Warner Bros. releasing its slate of 2021 films on HBO Max isn’t the end of cinema

"Dune" is one of Warner Bros.' scheduled 2021 releases. (Screenshot via YouTube)

The coronavirus pandemic has affected many industries, and Hollywood is no exception. Between increased social distancing guidelines, various closures around the country and low audience turnout, movie theaters have lost a considerable amount of money.

Warner Bros. recently announced that all of its 2021 films will be debuted simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming platform HBO Max, a “strategic response” to the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic including movie theaters’ limited capacities. 

While the average cost of a single movie ticket in the second quarter of 2019 was $9.26, HBO Max is only $14.99 a month. Not only would subscribing to HBO Max probably end up a better deal than repeatedly going to the theater, it would also give you access to all of its original programming. It sounds like a no-brainer — just suck it up and choose HBO Max, right? Well, it’s not that simple. And some people, including directors Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan, don’t think it’s a good idea.

In a passionate essay for Variety, Villeneuve shared his thoughts: “There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here,” he wrote. “It is all about the survival of a telecom mammoth, one that is currently bearing an astronomical debt of more than $150 billion.”

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“Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home,” Nolan said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “And they are dismantling it as we speak.”

In an interview with NPR, Nolan said this decision affects more than just theaters but also crew members and actors who depend on unions for residual payments.

Even AMC Theatres takes issue with the Warner deal. AMC announced that, unless it finds $750 million, it will be out of money by mid-January due to the unpredictable movie landscape. AMC and Cinemark might just have to follow in Regal Cinemas’ footsteps of its temporary closures if they can’t survive the current movie ecosystem, although it’s not ideal. But the real losers in the situation will be independent and arthouse theaters, though initiatives such as StreamLocal and Kino Marquee are helping out.

This distribution deal is impacting every facet of the film industry, and there is truth to what critics are saying — of course, it’s about making money.

But streaming is too often looked down on, especially by older people and important figures in the film industry. It’s not like people aren’t going to the movies because they favor streaming over the theater experience; it’s because we’re well over half a year into a global pandemic, and cases are rising again. Many people didn’t feel comfortable going to theaters a few months ago and who says they will feel comfortable going now or in the near future?

Adding streaming as an alternative to a theater release is the closest the industry can get to normal right now. Personally, as someone without reliable transportation and a typical college student budget, having this streaming option is a godsend. So many people that can’t afford to take a trip to the theaters, whether that be because of its monetary or health cost, will benefit from this.

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People who are at risk or who simply don’t want to go to movie theaters will be able to cozy up in front of their TV and watch Dune instead of leaving the house (during a pandemic) to see it. This distribution deal gives people who couldn’t even think about seeing a movie in person the chance to be a part of the movie experience, albeit the streaming version.

A way theaters could get through this situation is by continuing the private-party screening deals. Attendance will likely stay low, but their options are limited. Theaters and directors can’t control what studios do and if movies were only distributed in theaters, directors would most likely be upset their films didn’t perform well at the box office. There aren’t really any perfect options for anyone — both routes will have their downsides.

The resolution to COVID-19’s impact on movie theaters is not cut and dry. The best thing anyone can do is to support the movie industry, whether that be by watching movies in theaters or on your TV.

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