Warner Bros’ plan to release their 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and HBO Max was met with both shock and consternation with folks worrying if this would be how studios approached distribution for the future, but it looks like WB intends to wind back the clock next year. In an interview with Recode, CEO Jason Kilar says that when it comes to WB’s biggest movies in 2022, they’ll go to theaters first and then to HBO Max.
“I think it’s very fair to say that a big, you know, let’s say a big DC movie … it’s very fair to say that that would go exclusively to theaters first and then go to somewhere like an HBO Max after it’s in theaters,” says Kilar.
The hybrid model was a wise move for WB when it was announced late last year when there was still uncertainty about how much longer we’d be dealing with the pandemic, how long it would take for people to get vaccinated, and how long it would be before they felt safe returning to theaters. WB could no longer sit on all of their movies and keep pushing back release dates, so they went with the hybrid models. But it’s safe to assume that in 2022 we’ll be on the other side of the pandemic, so then it’s contingent for studios to decide how they want to proceed.
The new normal appears to be that studios still want to send their biggest movies to theaters, where they need that kind of cultural footprint and limited availability to drive up interest and expand ancillary revenue streams. However, the days of the 90-day release window are likely over, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a film like The Batman runs for 45 days in theaters before ending up on HBO Max. It’s a similar strategy to what other studios have mapped out with Universal and Cinemark having theatrical/PVOD releases or Paramount sending some releases to Paramount+.
The question now becomes how Warner Bros. wants to balance its blockbusters with its smaller movies. What happens to prestige titles? Would films like Argo and A Star Is Born still get theatrical releases, or are they now going straight to HBO Max? Have we now created an environment where only the biggest movies get theatrical releases and the streaming services gobble up everything that doesn’t have a chance of making $1 billion worldwide? We’ll have to wait and see.