WarnerMedia officially announced its entire 2021 slate would debut on HBO Max simultaneously with their cinema release dates. The move comes on the heels of their announcement that Wonder Woman 1984 would make the same move.
Amid rising COVID-19 cases, restricted theaters unable to capture the magic of moviegoing, and skyrocketing use of streaming services, the future of cinemas have never been more in doubt. Once a consistent national pastime, the act of going to the movies has been decimated by the pandemic.
It’s not exactly a surprise, but the two-hour shared experience, surrounded by large crowds, has devolved into a quiet, lifeless experience, with wet-seats, the smell of disinfectant abound, and anxiety about everyone having their masks down to munch on popcorn. Streaming, on the other hand, has none of that—the highs or the lows. While the theatrical model rested their hopes that distributable vaccine would bring the experience back, studios have not waited in shifting their strategies.
In March, cinemas across the United States shut down, and to date, 104 films have been delayed from their original release schedules. But in some cases that wasn’t the only outcome. Several lower-budget and animated movies went directly to streaming, and saw some substantial success. Trolls World Tour earned over $100 million through on-demand, the largest digital debut for a film in history. Disney+ followed up with moving Mulan to a hybrid streaming, pay-per-experience model, with the focus on getting new consumers to sign up.
While theater chains knew streaming was growing quickly before the pandemic, they never really saw them as an existential threat. In 2019, theaters enjoyed the most successful year in box office history. Nine billion-dollar box office hits led the year, as consumers made it clear that the theatrical experience still mattered. All that has changed.
Before the pandemic, Netflix was evolving into a media superpower that was moving beyond streaming’s roots—in old content and to replace DVD collections and movie rentals— and into the space previously occupied by network and cable television, and even theatrical films. That change accelerated in recent years with Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other services. Soon enough, streaming overtook television. In a study from Deloitte, close to 70 percent of audiences paid for internet video services, compared to 65 percent who paid for cable.
Flush with cash, Netflix too aim at cinematic feature films. Prestige filmmakers began to create content exclusively for streaming. Roma, which won an Academy Award for best international film, was a Netflix exclusive. In 2020, two Netflix films, The Irishman and Marriage Story, were nominated for Best Picture.
In the last year alone, Disney, WarnerMedia, Apple, and NBC, all launched new streaming services. And the same year saw classic cinemas falter. Studios punted on their release dates and theater chains took serious losses. AMC reported a $2 billion loss; Regal, $1.5 billion. Neither has been optimistic about the immediate future. AMC has warned investors that it could run out of cash by early 2021.
Streaming, on the other hand, is not likely to fade. Netflix originally projected to bring in 14 million new subscribers in the first two quarters. They brought in 26 million. Disney, which projected it would need four years to reach 60 million subscribers after its launch in late 2019, hit that threshold in August. HBO Max, which launched in May, reached its goal of 30 million subscribers as well.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek announced the company would make streaming a cornerstone focus. Feature film budgets are now being green-lit specifically for Disney+, from traditional cinema franchises such as Star Wars and Marvel. WarnerMedia has been investing hundreds of millions of dollars in DC Comics projects for HBO Max, and Netflix has been signing prestige cinema directors such as David Fincher to multiyear exclusive deals.
While the cavalry may arrive for theaters in the form of releases such as Avatar, The Batman, and Spider-Man 3 (in addition to what everyone hopes will be the top release of 2021, the vaccines), the cinema experience might have already been altered for good. There’s just no guarantee the paying public will return to movie theaters and studios are not keen to wait. The overwhelming push to streaming for the biggest studios is a grim sign for the theatrical model, even in a post-vaccine world.
With tentpole films such as Tenet underperforming and general audience trust in theaters low, the affordability, safety, and convenience of streaming big-budget original shows and films of their favorite characters—with the comforts home—might mean that there’s no market for theaters to bounce back from. But maybe the social connection of moviegoing will be strong enough to lure audiences back over time.
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