Column: HBO Max Announcement Signals Death of the Movie Theater

By Demonze Spruiel (@Demonze1)

A significant part of the coming of age for many kids growing up on the South Side of Chicago from the 1980s through the early 2000s, hanging out at Ford City Shopping Mall provided all the trappings needed to keep fun-starved youth occupied for countless afternoons and weekends with plenty of space to talk to girls, grab the latest pair of gym shoes and catch the newest movies.

Particularly memorable trips to Ford City for me was when I bought Outkast’s first album “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” at Tower Records and when I snuck in to see the cult comedy classic Friday.

Within the past 15 years, many large scale malls like Ford City have fallen into the category of urban blight, left lacking in financial development if not completely left for dead in an era where Amazon gets you everything you need sent to your house within eight hours just with the push of a button. Because of that, going to a mall to buy music and get a girl’s phone number has become a thing of the past, but despite the changes one mall-related entity remained relevant and altogether profitable — the movie theater.

Standing tall as a popular option for everything from date nights to midnight premieres to Christmas day family outings, we have seen the movie theater experience evolve with VIP seating, gourmet food and fancy cocktails adding a nightlife ambiance to many multi-screen playgrounds .

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic it could be assumed that the relationship between movie theater companies like AMC and movie studios like Warner Bros. was cool — plenty of money was being made all around in their relationship — but 2020’s drastic times have likely turned the heat up between those who make the big budget projects we all like to see and those who’d like to exclusively provide a place to see them. 

If you haven’t heard or read by now, the leadership at WarnerMedia, which owns both Warner Bros. Studios and all properties under HBO, have decided to release all of the WB’s 2021 theatrical releases on their corporate fam’s streaming service HBO Max, starting with the much-anticipated sequel to Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman 84, on this coming Christmas Day.

WW84 was previously assigned several release days throughout 2020 but continued to be pushed back due to the small gains made in containing the COVID outbreak in North America. Already the WB rolled the dice on one potential blockbuster, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, hoping that slick marketing and loyalty to seeing movies with crowds would overtake people’s desire to, you know, not potentially expose themselves to a deadly virus.

Of course, Tenet failed as a box office attraction in the United States (while doing well in other areas of the world) while the Rona has reigned supreme, but with some vaccine-related relief looking to make things easier in 2021, Warner Bros. is seemingly looking to maximize whatever chances it has to make money widely with a full slate of big tent movies and prestige projects (including The Suicide Squad, Matrix 4, Space Jam: A New Legacy and Judas and the Black Messiah) while also staking HBO Max’s claim as a go-to streaming service, where you’ll only be able to see the likes of Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong for one month if your local theater is still closed or if you’re still deathly afraid of any type of crowd.

Another big player in the streaming wars, with its 73 million subscribers currently, is Disney+. After getting about a year jump on Warner’s dive into the streaming wars, Disney is leading the way for studio-stamped platforms with its family-driven classic catalog along with a full offering of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, the Broadway hit Hamilton and other exclusives like Beyoncé’s Black Is King.

Even more impressive than all that is the potential of Disney+ as a producer of original series. With only one series, the Star Wars-set “The Mandalorian” acting as a hit currently, 2021 will mark a potential real breakthrough with scheduled episodes of several Marvel-based series including “WandaVision,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Loki,” and “Hawkeye,” each standing a chance to help improve subscriber rates as MCU-starved fans shake off a 2020 that saw no new Marvel film or TV releases.

Currently, HBO Max has 28.7 million subscribers but about 20 million of those are actually subscribers to HBO through cable and satellite sources who haven’t activated the new service. It’s a gamble for WB to release its 2021 movie slate onto the streaming platform, but I believe it will pay off tenfold. Given the number of movies it plans to release, at least one major project will drop every month throughout the next year, which will anchor efforts to keep people subscribed to the HBO Max instead of letting membership lapse when their favorite HBO show goes on hiatus and then resubscribing when their second favorite returns.

Both Disney and HBO Max are looking to position themselves to challenge streaming king Netflix and its 195 million subscribers in the near future, both hoping to utilize their ability to own all the content on their respective platforms to maximize profit in the meantime as they slowly climb to Nexflix’s heights. As Netflix operates in the red, spending freely to produce projects that’ll keep them ahead of Disney+ and HBO Max, the latter two stand to count straight profit!

AMC’s CEO Adam Aron opened the door to this new world with his company’s historic deal with Universal Studios, allowing Universal movies to go to on premium video on-demand after three weeks of theatrical release. Universal deserves credit for fighting for flexibility on behalf of its creations, an issue that was hitting very personal for movie exhibition companies at the beginning of the pandemic, a time when the future seemed a lot more in the air.

With some light at the end of the tunnel emerging, this is a good time for Disney and Warner Bros to assert themselves in similar ways. The top movie theater company literally signed their own industry’s death certificate, though it should be recognized that filmmakers themselves have a voice, in particular Nolan, who’s worked his whole career with WB and has not held back his disdain for the HBO Max decision.

COVID-19 accelerated already in motion plans by movie producers and distributors to eventually limit their dependency of the large theaters who display their content to mass audiences for heavy prices. While high-profile and high-maintenance auteurs like Nolan may try to leverage their creative abilities to get in the way of these plans, I don’t like their chances at stopping the movement.

This reminds me of the music industry in the early 2000s and a future that I was trying to carve out for myself — I graduated from Columbia College of Chicago with a Business Management B.A. with a concentration in Music Business. At that time the music industry was shrinking thanks to its own pandemic, otherwise known as music pirating on the internet. Out of that craziness Apple’s iTunes became ubiquitous while Tower Records started on its fate as one of the stores people now mention to feel old (though there is always life to be had online). The same thing is happening to the movie industry.

Americans like things quick and cheap and that’s not changing during this current era of great discomfort and uncertainty. It’s as affordable as ever for one to build a respectable home theater with the cost of high definition TVs, sound systems and high-speed internet having dramatically decreased in price. An ever-widening range of streaming services are covering just about every major film and TV property from the past 50 years, certain packages can cover all of a consumer’s needs for around $15 a month.

Just ask yourself this question if you’re truly concerned about the future of nights out at the movies — are you willing to sacrifice your health and spend at least $20-30 every time out to see one movie in order to uphold the “theater experience?” Or would you simply subscribe to HBO Max and watch as many new and classic movies as you want in one sitting all from the comfort of your own home? I think we all know the ending to this story.

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