Warner Bros kicks off a new battle in the post-Covid war between studios and cinemas

Warner Brothers have launched a new salvo in the battle for survival in the film business, by announcing that all of its 2021 cinema releases will be available for streaming on the HBO Max service – owned by its parent company AT&T.

Dune is one of the Warner Bros titles set to launch On Demand in the US, alongside in cinemas.

It had previously announced that its upcoming Wonder Woman sequel 1984 would stream to US subscribers from the same day that it hits the big screens, and it’s now extending that to up to seventeen films scheduled for release next year, including Dune, Godzilla vs Kong, The Suicide Squad and The Matrix 4. Under the plan, the films would be available for streaming for the first month of the film’s release.

Historically, most films enjoy a three month window in cinemas before they can be seen on any home entertainment services, but the global coronavirus pandemic has tested this pattern, with studios delaying the theatrical releases of many of their biggest titles completely. Earlier in the crisis, Universal angered exhibitors when it released Trolls World Tour online, while most cinemas were closed – and later announced that once the pandemic was over, it would continue to make its releases available on demand on the same day as they’re launched in cinemas. The world’s biggest cinema chain, AMC – which owns the UK’s Odeon brand – fought Universal’s decision and a deal was reached for the studio to wait 17 days before making its theatrical releases available online.

In a statement last night, the head of WarnerMedia Studios, Ann Sarnoff, said “No-one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theatres in the US will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.” She continued that this “unique one-year plan” would give people “who may not have access to theatres, or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies, the chance to see our amazing 2021 films.”

Shares in already struggling cinema companies fell further on the news and AMC was quick to respond to the latest announcement, saying it would do everything in its power to ensure that Warner Bros did not sacrifice profits at the movie studio to boost the revenues at its new streaming service. “We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business,” AMC’s boss Adam Aron said in a statement, adding that urgent talks had begun.

With Disney already taking a similar approach to that proposed by Warner Bros, withdrawing it’s live-action Mulan film from the big screen altogether in favour of its new Disney+ streaming service and planning to offer the upcoming Pixar film Soul to viewers at home alongside cinema-goers, the film business is being shaken up beyond recognition.

Studios have spent millions of dollars making films they need to screen to make back their money. While cinemas are closed, some see On Demand services as preferable to waiting for the global health crisis to pass, not least because, as Sarnoff observed, even when cinemas can re-open, they won’t be operating at full capacity, making them unable to match their usual box office takings. But if studios increasingly make their films available online – whether through streaming and download services or through their own platforms – fears are growing among cinema chains that film fans will prefer to enjoy blockbusters in the comfort of their own homes.

But as the pandemic continues to bite, cinema chains could be forced to close – or at the very least close some sites – further strengthening the demand for streaming.

When Universal first announced its intention to move towards more streaming, the cinema chains responded by threatening to boycott Universal films, but as more studios take a similar approach, cinemas will be all the more desperate for content when they can re-open; during the summer, the delay of the release of most blockbusters meant the UK’s cinemas were largely limited to screening classics and small titles without the clout to attract big numbers.

But content providers need places to exhibit their productions, or they can’t recoup any money.

And while exhibitors such as AMC and Cineworld find themselves further backed into a corner, production houses with their own platforms – from AT&T’s Warners and HBO Max to Disney+, Apple TV, Netflix and Amazon – look set to be in the strongest position when the dust settles.

Studios and exhibitors are playing a dangerous game of out-stare, while streaming producers are just holding their breath and getting on with it.

The new giants can, for now at least, afford to give up box office takings in favour of a shorter wait for streaming money – but ultimately, many film fans will feel that there’s nothing like enjoying a blockbuster on the biggest of screens, alongside hundreds of others, laughing – or gasping – in unison, so producers will want to get back onto the big screen, and if they want big screens still to be there when the Covid crisis blows over, deals will have to be done.