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HBO Max will stream Matrix 4, Dune, all Warner Bros. 2021 movies same day as theaters

The new movies will be available on Max at no added cost for one month, making the release plan for Wonder Woman 1984 -- streaming on Max on Dec. 25 -- the norm for all Warner Bros. movies next year.

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HBO Max launched in May and has struggled to gain the same traction as Disney Plus. 

Angela Lang/CNET

HBO Max will stream movies like The Matrix 4, Dune and all new Warner Bros. movies set for theatrical release next year, making them available to watch at no added cost online the same day as their debuts on the big screen. Each film will be on HBO Max, which costs $15 a month, for one month, and then the movies will leave the streaming service so that they're exclusively in theaters. 

The unprecedented move comes three weeks before Wonder Woman 1984, a mega-budget Warner Bros. movie, is set to stream on Max the same day it debuts in theaters in the US. Warner Bros. is essentially morphing its Wonder Woman release strategy into its new normal for the coming year. HBO Max is owned by telecom giant AT&T, through its WarnerMedia entertainment unit, which also operates the Warner Bros. studio. 

HBO Max executives dismissed the notion that this dramatic change in HBO Max's proposition to streaming customers would affect the service's ongoing talks with Roku. More than seven months since launch, HBO Max and Roku haven't reached a deal, which means Roku customers still can't access Max's app. Roku's streaming devices are some of the country's most popular gadgets to stream video on TVs. 

"I don't think today's announcement changes anything dramatic" in HBO Max's ongoing talks with Roku to reach a distribution deal, Andy Forssell, HBO Max's top tech executive, said in an interview Thursday. "We already both had really strong imperatives to find a way to work together. So we have to go do that, and we'll get it done." 

WarnerMedia's decision Thursday marks the latest in a series of titanic changes in how movies make their way to you in the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic. Studios and cinemas have been experimenting with new release strategies that would've been inconceivable a year ago, especially for the most epically expensive films, like Wonder Woman, Dune and The Matrix. But Warner Bros. decision to release an entire year of its film slate online in this "day-and-date" model, when movies debut online and in theaters at the same time, is the most seismic shift yet. 

Warner Bros. is calling the approach a "hybrid model" and says the strategy is a response to the pandemic, particularly in the US. All films will be available in 4K Ultra HD and HDR on HBO Max. Once the films leave Max, they'll follow the regular route from theaters to home viewing, like online rental and purchase, DVD and Blu-ray and eventually TV and streaming again. 

Also on Thursday, HBO Max confirmed it has killed off its standard weeklong free trial. That means if you want to stream Wonder Woman or any of these other movies, you either have to pay $15 for at least one month of the service, or you need to figure out if your regular HBO subscription includes a free upgrade to a Max account. Bargain hunters may sniff out some other deals that offer HBO Max free for a short period as a promotion with another purchase.  

Other big Warner Bros. movies set to come out next year include expected box-office heavyweights like Godzilla vs. Kong, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, and The Suicide Squad, James Gunn's latest take on that DC Comics crew. Retro revivals like Mortal Kombat and Space Jam: A New Legacy are on the slate too. 

The pipeline also includes The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Reminiscence, Malignant, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard and Cry Macho.

2021 only?

Ann Sarnoff, the chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios (where Warner Bros. resides), characterized this as a one-year-only plan.

"We're living in unprecedented times, which call for creative solutions," said Sarnoff said a statement. "No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021."

But executives have said it's impossible to speculate about 2022 or after, casting some uncertainty about whether Warner Bros. will recommit to the traditional way of debuting movies only in theaters after next year.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen in 2022 or 2023," said Forssell, who is executive vice president and general manager of WarnerMedia's direct-to-consumer products. Jason Kilar, the CEO of the entire WarnerMedia unit, reiterated that attitude in interviews with multiple outlets Thursday, saying that the company is focusing on "the here and now" and hasn't "spent one brain cell on what the world looks like in 2022."

Sarnoff noted this "hybrid model" is a way to support cinemas, movie fans and talent alike. Theaters will still get a steady pipeline of films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters. or aren't comfortable returning to theaters, the chance to watch the movies too. 

But shares in cinema chains plunged Thursday after the news. In trading Friday, AMC shares remained down 15% and Cinemark shares were down 20% versus their opening prices Thursday morning before the news. 

Friday, AMC said it would put up a fight. "Clearly, Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidize its HBO Max startup," AMC CEO Adam Aron said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. "As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense. We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business."

But Kilar said in a statement Thursday the company's content "is extremely valuable, unless it's sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone."

"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," he said. "More importantly, we are planning to bring consumers 17 remarkable movies throughout the year, giving them the choice and the power to decide how they want to enjoy these films."

Unthinkable a year ago

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered cinemas around the globe and forced studios across the board to delay big-budget films for months and years, with no certainty in sight for when theaters can reopen at large or when audiences will feel comfortable sitting in windowless, enclosed rooms for hours. Now Hollywood has been making unprecedented changes to how it releases movies, norms that've been sacrosanct for decades. Though different studios are taking different approaches, all of them are making major defections from the rigid rules that usually keep new movies only in theaters for 75 days or more. 

Set to hit HBO Max on Dec. 25, Wonder Woman 1984 is the biggest movie yet in the pandemic to be released straight to streaming, by any studio. 

But before that, Universal released its DreamWorks Animation sequel Trolls World Tour as an online rental in April, and Disney put out its live-action remake of Mulan on Disney Plus in September. A key difference is that both those movies carried an extra cost to watch them online. They were available under a model known as premium video on demand, a special early online release that requires customers to pay a high price to unlock the title for home viewing. 

Universal, which also makes movies in the Fast & Furious and Jurassic World franchises, has been striking deals with major cinema chains that allow the company to dramatically shorten how long its movies stay exclusively in theaters. Universal movies from its namesake studio, DreamWorks Animation and Focus Features will be available to rent online as soon as 17 days after their big-screen premieres, under the new deals. 

Similar to Warner Bros.' latest hybrid strategy, Disney has switched a clutch of its movies from being theatrical releases to being Disney Plus originals, most notably Hamilton in July and its upcoming Pixar movie Soul, also set to drop on Dec. 25. But none of those movies comes close to the $200 million budget for Wonder Woman 1984, and no studio has made nearly this scale of a commitment to release an entire year's slate of movies online the same day as theaters at no added cost. 

Until recently, studios have mostly been delaying their biggest, most expensive franchise films until next year or beyond, hoping for a future when cinemas reopen widely and audiences feel comfortable filing into theaters in droves. Like many of us, studios seem to be accepting that normal life won't be returning anytime soon.  

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