Independent Movie Theaters Call WB's Deal With HBO Max a "Questionable Decision"

When news broke that Warner Bros. Pictures was choosing to give their entire roster of 2021 movies a hybrid release in theaters and on HBO Max, we knew it was going to be one of the biggest Hollywood stories in years. Not only is it rubbing major filmmakers and major movie theater chains the wrong way, but independent cinema owners aren’t happy either. However, they’re being a little more diplomatic about how they choose to condemn the studio’s “questionable decision.”

The Independent Cinema Alliance, a group of privately owned movie theaters operating in North America, have released an official statement reacting to Warner Bros.’ new deal with HBO Max. Needless to say, they’re “disappointed” in this latest development, and they’re imploring the studio to rethink their approach for the sake of movie theaters.

Deadline has relayed a statement from the Independent Cinema Alliance that is formal but to the point. The group said:

“Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. The Independent Cinema Alliance, however, is disappointed in WarnerMedia’s questionable decision to release its entire 2021 film slate simultaneously in movie theaters and on HBO Max. WarnerMedia is correct that its content is extremely valuable, but it also must know that theatrical exclusivity is what drives that value—not streaming. Given that COVID-19 vaccines will begin distribution in the coming weeks, the ICA calls on our partners at Warner Bros. and other studios to help write the industry’s comeback story with a recommitment to exclusive theatrical content.”

Warner Bros. Pictures has to figure out a way to get some kind of return on their production slate until movie theaters are a more viable option for audiences again after the coronavirus vaccine. Furthermore, WarnerMedia is looking for a way to boost HBO Max subscriber numbers. So this deal essentially kills two birds with one stone. At the same time, they know the revenue return by releasing all of their 2021 movies on HBO Max won’t be nearly as big as if they were released in theaters without a pandemic in play. Either way, movie theaters will still be hurting until at least the middle of next year.

Honestly, I’m surprised Warner Bros. didn’t decide to do this for only the first half of 2021. It’s still a viable window to conduct what is essentially a grand experiment, and it would have left some of their biggest movies waiting for theaters until later in the year. But perhaps the studio doesn’t think the test will have the data they’re looking for if they don’t try it out with some of their biggest, most anticipated titles. And that’s what theater owners are worried about.

Movie theater owners are shaken by the possibility of what WB will continue to do with their movies after the coronavirus vaccine is released, not to mention how this experiment impact the overall theatrical exhibition model for other studios. Once Warner Bros. starts releasing major movies on HBO Max at the same time they arrive in theaters, it creates new expectations for the future, especially when it comes to shortening theatrical exclusivity windows.

At the same time, maybe this is only fast-tracking the inevitable. After all, Universal Pictures struck a deal to shorten the theatrical window to just 17 days for many movies in the second half of this year, and it’s something they’ll likely continue to do on a case-by-case basis in the future. It was likely only a matter of time before all the studios started testing the waters with these kind of shortened theatrical releases.

The National Association of Theater Owners hasn’t made a statement reacting to the HBO Max deal, but considering what AMC Theatres, Cinemark and Regal Cinemas have said about the situation, we pretty much know how the entire organization of exhibitors would respond to this deal. The question is how they’ll deal with it once the time comes to start booking Warner Bros. movie in theaters.

For their part, the Independent Cinema Alliance says it is “imperative that these reactionary policies made in response to a public health crisis do not reflect long-term, formal shifts in distribution strategies forstudio films.” But at the same time, they hope to be able to work with studios to ensure the movie business stays lucrative for both of them:

“A theatrically driven business model is vital to the success of movie theater owners, studios, and the creative community. The ICA looks forward to collaborating with our partners in Hollywood on deliberate, innovative solutions that build a brighter future for this great industry.”

We’ll see how that goes once Warner Bros. starts acting on their new release strategy with HBO Max next year.

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