As 2021 starts to draw to a close and we have plenty of data to analyze for HBO Max’s same-day release streaming plan for theatrical films, it’s clear that their hybrid model just isn’t the way to go, as is apparent from the fact that next year, films will have be theatrically-exclusive for 45 days, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
A number of theatrical films were pushed back last year due to COVID-19, but with costs rising and interest waning for these delayed projects — combined with the fact that theaters across the country were struggling not only because of the nature of the pandemic, but because they lacked new inventory in the forms of new releases to screen — many movies just had to come out. It also helped that this year everyone in the country gained access to safe and effective vaccines for the virus, which gave studios a reason to be cautiously optimistic about the box office. Key word: Cautiously.
The unfortunate political divide about the vaccine made the profitability of the box office unpredictable, and with the rise of streaming platforms in 2020, which gave us a richness of new releases in a time where theaters were forced to close their doors, it was understandable why we got hybrid theatrical releases, of which Disney Plus’s Premiere Access — which requires an additional $30 per film on top of the service’s regular monthly fee — and HBO Max– which requires no additional fee — highlight two distinct models that were tested this year.
Across the board, the box office has been feeble, with only four American films making more than $400 million at the time of this column’s publication. I think the key difference between Premiere Access and HBO Max is that one release model supplements the earning totals of individual films, whereas the other weakens it.
One key figure I think about is the $125 million Premiere Access added to the haul of “Black Widow”, which is the subject of star Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit with Disney. Legal battles aside, this puts the film’s total haul around $500 million, which, when you factor in its $200 million budget and $100-200 million marketing spend, could have theoretically been enough to make the film profitable. By charging a steep price of $30 per film for Premiere Access films, Disney ensured that it not only brought in additional revenue, but incentivized theatrical attendance (depending where you live, movie tickets usually cost $10-20).
I think the main issue with HBO Max’s model is the fact that, unless there’s a film you particularly like and want to see in theaters or support, there isn’t any incentive to see a film in theaters when you can watch it for no additional cost at home. In fact, there’s incentive not to during a pandemic, as home viewing is infinitely safer than sitting in a sealed room with strangers who will probably be taking off their masks to eat concessions.
It must be said that this release strategy has worked wonderfully for HBO Max the platform, as Warner Bros.’ bold move created instant value in a platform that was emerging into a crowded marketplace, but it has come at the expense of individual theatrical productions that unfortunately are still measured largely by their box office haul alone, and not their metrics on HBO Max.
There are some success stories with HBO Max this year, with “Dune” — which thankfully, despite my initial worry in my review of the film, has apparently done well enough to get a Part 2 greenlit — and “Godzilla vs. Kong” being two prime examples. But it’s clear that same-day release isn’t the way to go, at least for big budget films that must justify their high production costs in order to prove to investors that they are worthwhile endeavors.
Hopefully 45 days are enough to convince people to see a film in theaters. And hopefully 2022 proves to be more fruitful for movie theaters, because if it isn’t, more will disappear, and I suspect big budget-blockbusters might go with them.