Experts Say Streaming Movie Releases Won't Kill Theaters

Desperate times call for desperate measures

Key Takeaways

  • Warner Bros. announced it would release its 2021 film lineup both in theaters and to HBO Max next year. 
  • Film studios have had to get creative during the pandemic to release content, and the streaming service market makes the most sense. 
  • Experts say movie theaters are not dead and will come back post-pandemic.
 A general view of atmosphere at HBO Max WarnerMedia Investor Day Presentation at Warner Bros. Studios on October 29, 2019 in Burbank, California.
Presley Ann / Getty Images for WarnerMedia

Film giant Warner Bros. announced last week that it would release its 2021 films in theaters as well as on HBO Max. Experts say while the announcement is a big deal for both the movie and streaming industries, it won’t fundamentally change either sector. 

The film studio said it would release a total of 17 movies in 2021, both in theaters (where possible) and on HBO Max, where they will be available for a total of 30 days after the initial release. 

"The Warner Bros. news is interesting because we have seen the one-off with Mulan on Disney Plus and a few others, but this is at a whole new level because you’re talking about a combined billion dollars worth of content," Dan Rayburn, a digital media analyst at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, told Lifewire over the phone. 

A New Way to Watch Movies? 

Warner Bros. calls it a "consumer-focused distribution model" and a "hybrid plan" that will only last a year. Some of the movies the studio will release on HBO Max include Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, and Matrix 4, among others. 

"Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone," said Jason Kilar, the CEO WarnerMedia, in an official press release. "We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all."

Rayburn said it’ll be interesting to see how movie watchers respond to the news and how many will actually tune in on HBO Max. 

"It’s too early to know the impact and see what the consumption is and how it drives demand and viewership," he said. 

HBO Max is just one of the many streaming services available in the highly competitive streaming market. According to No Film School, Netflix still reigns supreme at 183 million worldwide subscribers (as of March 2020), followed by Amazon Prime Video at 150 million worldwide subscribers and Hulu at 30.4 million. 

Someone holding a TV remote control in the foreground, video on demand screen in the blurry background.
IAM-photography / Getty Images

HBO-owner AT&T's third-quarter earnings report revealed that HBO Max has 12.7 million active subscribers, even though 28.7 million customers were eligible to get HBO Max, so it still has a lot of catching up to do to reach "Netflix" status. 

It's not uncommon for these platforms to release their own films, and Netflix has been doing it for years. Many of the movies Netflix has produced—The Irishman, Marriage Story, The Two Popes, etc.—have gone on to be successful and even win awards. 

Disney Plus—which is directly tied to Disney Studios—decided to release its live-action take on Mulan back in September due to the pandemic, and the film version of Hamilton skipped theaters and instead aired directly on the platform over the summer. 

What About Movie Theaters? 

Since desperate times call for desperate measures, film studios have had to get creative with releasing movies during a pandemic. However, not everyone thinks the move to debut studio-produced films on streaming services is a good thing, especially the movie theater industry. 

"Clearly, WarnerMedia intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division—and that of its production partners and filmmakers—to subsidize its HBO Max start-up," Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Entertainment, said in a statement to Deadline. "As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense."

A rear view of people sitting in a movie theater.
Lingkong C / EyeEm / Getty Images

However, Rayburn said that watching movies in a theater won’t cease to exist and that this streaming trend is most likely temporary. 

"I don’t think this will become the new norm because movie theaters will come back," he said. "Maybe all don’t survive the downturn, but people will always want to go back to the movies since there’s something to be said about that unique experience." 

Rayburn added that while the pandemic has been difficult for movie theaters, on the other side of the spectrum, film studios have also been greatly affected and need to do what’s best in their interest, as well. 

"Theaters aren’t opening any time soon, so what are [the studios] supposed to do?" he asked. "While this does take some revenue away from theaters, theaters aren’t open." 

So while you may be watching the Matrix 4 on your couch next year, we will all eventually get back into the theaters again to experience movies the way they were meant to be watched.

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