Will going to the movies die in 2021?

Warner Bros announced that you’ll be able to stream ‘Dune,’ and all of their 2021 releases, at home — the same day that the films hit theatres.

by Douglas Greenwood
04 December 2020, 3:47pm

Still from Dune.

This December marks the 125-year anniversary of the first time a crowd gathered in a cinema and watched what felt like inexplicable magic unfold. Images projected in supersize on a screen, engulfing us in an audiovisual experience that, to this day, continues to function much in the same manner. Every winter, when the weather sucks and there’s nothing to do outside, we usually find ourselves at the movie theatre, watching either the next big blockbuster or the arthouse movie every arsey person has been talking about (read: probably the author of this piece) since it debuted at Cannes, gearing up for Oscar glory.

But of course, that feels like a sweet memory of years past now. Since the cinema industry effectively shuttered in March in the US and Europe, gradually sputtering open before closing again for much of 2020’s latter half, both massive chains and independent theatres have been struggling to cope, as movie studios pulled the big releases that were set to revive the industry. (Christopher Nolan’s very loud and confusing Tenet being the outlier there). This year’s big festive movies — Dune, West Side Story, Cruella, No Time To Die — have now been delayed anywhere from six months to a whole year. And even then, their new release strategies are threatening the fate of moviegoing as we know it.

Yesterday, Warner Bros announced that every film they had planned to release in 2021 will also be released simultaneously on the streaming service HBO Max, where it would live for four weeks from release date before being pulled to allow for a further cinema-only run afterwards. This method, similarly applied liberally to lower budget, less starrier fares throughout 2020 by Disney with their new Disney+ streaming service (think Artemis Fowl; their risky blockbuster remake of Mulan) has proven successful already, and you can feel the industry collectively looking at a slate of dozens of films and wondering quite how to make them both a) meet their audiences and b) recuperate their costs. 

In a statement, the CEO of Warner Bros. Pictures Group stated:“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group. 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 theaters in the US will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021… We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors, and we’re extremely grateful to our filmmaking partners for working with us on this innovative response to these circumstances.”

So what are the films that Warner Bros are bringing to HBO Max, day and date with their slimmed down theatrical release? It’s extensive: The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In the Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Reminiscence, Malignant, Dune, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard, Cry Macho and Matrix 4 are just some of the titles confirmed for release so far. 

While Disney had been focussing on bringing the riskier titles in their slate to Disney+ instead of pushing them in cinemas, Warner Bros’ decision to push every title they’re releasing (with production costs amounting to over $1 billion before marketing) prioritises at-home viewing for most audiences, at a time when the risk of being in communal spaces is still a worry for most people. Though with proof that cinemas are, in fact, some of the safest places to go to (social distancing implemented, no speaking, masks compulsory), and with the sign of a vaccine on the horizon, is it fair to deliver such a hard blow to movie theatres on what would be their biggest lifelines in 2021? 

It’s a plan Warner Bros are hoping will save themselves financially, and won’t know the full fate of until this Christmas, when they release the much anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 day-and-date in theatres and HBO Max. If it’s a success, then expect this ambitious plan to go ahead, and for many others to follow suit. Warner Bros said this will only last for a 12-month period, but if it works, then surely it’ll become a more long-term offering for those who love movies but don’t feel obliged to visit theatres to see them. Do films like Dune have the same life on a 32 inch television as they do on an IMAX screen? Will the post-Rona fear of being in a room of people in close proximity kill off the industry? Right now, all we have is hypothesis and poor box office numbers to go off. But it would be a crime to think that these filmmakers, some of the greatest ones working today, were happy for their spectacular passion projects to wind up being viewed on the smallest screen possible. 

The slow recovery of the spaces those experiences occur in might be forcing studios into thinking differently, but there is a positive amongst this all. Decisions like this are only risky when you have budgets that stretch to hundreds of millions of dollars; special effects-laden, starry projects built on a popular source material. If any good can come from this, perhaps we’ll see studios focusing on original storytelling, mid-tier budget projects by talented directors, much in the same way Netflix have given David Fincher and Alfonso Cuaron free rein to make their own masterpieces. But they’ve done the right thing by also giving these films a space in theatres too.

What Netflix has taught us is that there’s an appetite for at-home entertainment that’s edging out seeing everything via expensive cinema trips. But a compromise will have to be made somewhere to ensure that cinemas survive, so that we have a place to switch off our phones and live in a moment unreplicable from our sofas. After all, art is so often about experience: being swallowed whole by something and spat out a short time later, moved — maybe even changed — by what we’ve seen.

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