Directors, Theaters Express Worry Over Warner Bros. HBO Max Deal
Warner Bros. drew attention in early December when it announced plans to simultaneously release all of its films in theaters and on HBO Max throughout 2021.
The decision, affecting 17 major films from “The Matrix 4″ to “Dune,” highlights just how important streaming services have become in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down hordes of theaters and drastically limited audience sizes for those able to open, making profit a much more difficult outcome to achieve through this avenue alone.
The move comes after the company made plans to release “Wonder Woman 1984” both on HBO Max and in theaters on Christmas, where it will be available for 31 days prior to spreading through traditional rental platforms like Amazon, iTunes or Fandango.
The game-changing deal has brought out a variety of reactions from prominent directors — most of them negative. As the shift in plans ultimately affects how audiences are likely to first witness and experience these directors’ projects, their disappointment is not unfounded.
Read below for a list of creators and companies who have spoken up about the Warner Bros. deal with HBO Max.
In an essay the director penned for Variety, Villeneuve argued that the business deal did not take into account the heart of cinema and filmmaking. While he suggested that streaming has its benefits, its overall income cannot support the continued making of large-scale films like “Dune.”
“I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says,” he wrote. “Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.”
Actors Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin, who star in “Dune,” stood in solidarity with the director on social media. They each shared excerpts from the Variety story on Instagram on Friday. “Long live the theatre experience,” they added.
Aaron Sorkin and Patty Jenkins
The two filmmakers, known for “Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” discussed both Warner Bros. and Paramount’s streaming decision during a conversation for Variety‘s Virtual FYC Fest. Both expressed appreciation that movies like theirs were able to meet consumers from their homes during an ever-heightening pandemic.
But while others are predicting the Warner Bros. deal could mark the end of blockbuster films as we know it, Jenkins sees it as an opportunity for other studios to meet the needs of directors.
“Some studio is going to be smart enough to be an outlier, and all the great filmmakers in town are going to go there, and the theaters are going to favor their movies,” she said. “Because right now, if there are studios that announce that [releasing day-and-date on streaming] is what they’re going to start doing, every filmmaker’s going to head to the studio that promises they’re not going to.”
Sorkin’s opinion followed a similar path of logic. The deal, he said, will not end theaters for good because they offer different experiences. Communal viewing is a level of engagement that streamers struggle to meet.
“I think that for 4,000 years, nothing has replaced the experience of being part of an audience,” Sorkin said. “That shared experience — being in a theater when the lights go down, everyone laughing at the same time, gasping at the same time, being silent at the same time, and having the final moment of the film reverberate at the same time.”
The Universal film “The King of Staten Island” took a premium video-on-demand route earlier this year, avoiding theaters entirely due to the the shutdowns. Apatow, who directed the film, said in a Variety conversation for the upcoming virtual FYC Fest that the decision came about in an amicable conversation between Universal and the production team.
As an outsider not directly associated with any of the Warner Bros. movies being affected, Apatow said the lack of communication tells a story of deeper problems within Hollywood.
“It’s somewhat shocking that a studio for their entire slate could call what appears to be nobody,” he said. “It’s the type of disrespect that you hear about in the history of show business. But to do that to just every single person that you work with is really somewhat stunning.”
Apatow also said Universal worked out compensation with the team to ensure fair compensation while pursuing the PVOD option. He said back-end payments based on the success of a film often determine what cast and crew take home, which could further complicate the dynamics.
Fresh off of the release of “Tenet,” which premiered in theaters Sept. 3, Nolan voiced his anger for how Warner Bros. handled their decision. A strong proponent of the cinema experience, the director said the business decision was plagued with problems by not including filmmakers in the conversation.
“In 2021, they’ve got some of the top filmmakers in the world, they’ve got some of the biggest stars in the world who worked for years in some cases on these projects very close to their hearts that are meant to be big-screen experiences,” he said in an interview with ET Online. “They’re meant to be out there for the widest possible audiences… and now they’re being used as a loss-leader for the streaming service — for the fledgling streaming service — without any consultation.”
Directors Guild of America
The Hollywood Reporter shared details Friday that DGA sent a letter addressed to Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff with demands for a meeting.
The concern at the center of their letter, according to sources, is how films will be valued. The guild, which includes 18,000 members, reportedly held an earlier meeting with the company in November to value the projects at what they would earn in a fair, free-market situation.
The Endeavor executive chairman released a note Friday arguing that the Warner Bros. deal amounts to a contractual violation for WME clients. He also labeled it a “self-deal” meant to bolster numbers on the streaming service despite possible adverse effects it could have on his clients.
In addition to the damages to clients, Whitesell likened the decision to an attack on box offices around the country. “The simultaneous release on HBO Max will cannibalize the domestic box office and torpedo the traditional waterfall of economics that make movies profitable in the near and long-term for the studio and for our clients, a point our client Chris Nolan very articulately made this week,” he said.
The theater chain suggested its resources will soon be expended in a SEC filing on Friday. The lack of current films and audiences willing to sit in theaters has led AMC to defer $400 million in rent payments until 2021, but issues are likely to increase due to the Warner Bros. move.
“In the absence of additional liquidity, the Company anticipates that existing cash resources will be depleted during January 2021,” the filing states. “These challenges have been exacerbated by the announcement by Warner Bros. that its entire studio film slate for 2021 will move to simultaneous release, which may result in other studios adopting a similar strategy.”
Though the company has not yet commented on the more wide-scale Warner Bros. move, it did share comments on “Wonder Woman 1984.” The statement acknowledged that being closed makes the theater route difficult but expressed hope in looking forward to opening following the availability of vaccines.
“We believe that at such a time, WB will look to reach an agreement about the proper window and terms that will work for both sides,” the statement reads. “Big movies are made for the big screen and we cannot wait to reopen our cinemas in Q1 in order to offer our customers, as always, the best place to watch a movie.”
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