It took a pandemic to get films streaming the same day they hit theaters.
Since Netflix began streaming movies, Hollywood contrarians have been forecasting a time when films would stream the same day they hit the big screen. But for a change everyone knew would come eventually, it still happened way faster than anyone expected.
The year 2020 has been unprecedented in almost all facets of our lives, including how we entertain ourselves. The coronavirus pandemic shuttered cinemas around the globe, forcing studios to delay big-budget films for months, even years.
At the same time, the so-called streaming wars paraded new and revamped online video services in front of us just as we all became stuck at home. Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus , AT&T's HBO Max and Comcast's Peacock are all taking on stalwarts like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, vying to dominate the future of television. These streaming wars have seen breakout success, like Disney Plus, as well as failure: RIP, Quibi.
These new realities collided most shatteringly earlier this month. AT&T's WarnerMedia unit announced that for more than a year, its HBO Max service will stream all Warner Bros.' new movies on the same day they hit the big screen, at no extra cost to streaming subscribers. The plan starts with Wonder Woman 1984 on Dec. 25, and continues with Dune, The Matrix 4 and everything else on Warner Bros.' 2021 slate.
This HBO Max move wasn't the first time this year that Hollywood tossed aside theatrical-release rules that had been sacrosanct for decades. Theaters have long enjoyed exclusive runs of at least 75 days on new movies. Other studios had bent, even fractured, these rules before. But the HBO Max break with the past was the most epic.
That means the movies you're looking forward to most will be available to watch at home sooner than ever before. Most people are ready: A survey in August found that only 15% of people would go to a cinema to catch a "must-see" movie if it were available to watch at home immediately.
"We're going to have a new normal," said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at LightShed Partners. "The question is, What flavor of new normal? It is 100% certain that the movie business of 2019 is never coming back."
Movie exhibitors have adamantly guarded their exclusive clutch on new movies since at least the era of DVDs. As movie-viewing formats changed and film-making companies tested the boundaries of these so-called windows, anyone who tried to bust them up was ostracized.
In 2015, Netflix tried putting one of its first Oscar-bait films, Beasts of No Nation, on its streaming service the same day it appeared in theaters. Theater owners closed ranks. The four biggest chains -- AMC, Carmike, Cinemark and Regal -- boycotted Netflix's film. With only 31 cinemas screening it, the movie ultimately made just $90,777 in theaters.
Early in the pandemic, studios weren't prepared to tempt the same fate. Most delayed their biggest-budget, sure-to-be-blockbuster movies. Universal, for example, pushed back Fast and Furious 9 for a year in mid-March, just as many in North America were beginning to realize how dramatically life was about to change.
Next came experiments with online sales and streaming much earlier in a film's life cycle. Disney Plus started streaming already-released movies months earlier than planned. Its animated hit Frozen 2 streamed in mid-March, three months early. Pixar's Onward arrived just weeks after it premiered in theaters. And Universal tested releasing its DreamWorks Animation sequel Trolls World Tour as a special, high-priced online rental in April.
But the Trolls World Tour's online release -- what's known as premium video on demand, or PVOD -- triggered a Netflix-level backlash from cinemas. AMC, for one, said it would ban all future Universal pictures from its screens. That would include not only the Fast and Furious franchise but also all Jurassic World movies to come.
With no certainty of when theaters would reopen at large or audiences would feel comfortable sitting in windowless rooms, Hollywood was forced to reckon with a situation it had been avoiding for at least five years: Theaters can't have a months-long stranglehold on new movies anymore.
That's when the straight-to-streaming experiments began.
Disney brought a number of midrange movies intended for the big screen straight to Disney Plus, most notably Hamilton, which spurred a surge of interest in the service. The first mega-budget movie to go straight to streaming was Disney's $200 million live-action remake of Mulan. Disney Plus released it under a similar PVOD model as the Trolls sequel, asking subscribers to pay an extra $30 to watch it at home.
