What to make of Warner Bros.’ theatrical release strategy.

Hollywood talent is in arms against the decision that Warner Bros. made to distribute top-quality theatrical releases (Tenet, Wonder Women: 1987).

The news broke to the public at the same time it was received by the “big names” that worked on the projects. One of the larger names in the business, Christopher Nolan, had this to say about the new theatrical release strategy;

“It’s very important that everybody remember the exhibition business provides hundreds of thousands of jobs for ordinary people. And my work has only ever got out there in the world because of the hard work of people working in those businesses,”

Chris Nolan on Warner Bros. decision to do theatrical releases and streaming distribution simultaneously. via Variety
Chris Nolan on location

Nolan states that the ordinary employees on sets and in movie theaters as his main motivation to push back against the decision that Warner Bros. has made. But there is also an element of pride, as Denis Villeneuve (Dunes) had this to say-

With this decision, AT&T [Warner Bros.’ parent company] has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history. There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here.

via NPR

Is the theatrical release under attack?

Let’s try to get a grip on what these filmmakers are getting across. Is there an existential threat to the movie business for crew personnel, exhibitors, and the audience?

To put it bluntly, the Film Club of America doesn’t think so. Yet, to an extent, yes. The way exhibitors profit from their business will significantly change in the very near future.

Some theaters may even close for good, but opportunities in other vertical exhibition markets will counter the loss of work for the exhibitors that go belly up.

But, crew personnel and the audience will hardly have any regrets about the dual release strategy.

Warner Bros. theatrical release strategy will benefit the audience.

I get it, the love and allure of being on a 60 foot screen entices the endorphins for all the helpless saps that fell in love with the Hollywood dream. Frankly, that’s their problem.

Hollywood is a business. And if you can decrease the overhead and cut out the middle man, why wouldn’t you? Yes, there is an element of anti-competition. But the studios haven’t had a concrete solution to distribution since the golden era of cinema.

This current big-screen theatrical release strategy was a result of The United States v Paramount studios. A long time ago the big studio tried to own all aspects of the industry. This was the golden era of Hollywood.

So, now that the technology exist and it’s democratic, why would the studios dance with a partner that stunted the studio’s ability to grow and engage its end-user. Also, now that each studio owns its own proprietary streaming platform. It makes no sense to keep the legislative business model, other than to comply with anti-trust laws.

The movie theaters have lost their position. But is it too late?

The smart thing the exhibitors could have done was to create their own form of streaming distribution. But doing so would have undercut pop-corn and soda-pop sales.

So, they’re inability to adapt to the rapidly changing consumption of video content, did them in. But even if the exhibitors did make the platform suitable enough to stream their content, they would need to go back to the congressional lobby and push for the anti-trust case to include digital distribution.

In short, they were complacent and got caught with their pants down. The corona virus pandemic just accelerated their decline in control over the release of motion picture studio content.

What does this mean for the audience?

We as film lovers aren’t exposed. In the current market (2020) the cost to view PREMIUM HOLLYWOOD CONTENT on HBO MAX is only $14.99/mo. That is an incredible savings.

I imagine that the studio will attempt to distribute, weekly or bi-weekly, its blockbusters. But even if they release one per quarter. Users still have access to a decent catalogue of premium content on these platforms. Thus, transforming the weekend for many American households by making content ever more affordable.

Let’s examine the experience further and look for opportunities to invest in the growth;

  1. The home theatre business is going to show improvements. With the access to better content, homeowners will look to improve their home viewing experience.
  2. You can enjoy content from the comfort of your home and buy snacks at a more affordable price. Avoiding the price gouging of the in-theater concessions stands. Not to mention, the security risks viewers mitigate by staying safe at home.
  3. Artificial Intelligence integration will help in creating better content and more tailored content for your viewing experience. The feedback chains these studios will put in place will help them identify viewing trends and assist them in finding the screenplays and projects their audience is drawn to. Or this could be a weakness, depending on how the data is interpreted by the production heads.
  4. IF the studios scale as other streaming platforms have. There will be more opportunities for new talent to be discovered. This also opens the door for more capital investment in the arts from the studios to support content creators in line with their brand.

The only significant risk to the viewer is the pesky price crawl tactics large companies use to milk profits from the market. But if the price holds at 14.99 for several years consecutively, then we (the audience) are in good shape. There is also an element of piracy protection, but these violations are already enacted under federal law.

Can independent filmmakers benefit from this strategy.

Honestly, no. This is because independent filmmakers have been doing this for years. We have always had to find ways to reach our audience directly. Independent filmmakers had to do this to prove to Hollywood that there is a market for the content that they create. Thus, allowing Hollywood to invest in those unique voices.

So, for independents it’s business as usual.

Unless, you can create a website and release your films yourself. This will help you avoid the Hollywood distribution bottle neck on their proprietary platforms (Netflix, HBOmax, Disney+, etc.). Just be wary of releasing on the same weekend as a blockbuster, and remember most of your viewers have already bought into their preferred content platform. So your marketing and advertisements should convince them to leave their “content comfort zone” for a screening or two.

Moreover, the large streaming platforms will need to communicate who their content is for in order to keep a loyal subscriber base. They will do this by trying to sign above-the-line talent to multi year/multi picture deals.

So, is it all bad?

It’s ultimately up to you to decide if you agree with the new theatrical release decision. But the market is moving, and in the next 20+ years there will be opportunities for all content creators to exploit.

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