Wonder Woman 1984 is just the beginning.
When the new DC sequel debuts simultaneously in theaters and on the HBO Max streamer Christmas Day, it will be the first in a year-long model of how Warner Bros. plans to release their entire catalogue of 2021 feature films.
The unique (and unprecedented) WW84 launch was initially considered an anomaly, and a necessary response to the current second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, Warners has officially announced the same pattern for their entire 2021 slate.
The list of 17 films includes potential blockbusters like The Matrix 4, Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong, and The Suicide Squad, but also mid-range titles like In the Heights, Denzel Washington‘s thriller The Little Things, bio-drama Judas and the Black Messiah, the Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, genre pics The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, James Wan’s Malignant, and Mortal Kombat, as well family fare like Tom and Jerry and Space Jam: A New Legacy.
As with WW84, all films will play in theaters and on HBO Max for the first month of release. After that, the titles will drop from the streamer entirely but remain exclusively in theaters for the remainder of their runs. After about three months, each will land on the traditional at-home VOD rental platforms.
WarnerMedia chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff stated that the studio does not expect to continue the practice into 2022, leaving this approach isolated to one year only, with the hope being that by 2022 we have moved past the Coronavirus pandemic as various vaccines take effect worldwide throughout 2021.
This decision is one likely forced upon the actual Warner Bros. Pictures movie studio, which stands to lose billions of dollars in lost theatrical revenue, all at the expense for their corporate overlords at WarnerMedia and AT&T whose sole goal is to push subscribers to HBO Max.
No reactions have been released as of yet from the major theater chains. AMC and Cinemark were publicly supportive of the initial one-off WW84 dual-platform release, but embracing a whole year of that model is another issue and could be seen differently. (UPDATE: AMC responded, with anger. Read here.)
Also at stake: the big stars of these WB films that, in many cases, have backend deals based on box office receipts. Warner Bros. likely has some damage control in front of them to do with their A-list talent.
Even so, the one positive for theaters: it creates a level of scheduling certainty that, at this point, is not possible with the traditional “theatrical-only” model.
Nevertheless, to commit to this model for an entire year seems to intentionally ignore the possibility of how quick of a game-changer that a well-distributed vaccine could be. One wonders, cynically, if this announcement actually anticipates that change and is trying to get ahead of it, allowing WB to stay committed to the model even when it’s well-past its necessity.
UPDATE: Theater stocks plunged following the Warner Bros. announcement. Cinemark was down 21%, AMC 17%, and IMAX by 7.3%. National Cinemedia, a company that sells pre-show advertising for movie theater screens, also dropped 6.8%.