On Thursday, Warner Bros. blew up the movie business.
With theatres still closed across much of North America, the Hollywood studio announced that the entirety of its 2021 slate – 17 highly anticipated films including Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong, The Matrix 4 and the Suicide Squad sequel – will begin streaming on the company’s HBO Max service the same day that they are released in cinemas. (After one month, the titles will stop streaming and only be available in theatres.)
This tosses the traditional 90-day theatrical window playbook, which determines the amount of time a movie is shown exclusively in theatres before moving to home entertainment, into the dumpster. And then sets the dumpster on fire.
This is great news for moviegoers, though, many of whom live in areas where theatres are prohibited from operating. Except if you live here in Canada, where HBO Max is unavailable.
Instead, according to a representative for Warner Bros., Canada will receive titles such as In the Heights and the latest Conjuring instalment theatrically only, “along with other worldwide territories.”
So: If movie theatres remain shuttered across much of this country – and there is no reason to believe local authorities might lift restrictions any time soon, even though there hasn’t been a single reported case of COVID-19 transmission inside a theatre anywhere in the world – then Canadians will only have two options.
If we want to watch, say, the coming Denzel Washington thriller The Little Things or the buzzy Black Panther Party drama Judas and the Black Messiah or the Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark at the same time as our neighbours to the south, we can break public-health guidelines and trek to the nearest jurisdiction where theatres might be operating. Or we can pirate the films, which will likely be available immediately once they hit HBO Max.
And no, there are no plans for Warner’s films to migrate to Canadian streaming service Crave the same day that they are available on HBO Max.
Although the Bell Media streamer has been picking up most of HBO Max’s series and original films, including last week’s Melissa McCarthy rom-com Superintelligence and next week’s Meryl Streep comedy Let Them All Talk, it does not automatically get everything.
Crave’s HBO Max deal with Warner includes HBO Max original programming produced by Warner Bros. Television Group, but Warner’s theatrical titles come to Crave in a “pay TV window that is part of a separate deal,” according to a Crave representative.
Already, Crave has confirmed that Warner’s Wonder Woman 1984, whose Dec. 25 theatre and HBO Max release was announced two weeks ago as a trial balloon for this new 2021-slate strategy, will only be available for streaming after “its standard theatrical window” – that is, 90 days.
“The concurrent window on HBO Max is restricted solely to the United States. Warner Bros. is not making such a window available in any other territory, including Canada,” read a statement from Crave sent to The Globe and Mail. “While these movies will be released initially in theatres in Canada, they will be coming to Crave following their standard theatrical windows. Warner Bros. theatrical titles coming to Crave in 2021 include Tenet, The Witches, Wonder Woman 1984, The Little Things, and more.”
At least this is semi-good news for Canadian theatre owners, who have been desperate for fresh content to fill their screens since the pandemic struck. But that assumes that theatres will be able to reopen their doors in a large-scale capacity in the near future. And that Canadians are above piracy. (Cineplex, the country’s largest exhibitor, was unavailable to immediately comment on the situation Thursday.)
While it is tempting to blame the pandemic for this mess, that would be too easy.
Corporate parent AT&T has not exactly proven itself to be a champion of the theatrical-film model since it acquired Warner in 2018, and it is now effectively sacrificing billions in box-office receipts and the health of movie theatres across North America to prop up its answer to Netflix and Disney+.
In other words, making movies for theatres is now a secondary concern next to pumping up its streaming base. And though Warner stresses that this is a decision only meant for 2021, who are they kidding? The gates are now open, and it is only a matter of time before other studios follow suit. COVID-19 provides a good cover, but in AT&T’s quest to conquer streaming, it will be the consumer, and theatre owners, who get the raw end of the deal.
After all, it wasn’t too long ago that moviegoers had no reason to know or care which studios were releasing which movies. We just showed up at the multiplex. Now, audiences – especially those outside the United States – will have to become amateur scholars well-versed in proprietary streaming rights. But that’s the magic of the movies, right?
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