said that the company’s content “is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone.”
“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,” he said. “More importantly, we are planning to bring consumers 17 remarkable movies throughout the year, giving them the choice and the power to decide how they want to enjoy these films.”
Unthinkable a year ago
The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered cinemas around the globe and forced studios across the board to delay big-budget films for months and years, with no certainty in sight for when theaters can reopen at large or when audiences will feel comfortable sitting in windowless, enclosed rooms for hours. Now, Hollywood has been making unprecedented changes to how it releases movies, norms that have been sacrosanct for decades. Though different studios are taking different approaches, all of them are making major defections from the rigid rules that usually keep new movies only in theaters for 75 days or more.
Set to hit HBO Max on Dec. 25, Wonder Woman 1984 is the biggest movie yet in the pandemic to be released straight to streaming, by any studio.
But before that, Universal released its DreamWorks Animation sequel Trolls World Tour as an online rental in April, and Disney put out its live-action remake of Mulan on Disney Plus in September. A key difference is that both those movies carried an extra cost to watch them online. They were available under a model known as premium video on demand, a special early online release that requires customers to pay a high price to unlock the title for home viewing.
Universal, which also makes movies in the Fast & Furious and Jurassic World franchises, has been striking deals with major cinema chains that allow the company to dramatically shorten how long its movies stay exclusively in theaters. Universal movies from its namesake studio, DreamWorks Animation and Focus Features can start being rented online as soon as 17 days after their big-screen premieres, under the new deals.
Similar to Warner Bros. latest hybrid strategy, Disney has switched a clutch of its movies from being theatrical releases to being Disney Plus originals, most notably Hamilton in July and its upcoming Pixar movie Soul, also set to drop on Dec. 25. But none of those movies comes close to the $200 million budget for Wonder Woman 1984, and no studio has made nearly this scale of a commitment to release an entire year’s slate of movies online the same day as theaters at no added cost.
Up until recently, studios have mostly been delaying their biggest, most expensive franchise films until next year or beyond, hoping for a future when cinemas reopen widely and audiences feel comfortable streaming into theaters in droves. Like many of us, studios seem to be accepting that normal life won’t be returning anytime soon.
What’s new to stream for December 2020