Say farewell to the one year movies actually hit streaming services the same day as the big screen.
The Matrix may be resurrecting today, but the era of same-day streaming is dying out just a year after it was born.
On Wednesday, the Matrix franchise's long-anticipated revival, The Matrix Resurrections, landed in theaters and on HBO Max. That caps a year of unprecedented availability for new movies, with Matrix's maker, AT&T's WarnerMedia, being the most aggressive. As the owner of both the Warner Bros. movie studio and streaming service HBO Max, WarnerMedia made every 2021 WB movie available in cinemas and on its streaming service simultaneously this year, all at no added cost to HBO Max subscribers.
WarnerMedia was unrivaled both in the number of films streamed same-day and by making them available with no extra fee, but it wasn't alone. Other studios, big and small, have experimented with same-day online releases as the COVID-19 pandemic either closed theaters or made people less willing to see films in person. Perennial box-office king Disney introduced its Premier Access system, charging an extra fee on Disney Plus. And Paramount and Universal have, occasionally and strategically, dropped a new flick on their parent companies' streaming services at no extra cost.
But after Matrix Resurrections, the HBO Max pinnacle of streaming availability is toppling. Even WarnerMedia has vowed its 2022 WB movies will get at least a month and a half in theaters exclusively. For film fans, that means the pandemic era of widespread choice for how you can watch the latest movies seems to be coming to an end.
Before COVID-19, the rigid release cycles for new movies were immutable for decades.
New films would get at least 60 to 90 days exclusively in theaters. Then, movies would move to home-viewing formats, like DVDs, Blu-rays and online rentals and purchases — all of which require you pay upfront to watch a specific, individual film. Finally, some six to nine months after a movie hit theaters, it would become available on a TV network or streaming service.
And outcry befell any movie company that dared try to bust up these windows.
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 — blacklisted Netflix's film. With only 31 US cinemas screening it for two weeks total, the movie ultimately made a paltry $90,777 in theaters. Compare that with Spider-Man: No Way Home, which just grossed $260 million in a single weekend at 4,336 US theaters.
The COVID-19 pandemic upended all movie release rules. As cinemas shuttered widely, studios and movie distributors at first opted to keep pushing back the theatrical release dates, especially for mega-budget films. No Way Home was delayed twice, as was F9, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was pushed back three times. No Time to Die and Venom: Let There Be Carnage were postponed to four later dates. But that put Hollywood's tentpole movies in a holding pattern, and it set up a glut of movies to come out all on top of each other, crimping ticket sales.
So big distributors started to rebel against rules, trying out all kinds of new release strategies. Some movies were first shown as high-priced rentals, known as premium video on demand, the same day as (or even before) premiering in theaters. That included franchise revival Bill & Ted Face the Music, Judd Apatow comedy The King of Staten Island and John Stewart's directorial debut, Irresistible.
Disney, for example, recast the releases of some movies as streaming exclusives rather than theatrical headliners. Hamilton, its filmed capture of the hit Broadway musical, became a Disney Plus exclusive. From all outside indications was a success: Mobile app downloads of Disney Plus surged 72% the weekend of its debut.
Other Disney films like Mulan, Raya and the Last Dragon, Marvel's Black Widow, were released on Disney Plus Premier Access, which charges subscribers an extra $30 to unlock a new movie to stream on the same day it hits theaters.
But it was WarnerMedia that took the coup to a new level. Starting with Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day 2020, every Warner Bros. movie in 2021 would be available to stream on HBO Max for US subscribers at no added cost.
HBO Max's same-day streaming strategy has been a boon for the service. Its direct retail subscribers have nearly doubled since the end of last year, hitting 12.6 million at the end of September, not counting the 29 million accounts with access to Max as part of a regular HBO subscription.
While no other distributors were quite as aggressive, a few did dare to put some films in theaters and on their services also on the same day at no added cost.
Universal, owned by Comcast, released both its DreamWorks Animation sequel The Boss Baby: Back in Business and horror franchise flick Halloween Kills on Peacock. And Paramount, the studio owned by ViacomCBS, snuck a few family-focused films — Paw Patrol: The Movie, Clifford the Big Red Dog — onto Paramount Plus same day.
But the Hollywood backlash from incensed filmmakers and stars to WarnerMedia's same-day strategy was brutal. Publicly decrying HBO Max's decision as an offensive overreach that imperiled the survival of cinemas, many were furious that the HBO Max decision was made without much consultation.
Director Christopher Nolan was 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 the day after the HBO Max same-day streaming decision.
Behind the scenes, some stars, directors, agents and others were livid that the new strategy compromised key ways they got paid, such as compensation based on box office performance and profit sharing. WarnerMedia reportedly paid out between $200 million and $300 million to talent to smooth over those irritations.
Meanwhile, Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson sued Disney in July over the film's release. Though Black Widow streamed only for accounts paying the pricey $30 fee, Johansson argued that the same-day option still violated her contract and cost her millions of dollars in compensation. (Disney and Johansson settled two month later out of court.)
Perhaps more than any other group, though, theater chains were apoplectic. When Universal first dipped its toe in a high-priced, same-day online rental for its Trolls World Tour sequel in early 2020, AMC threatened to ban every Universal movie from its screens forever. The extreme response set up the possibility that AMC would even boycott the next movies in the blockbuster franchises Jurassic World and the Fast and the Furious.
Cinemas scrambled for a way to get theatrical exclusives back in the picture. And, it seems, they have largely succeeded. Universal and AMC put their face-off to rest by agreeing that theaters would get exclusivity back for new movies and that Peacock would wait at least 45 days until it could stream a flick. That 45-day minimum has become a de facto standard for movies starting next year. Even Warner Bros. has committed its 2022 slate of movies to 45 days in cinemas only.
That 45-day window is shorter than prepandemic norms. But, already, some studios are going above and beyond, keeping their movies in theaters exclusively for far longer. Disney's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings spent about 70 days in cinemas only. That's nearly as long as theatrical exclusives before COVID.
It all means that though the pandemic is hardly over, its impact on how you watch films is coming full circle. After more than a year of prioritizing consumer choice for how, when and where you can watch brand new movies, studios and distributors now are narrowing your options back down to one: theaters, first and only.
And that means the one group that hasn't been enraged yet about same-day streaming — movies fans like you — might be next to complain.