On December 3rd, Warner Bros. revealed it would be releasing 17 films from its 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and on its streaming service HBO Max, forever changing the future of video streaming.
Fifteen years ago, if you had told the average consumer that they would have access to nearly the entire filmography of the human race available at just a click away, you'd have likely been called hopeful at best, insane at worst.
Sure, the internet existed at the time, but our download speeds were an inkling of what they are today. With faster-than-ever internet speeds, it has become possible for us to rely on more than just broadcast television and purchased DVDs and Blu-Rays to watch our favorite films, TV shows and more.
Thanks to the foresight and success of companies like Netflix, subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) platforms would soon begin to proliferate, driven by changing consumer trends and the all-important concept of convenience: customers wanted to be able to consume the content of their choice, be it the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, at the time of their choosing and at their own pace. With more people joining the workforce than ever before, constrained by 9-5 routines and a declining work-life balance, many consumers have since prioritized the availability of on-demand entertainment.
Today, streaming services are the nigh end-all, be-all of audiovisual entertainment, so much so that some of the highest-budget films of the year, like last year's The Irishman, are launching exclusively on streaming platforms. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some studios like Disney are opting to release blockbusters originally intended for the big screen to SVoD services, as was the case with the the live-action remake of Mulan.
The future of video streaming
The latest stage of the evolution of on-demand video reared its head earlier this month, when major production studio Warner Bros. (WB) announced it would be releasing 17 of its tentpole films simultaneously in theatres and on streaming platform HBO Max. This is an absolutely significant shake-up to the film distribution model, one that was bound to happen sooner or later. COVID-19 simply pushed the pieces together.
The outcry against this new distribution model was significant, with many filmmakers sounding off against it. Prominent among those has been auteur film director Christopher Nolan, the man behind Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, and an avid believer in the concept of moviegoing and the theatre.
"Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service," he said in a statement provided to The Hollywood Reporter. "Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction."
Over the years, most of Nolan's movies have been distributed by WB, so this decision significantly affects his upcoming films with the company. He is joined by many other industry members in his opinion.
While highly controversial, one can somewhat sympathize with Warner Bros' position. Like most film distributors around the world, the company was already facing a lot of pressure from changing consumption habits and the rise of streaming services. One of the reasons for this has been the ever-increasing price of a movie ticket and concession stand foods like popcorn and soda in comparison with the price of a monthly subscription to a streaming service. The advent of COVID-19 only served to habituate the consumer shift to SVoD, and a recent survey notes that 70% of respondents would rather watch movies at home, even after theaters open en masse.
Whether we like it or not, the future of streaming is changing, and we are likely seeing the inklings of a new widescale compromise between theatrical and streaming platform releases.