On December 3, 2020, Warner Bros. announced that its entire theatrical slate for 2021 would have a hybrid release domestically, playing simultaneously in cinemas and on HBO Max (with the caveat that the latter would only be for 30 days). They made the announcement without notifying the people who worked on the films affected by the decision, causing enormous displeasure within the filmmaking community.
Most vocal about this was Christopher Nolan, who had managed to secure a conventional release for Tenet mere months before this unprecedented move, and believed shortening the theatrical window was ultimately detrimental to the films themselves.
Twelve months later, it’s hard to argue he was wrong, not least because the studio itself decided to go back to theatrical exclusives for 2022 and beyond, albeit with 45 days at play as opposed to the traditional 90. As for Nolan, who had given Warners first dibs on all his movies for almost two decades, he decided to take his next project, due in 2023, to Universal.
At the time of writing, one film remains that will still adhere to the hybrid approach: The Matrix Resurrections, out in cinemas and on HBO Max on December 23. Some international fans have already expressed concern about its box office prospects in Italy, which is getting it a week after its domestic debut – more than enough time for people to watch it via illegal means, as was the case with Wonder Woman 1984 last Christmas. Ironically, The Matrix Revolutions went as far as having a simultaneous global release, premiering on the same day at the same moment in different time zones, back in 2003, partly to combat piracy.
The dire effects of the studio’s strategy were painfully evident in the first half of the year, when cinemas worldwide were generally closed: due to HBO Max’s lack of wide availability outside of the US, there was a distinct lack of proper planning for the international rollout of the various films. Best case scenario, up to and including Those Who Wish Me Dead, saw these films released a few weeks after their Stateside debut, meaning those who were interested in seeing them had more than enough time to either use a VPN or downright pirate the titles in question.
By the time they were legally available, they were already yesterday’s news, a footnote in the big book of 2021 movies. Case in point: I didn’t see The Little Things, a January release domestically, until August, when it became available on VOD in Switzerland. And at the time of writing, The Many Saints of Newark remains a no-show in my region, in any format.
Granted, the hybrid strategy means different metrics are at play when assessing success, as confirmed by announcements regarding future Mortal Kombat films and the studio’s stated desire to continue working with James Gunn, whose superhero extravaganza The Suicide Squad got skewered at the box office, at least partly because of the day-and-date streaming option. But in a year where the other studios made similar decisions on a case-by-case basis, Warners’ plan can’t help but feel like a scorched-earth middle finger to a struggling theatrical market, even though the reasoning behind the strategy was that cinemas would not be left empty-handed in the event of new Covid surges.
Including The Matrix Resurrections, the studio’s theatrical slate for 2021 consists of 17 titles. Of the 16 released so far, only three have been successful in theaters: Godzilla vs. Kong, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and Dune. The first two benefited from being part of established franchises and delivering what they promised, while Denis Villeneuve’s film prospered thanks to the decision to release it internationally a month ahead of its US debut, granting it four weeks of theatrical exclusivity and reducing the impact of piracy.
Of course, other factors are to be considered, beyond the pandemic context: the aforementioned Suicide Squad sequel suffered from coming out at a time when the Delta variant was making viewers more wary of going to theaters, in addition to an R rating (the first film was PG-13) and some confusion among DC Comics fans as to its standing within the larger franchise; Malignant was difficult to market, as its main entertainment value is in the brilliantly bonkers third act; Cry Macho may have proven to be one “Clint Eastwood’s spiritual swansong” too many; and Will Smith, star and producer of King Richard, hasn’t had a proper non-tentpole hit since 2015.
And yet HBO Max undoubtedly played a part, especially when compared with other studios that either went for an exclusive theatrical window or opted for a more selective day-and-date approach (Disney+ Premier Access required an additional fee, and Peacock didn’t have Universal’s new releases on its ad-supported version, which is the one most subscribers have).
As a result, most of the 17 movies Warners Bros. released in theaters this year feel like afterthoughts, a pub quiz curiosity rather than genuine conversation starters. When looking back on Hollywood’s response to the pandemic, how many moviegoers will remember that Eastwood, Smith, or Denzel Washington – one of the few stars still capable of drawing crowds in this IP-centric age – had new films out in 2021?
Amusingly, the release of Cry Macho was accompanied by an HBO Max documentary series (largely compiled from older DVD featurettes) chronicling Eastwood’s 50-year directorial career, with the thematically-structured episodes (instead of chronological) hiding the fact his first five features were actually made over at Universal. Perhaps a similar documentary about the 2020s will gloss over this year entirely and jump straight to March 2022, when Batman is once again expected to save the day. And the box office.