Theater stocks took a big dive Thursday when Warner Bros. announced it would be releasing it’s full 2021 movie slate on HBO Max the same time when they would be opening in cinemas.
Major exhibitor Cinemark fell more than 21%, Imax slid more than 7.3% and the Marcus Corporation fell more than 11%. AMC started out the day with its stock being pummeled after it announced it was selling 200 million shares in a bid to raise $844 million and improve its liquidity. The big Warners news didn’t help the situation. AMC’s stock was down more than 17% on Thursday afternoon. National Cinemedia, which sells pre-show advertising that appears on movie theater screens, also got walloped — its stock fell 6.8%.
In the most seismic shift by a Hollywood studio yet during the pandemic, Warner Bros. Pictures on Thursday announced that all of its 2021 film slate — including a new “Matrix” movie, “Godzilla vs. Kong” and the Lin-Manuel Miranda adaptation “In the Heights” — will stream on HBO Max at the same time they play in theaters.
Among the myriad release plan changes wrought by the pandemic, no studio has so fully embraced streaming as a lifeline. But after disappointing domestic ticket sales for “Tenet,” and with the majority of U.S. theaters currently closed, the AT&T-owned Warner Bros. will turn to a hybrid distribution model. Films will debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max in the U.S. After one month, they will stop streaming and continue to play only in theaters.
The move follows Warner Bros.′ decision to put “Wonder Woman 1984” on HBO Max in December, along with a concurrent theatrical run. If that pivot sent shockwaves through the industry, Thursday’s announcement rattled Hollywood to the core.
“Given the unprecedented time that we’re in, we needed a creative solution to address our fans, our filmmakers and our exhibitors, said Ann Sarnoff, chief executive of WarnerMedia Studios, in an interview. “Big and bold is a necessity right now.”
Sarnoff called it a “temporary solution” and a “one-year plan.” The studio said other options — releasing big-budget films solely in reduced capacity theaters or delaying films another year — weren’t appealing. Warner Bros.′ move amounts to an acknowledgement that any full rebound for theaters is still a year or more away.
“It’s really hard to know, given the news of the vaccine and the rate of inoculation — that’s very hopeful news. But we’ve got to get people back in theaters at full capacity at some point. If you read the medical experts that’s going to take a while to work its way through the system,” said Sarnoff. “If we saw an end in sight to the pandemic, we might have a different strategy. But we don’t see that at this moment.”
HBO Max is only available in the United States. Internationally, the studio’s 17 films planned for 2021 release will rollout in theaters.
Warner Bros.′ decision resounds especially because the 87-year-old studio of “The Wizard of Oz” has long been a market-leader in Hollywood — and one known as especially supportive of theaters. The studio has generally ranked among the top two studios in market share over the past decade — most recently dwarfed only by Walt Disney. Warner’s films typically account for $1.5-2 billion annual in ticket sales in North America — a lot of money to compensate for in HBO Max subscribers. Warner Bros. confirmed the films will be available to subscribers with no further charge.
“I can’t comment on the economics of how it will all work — I’d need a crystal ball for that,” said Sarnoff. “But I’m very optimistic that this is a win-win-win for our fans, our filmmakers and our exhibitors. We’re getting the movies out. We’re allowing them be seen on the big-screen which is what they were made for, but giving an alternative. The hybrid approach also allows us to market them in a fuller way than we would have had we just looked at the less-than-full capacities in theatrical right now.”
Warner Bros.′ 2021 slate includes many of the expected top movies of the year, including “Dune,” “The Suicide Squad,” “Tom & Jerry,” “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” “King Richard” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
The move by Warner Bros. only makes the pain being felt by exhibitors all the more acute. Having been shuttered for much of the year, cinemas reopened nationwide in late summer except in some key locations, including Los Angeles and New York. But with most major releases postponed and surging virus cases, about 60% of theaters have since closed again. Regal Cinemas, the country’s second largest chain, has shut all its doors. The National Association of Theater Owners didn’t immediately comment Thursday.
Studio chief Toby Emmerich said the hybrid plan came about after exploring various options for “Wonder Woman 1984.” The international box office has significantly rebounded and even fielded some big hits in China and Japan. Alternatively, the domestic market hasn’t seen any movie come close to blockbuster levels in terms of ticket sales. HBO Max is only available in the U.S.
“We thought it could be a win-win and give the consumers the best choice,” he said. “Unfortunately, the U.S. has been one of the most hobbled markets in terms of theatrical. Outside the U.S., in places like China, South Korea, Japan, parts of Western Europe, our films will only be available in theaters. We think those markets can perform better.”
Under chief executive Jason Kilar, the former Hulu chief, the AT&T-owned WarnerMedia recently reorganized to further prioritize its streaming service. He has moved aggressively to boost HBO Max, even if it comes at the expense of the theatrical marketplace.
“After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months,” said Kilar in a statement. Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.”
The fear is that when tentpole movies like “Dune” and “Matrix 4” are readily available to HBO Max subscribers the same time they hit the theaters, audiences will continue watching at home rather than heading out. Especially during a health crisis that has only gotten worse with winter coming, things are not looking good for cinemas.