Meanwhile, films that attempted an exclusive theatrical run limped to the US box office. In September, the same month that Disney put Mulan online, Christopher Nolan's sci-fi thriller Tenet was the first big tentpole film to open in theaters since the pandemic's disruptions had begun. Tenet, which is a Warner Bros. movie, generated less than $60 million at the US box office. By comparison, Nolan's 2010 film Inception hauled in more than $290 million domestically.
After Tenet bombed in the US, Warner Bros. and HBO Max dropped a bomb of their own: its plan for Wonder Woman and the entire 2021 slate to go on HBO Max the same day as they hit theaters. Unlike Universal's and Disney's flirtations with this so-called "day-and-date" release, HBO Max would charge no added cost to subscribers to unlock the flicks.
HBO Max's move marked the point of no return. Bringing some of the world's flashiest films straight to streaming was one thing; committing to it for more than a year signaled the end of cinemas' primacy in movie distribution.
"The single biggest thing that's happened during 2020 is the entire legacy media sector realized it has to pivot to streaming," Greenfield said. "The old 75-day to 90-day release windows: They're dead."
That has a lot of people in Hollywood going ballistic.
The most hyperoutraged faction may include some filmmakers and stars you idolize, largely circling around the HBO Max decision as an offensive, unilateral overreach that imperils the survival of cinemas. Many are furious that the HBO Max decision was made without much consultation. Some stars, directors, agents and others want AT&T to pony up because of compensation that's tied to box-office performance, which is sure to be more muted now.
Nolan is one of the most vocal. "Some of our industry's biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service," he said in a statement the day after the HBO Max decision. (Warner Bros. has noted that Tenet's weak box-office showing partly led to the HBO Max decision.)
For all the backlash, Warner Bros. is the only company committing to an entire year's slate reaching theaters, Greenfield noted. The streaming element of its hybrid strategy gives consumers much more choice, but the theatrical part of the plan means all those movies are definitely hitting cinemas, no matter how dismal attendance is.
"It's the most consumer-friendly move any studio has made," he said. "And people are going apoplectic."
Ultimately, nobody knows what movie releases will be like on the whole next year, let alone what they'll be like when COVID loosens its grip on our lives.
Different studios are taking different tacks.
Universal has been striking deals with major cinema chains. These deals, including one that essentially lifted AMC's ban on all its movies, would allow the studio to drastically shorten how long theaters have new movies all to themselves. The deals would give cinemas at least 17 days until Universal, DreamWorks Animation and Focus Features films have the option to be rented online. In some cases, the theatrical window could last 31 days -- still a far cry from 75 days or more.
Disney, which has racked up more blockbusters than any other studio of the last five years, is keeping things flexible.
Disney Animation's fantasy Raya and the Dragon will be released to stream on Disney Plus similar to Mulan, available on the service for an extra $30 in March when it premieres in some cinemas.
But Disney is willing to keep protecting the theatrical window for its most surefire blockbuster bets.
Even after a four-hour presentation about its streaming ambitions last week, Disney wouldn't detail a streaming plan for Marvel's Black Widow and other mega-budget movies, like Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals. The fogginess around these Marvel releases next year means Disney won't be making the same leap Warner Bros. did.
"We had $13 billion of box office last year. That's obviously not something to sneeze at," Disney CEO Bob Chapek said last week. Disney builds its franchises with theatrical release at the core, he added. "So for us, it's about balance."
And still other studios are simply selling movies to existing streaming services until they can figure out the new normal for their other films down the road. Sony sold Tom Hanks' World War II thriller Greyhound to Apple TV Plus, a move Hanks called "an absolute heartbreak." Action-comedy flick The Lovebirds hoped to be the toast of South by Southwest but never got its chance at festival glory. Instead, Paramount scrapped its April theatrical run, and it was sold to Netflix.
Next year's movie releases, however they play out, "will cap the most transformative two years for paid video content in the last two decades," BMO Capital Markets analyst Daniel Salmon said.
But after decades of audiences' preferences coming second to the interests of theaters, investors, auteur filmmakers and others, one thing is certain: You'll finally have way more choice than ever before.