Can 2021 Rebuild Movie Theaters’ Theatrical Window?

After a grim 2020, and a wobbly kickoff to 2021, there is still reason to be cautiously optimistic about movie theaters' future.

Empty luxury movie theater chairs
Photo: Getty Images

Last year the theatrical window was broken, thoroughly and repeatedly, as if a rock managed to shatter every big screen in America. In the aftermath, and as movie theater owners waded through the debris, numerous reports made the same gloomy prognosis: audiences’ relationship with movies had changed.

Perhaps. Yet it’s also fair to wonder if this change is temporary. We may now live in a world where superhero and Pixar movies can premiere on streaming, but the new year provides a new movie release calendar, and with it renewed commitments to bring audiences back to cinemas.

There are exceptions, of course. WarnerMedia made 17 of them when they announced that, like Wonder Woman 1984, Warner Brothers’ entire 2021 film slate would simultaneously premiere in theaters and on HBO Max in the U.S. The rollout of the decision was sloppy, however, with none of the filmmakers involved being warned, much less consulted. Similarly, there are concerns that profit participation and residuals, especially for below the line players, has been thrown to the wind. And to date, Warners’ fire sale approach remains isolated.

Other studios have reason to be cautious. At a glance, WB putting WW84 on HBO Max seems like a victory for WarnerMedia. While official new subscription numbers have not been released as of press time—as is typical with the Oz-like management of streaming data—we’ve nonetheless had several glimpses at the man behind the curtain. For starters, WarnerMedia announced this month that activated HBO Max subscriptions rose in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year to 17.2 million activations, doubling the reported 8.6 million activations back in October.

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However, it is unclear how many of those new 17.2 million subscriptions came from new paying subscribers to the service, as opposed to customers with HBO cable subscriptions activating already existing accounts they previously had left dormant. Indeed, every one of HBO’s traditional 34+ million subscribers has an account to HBO Max.

For better clarity, Antenna, a streaming service measurement and analytics firm, reported that HBO Max gained more sign-ups in the first three days of Wonder Woman 1984’s release than any other three-day period for a streamer in 2020. And market research firm Apptopia claims an estimated 544,000 users signed up for HBO Max on mobile devices in that timeframe alone, which excludes Smart TVs, gaming consoles, and computers. When the end goal is to drive up subscriptions and market awareness for the new streaming service, WW84 appears to be a massive success through this limited information.

However, taking even that narrow 544,000 number into account, and assuming the number multiplied by 10 times over the next month with new subscribers and other devices (which would make up about a third of the new 17.2 million activations), this might still amount to just $82 million in new revenue from WW84‘s release alone. When coupled with WW84’s current $153.3 million worldwide gross (of which the studio will get about half), it still could have only earned a little over a quarter of the original Wonder Woman’s global run in 2017.

Without actual numbers this remains obviously (and frustratingly) speculative, but the exercise highlights how difficult it is for a major blockbuster to generate streaming viewership worthy of a $200 million budget (not to mention marketing and additional costs). WarnerMedia essentially sacrificed the film as a loss leader to buoy a service that, as of last October, less than a third of regular HBO subscribers had even bothered activating. Hence why the actual benefits are only seen if subscribers keep paying monthly subscriptions after the first month… and grow in number beyond the WW84 release when WB’s less high profile 2021 film slate unspools.

This is not to discredit HBO Max, which is a wonderful resource for cinephiles. Rather it’s to illustrate that the filmmaking industry, at least as we know it, has as vested an interest as exhibitors in seeing the theatrical window rebuilt in some fashion, even if it never quite looks the same.

Consider that while the Walt Disney Company, with its much healthier streaming service, has put movies like Soul and now Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney+ (with a luxurious surcharge in the latter’s case), Black Widow and the rest of their Marvel Studios slate is scheduled for three theatrical Disney releases in 2021. Meanwhile Universal Pictures, which broke the theatrical window first by putting Trolls World Tour on premium video on demand, is still committed to getting massive blockbusters like F9 and Jurassic World: Dominion in cinemas.

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As 2021 brings new hope for mass COVID-19 vaccination, it also hints of a potential lifeline to cinemas. The blockbusters that underwrite the current studio system need them, and the filmmakers who dreamed of having their visions on the big screen will continue to demand them—as will those whose livelihoods depend on theatrical residuals. This holds as true for Steven Spielberg’s prestigious musical remake, West Side Story, as it does for David Lowry’s enigmatic retelling of Arthurian legend, The Green Knight.

And it holds true for Patty Jenkins too. In December, WB trumpeted on the heels of WW84’s debut that Wonder Woman 3 with Jenkins in the director’s chair was in the works. The studio also unsurprisingly confirmed the movie would have a theatrical release. This was a foregone conclusion though, especially given Jenkins’ past statements.

“I know that I’d love to do the third one if the circumstances were right and there was still a theatrical model possible,” Jenkins recently told The New York Times. “I don’t know that I would if there wasn’t.”

Comments—and commitments—like these ensure there will be some kind of a theatrical model. This year and beyond.