I wasn’t intending on offering my two cents to the debate regarding the recent news about all Warner films slated for release in 2021 being made available to stream on HBO Max concurrently to their theatrical runs. After all, I feel I have already touched – if only in passing – upon this subject on at least three occasions (you will find them here , , ). However, seeing how the discourse surrounding this news is evolving needs some commentary.
First of all, this development isn’t exactly surprising. In fact, the film industry needs to do something in order to adapt and survive the still raging pandemic. Between Tenet making a financial loss, Disney moving Mulan and Soul to Disney+ and recently Wonder Woman 1984 being announced to ‘blaze the trail’, is it were, in offering a hybrid release, it was a matter of time before someone blinked. This massive stalemate between film studios holding releases back out of fear of losing money, cinemas worldwide starving and considering widespread closures, and discombobulated moviegoers who started dividing themselves into camps, had to come to an end eventually. What I object to, however, is the manner in which it did.
It would seem natural to assume that the relationship between film producers and film exhibitors should be symbiotic in nature, especially given the fact that up until very recently, film studios in the US were not allowed to own cinemas (so as to avoid creating a monopoly). This you-scratch-my-back-and-I-scratch-yours situation dictated the manner in which films were rolled out for public consumption. At least until streaming services have elbowed their way to the big boy table and started messing with this status quo. But seeing how Warner unilaterally decided to make such a fundamental move makes this relationship between studios and cinema chains look less like a symbiosis between a shark and a remora attached to its belly, but rather like a Mexican standoff. And it looks like someone’s brains are going to paint the wall any second now.
I don’t like the fact I have to find myself in a position where I agree with Christopher Nolan, but after he chimed into this conversation, it became abundantly clear what the intentions behind this radical move might have been. This is not about saving Hollywood, continuing to supply high quality entertainment to starving masses of film fans, or adjusting to the landscape shifted by the arrival of COVID. This is about saving HBO Max from impending demise. It must be acknowledged that the rollout of this streaming service, which is by the way owned by Time Warner and AT&T, was at the very least underwhelming. Despite best intentions, it is nominally a small fish in a big pond where rules are dictated by Netflix, Amazon, and recently Disney. Everyone now realizes that pandemic will come to an end sooner or later, especially with global immunisation programs being slowly rolled out, so I don’t think I will continue to subscribe to the notion that the film industry must adjust to living with COVID. It only has to do so in the short term because a return to relative normalcy is just round the corner.
Warner is using the pandemic as an excuse to save their ‘failing streaming service’ (in Nolan’s own words) by demolishing the notion of a theatrical window, which completely undermines the entire business model of cinematic exhibitors. Cinemas have already been in peril due to the dearth of releases and the fact they have been often mandated to stay shut by public health officials. They are already deep in the red and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out it won’t take much to tip them over the edge. Nobody has been consulted on this move and cinema chains have rightly expressed their ire at the way this has been handled, because this decision directly impacts on their projections for 2021 and is likely to generate considerable uncertainty among investors who might in turn withdraw their money and force cinema chains to collapse. All because Warner is trying desperately to breathe life into HBO Max. While it’s OK to show willingness to sacrifice their own bottom line, it is not acceptable to sacrifice an entire industry of cinematic exhibition (which employs many thousands of people) and then blame it all on the pandemic.
And people are cheering because it gives the vast majority of American film goers the opportunity to watch Matrix 4 or Dune without risking their health. Hell, they can watch these massive blockbusters on piddly-ass screens while having a shit! This is the kind of freedom they are championing. They pump their fists at the thought they won’t have to pay through their nose for a small popcorn and a diet soda (which is how cinemas make their money since they turn most of their box office revenue over to distributors), or bear the existence of other people around them. They don’t seem to care about people losing jobs and livelihoods so long as they can indulge in their favourite entertainment immediately, without having to wait.
Some say this is a good opportunity for the film industry to reinvent itself and adapt to changing times. While in principle this sounds like a good idea, it is at best premature and at worst completely ill-thought to commit to massive changes seemingly to survive a short-term downturn whose end is within sight. And even so, do we actually need a change so radical that cinemas need to be effectively put to sleep? I know attendance has been slowly declining over the years (even though box office revenue has been rising anyway), but you don’t write off a car when a check-engine light comes on. You look under the bonnet and fix it. The theatrical business model is not in need of radical overhaul, but maybe a minor adjustment. I sincerely believe there is a place for cinemas in the increasingly digitized and on-demand world of popular culture, just as there is a space for live music performance and theatre. And we need to remember that.
Let’s be clear here: HBO Max is only available in the US. The rest of the world is getting ‘regular’ theatrical releases, but the impact of this decision does not end at the US border. We live in a globalized environment and have been reminded of this on numerous occasions already. When the US economy has a cold, the world gets the shits. Similarly, while profitability of US theatre chains will be removed by this decisions, there will be knock-on effects to this. Other studios might follow suit. Disney might see it as a confidence booster to remove their films from theatrical rosters altogether. Finally, companies like AMC and Cineworld are global too. If their US box office take is tampered with or removed, cinema closures might not be limited to American venues. Repercussions will be global.
This is why cinemas must be spared. The pandemic will blow over eventually. If we care about cinema, we should make our voices heard. What is more, we should make an effort – if it is safe to do so – to go and see something on the big screen, even if it is Die Hard, or Home Alone. Cinemas need our help especially now when the film industry itself is turning its back on them.