Both sides are still guessing at what consumers want — a mood made even more difficult to read by the pandemic, and perhaps especially, how they’ll feel once there’s genuine light at the end of that tunnel.
Studios have long sought greater flexibility in terms of releasing movies to digital and on-demand platforms, while theaters want to preserve their exclusivity for as long as possible. The pandemic’s impact has clearly given the former leverage in shrinking the standard 90-day gap between theatrical and home release on major films, which was already under pressure with studios intent on offering premium content to generate more streaming subscribers.
Breaking with those traditions as dramatically as Warner Bros. has sought to do comes with inherent risks to both halves of the equation.
The great unknown, however, involves what theatrical demand will look like once vaccines and more in-person experiences become possible, and whether that might unleash pent-up demand for entertainment, in much the way some are predicting a travel industry boom next summer and beyond.
The advent of streaming has already threatened existing media models, including the cable/satellite TV bundle, with more “cord-cutting,” and linear TV viewing. Everything about the business that Netflix has championed — and the studios are largely emulating with their rival products — says you can have what you want, when you want it.
For smaller movies, there might be no turning back once the genie is out of the bottle, and viewers become accustomed — as many already have — to watching in the comfort of their living rooms.
Early in the pandemic, a widely circulated clip showed an audience erupting in cheers watching “Avengers: Endgame,” a year after the movie’s April 2019 opening. For many, the sequence — in which Captain America catches Thor’s hammer — underscored everything they were missing about theaters.
Many major movie talents have echoed those sentiments, although as Netflix has discovered, writing sizable checks for their services can help soften that resistance.
Warner Bros. has taken another major step into the streaming universe, while potentially swinging a hammer at the theatrical model. Even so, it will be up to consumers, ultimately, to determine what the end game looks like.