Warner Bros. Will Now Evenly Split Its Movies Between Theatrical And HBO Max

The COVID-19 pandemic changed many things, among them the way movies are released. The future of movie distribution is looking a little fuzzy, with studios weighing the options of theatrical exclusivity or hybrid streaming releases. Some movies have done really well with hybrid releases, like Denis Villeneuve's "Dune," while others have seriously underperformed. 

The honchos over at Warner Bros. have come up with a solution for next year, and they will split their releases evenly between theater exclusives and HBO Max streaming exclusives. 

'Project Popcorn' and the COVID-19 Pandemic

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros. took a look at the numbers from what they call "Project Popcorn" — all of the studio's 2021 theatrical releases were also offered on the same release day on HBO Max. The initiative was created to deal with the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic and was designed by WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar. The idea was to help draw customers to WarnerMedia's new streaming service while allowing the creative folks to keep making movies even while all the movie theaters were closed. 

Unfortunately, most of the movies released this way didn't do very well theatrically. "In the Heights," "The Suicide Squad," and "The Many Saints of Newark" all underperformed, though the entirety of the blame can't be placed on same-day streaming. There is still a pandemic happening, after all, and many people are still feeling the financial strains of lockdowns, job closures, and everything else that came at us in 2020. The project ends when 2021 ends, and it only ever applied to the U.S., anyway. Internationally, the 2021 releases all opened exclusively in theaters. 

The folks at Warner Bros. are trying to improve their box office numbers from even before the pandemic. There's a chance that Discovery will buy out WarnerMedia for $43 billion, and no one has any idea how that will impact things for Warner Bros. Until that happens, however, they're going to stick to their plan to "fix" their release structure.

The Plan for 2022

There aren't really any small or mid-range movies on next year's Warner Bros. slate. It's all event movies all the time, starting with the Robert Pattinson-led "The Batman" on March 4, 2022. There's also a Harry Potter movie ("Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore") on April 15, the DC superhero movies "Black Adam" (July 29), "The Flash" (November 4), and "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom" (December 16). There's also "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann's musical biographical drama "Elvis" on June 3 and the Stephen King vampire adaptation "Salem's Lot" on September 9. 

Before the pandemic, the studio released between 18 to 23 films theatrically each calendar year. The new plan is to make 12 movies for theatrical release and 12 original movies for HBO Max. There will no longer be day-and-date releases, and a 45-day theatrical exclusivity window will go back in place. (Prior to the pandemic, most studios had 90-day windows, but 45 looks like it will be the new norm.)

The movies most likely to hit theaters will be the ones that will draw the biggest crowds, which is why the slate looks so blockbuster-loaded. Warner Bros. Entertainment chairman-CEO Ann Sarnoff explained their rationale for which films will have which distribution method:

"And, no great surprise, the ones we're putting in theaters are the ones we think we'll work. I's not just about budget size, it's also about genre and the behavioral patterns of people. I would love to put dramas and comedies on the biggest screen possible; it's just right now they are opening. Honestly, they weren't opening pre-COVID either."

The news is a bit disappointing to movie fans who can't go to the theater for whatever reason, but it's understandable from a business standpoint. The real question is whether or not splitting the movies that way will help or hinder the studio's chances, given the fact that nothing like this has really been tried yet. 

I guess we'll just have to see how it all goes when "The Batman" zips into theaters in March.