So let’s talk about what this means for a bit.
First, there’s no doubt that this decision was driven by AT&T management. Movie studios don’t make movies with their own money, they borrow money to do so. And when those finished movies arrive in theaters, they’re able to pay off their lenders and make a tidy profit. But with so many major and expansive to produce blockbusters essentially sitting unreleased on their shelves right now—with few to no theaters available to open them in due to the pandemic—the studio interest payments for those loans are adding up fast. We’ve seen many studios recommit to catalog physical media in 2020 as a way to make money, and we’ve seen studios re-double their efforts to build their own streaming services. By releasing their films into what theaters they can worldwide, but also dropping them on HBO Max here in the States, Warner hopes that it can at least make a little money via both income streams and grow HBO Max in the process.
Second, I don’t think this means the theatrical business is going away completely, nor do I think it means physical media is going away faster. The one silver lining of this pandemic for disc fans is that it’s reminded the studios that there’s still reliable profits to be made in the disc business—it’s low hanging fruit and now they need to pick it. Also, there will be theater chains that survive this pandemic. But there will also be theater chains, and especially indie theaters, that don’t survive this pandemic. Warner has certainly said that this plan is a reaction to a unique emergency situation, and that things will get back to normal at some point. But all the major Hollywood studios have to be keenly aware now that their business is terribly vulnerable to an event like a global pandemic. And they must also be aware—if they mean to wisely plan for the future of their business—that this pandemic will almost certainly be followed by others. So they have to find ways to buffer their risk going forward. Which means I wouldn’t be surprised to see the other studios follow Warner’s lead.
But my third point is the takeaway: Once you break that traditional theatrical window model, even for an extraordinary circumstance, you’re essentially releasing a very big and powerful genie from a bottle. And once he’s out, it’s going to be hard to put him back in. So while yes, eventually life will get back to normal, and the industry is likely to shift back to the traditional theatrical window model it’s lived by for years now, I doubt very much that it will shift all the way back. What we’re looking at in the film industry is some kind of new normal that everyone is going to have to adjust to going forward.
We certainly live in interesting times, don’t we?
I’ll just close with this: HBO Max and Roku had damn well better figure out their dispute soon. Or AT&T will be leaving more money on the table they can’t afford to lose out on.
All right, back more soon. Stay tuned...