Dune, The Matrix 4 and more all coming to HBO Max AND theaters at the same time

JASON MOMOA as Duncan Idaho in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures, Chiabella James
JASON MOMOA as Duncan Idaho in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “DUNE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures, Chiabella James /

Warner Bros. plans to release all of its 2021 movies — Dune, The Suicide Squad, The Matrix 4, etc — to HBO Max AND theaters at the same time.

Warner Bros. has announced that it will be releasing its entire slate of movies for 2021 — a field that includes The Suicide SquadThe Matrix 4DuneGodzilla vs. KingSpace Jam: A New LegacyMortal Kombot and Tom & Jerry — directly to its streaming service HBO Max at the same time that the films land in theaters.

So for example, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune is scheduled to come out in theaters on October 1, 2021. And it will indeed land in theaters on that day, but it’ll also be on HBO Max and stay there for a month (and then probably come back after the the movie has had a full theatrical run). It’s pretty similar to what Warner Bros. is doing with Wonder Woman 1984, which will land in both theaters and on HBO Max on December 25, Christmas Day.

This is a big move. All the big movie studios have been trying to find ways to deal with fewer people going to movie theaters during the pandemic, starting with Disney releasing its Mulan remake straight to Disney+ (for an added fee) a few months back, without releasing it into theaters at all. But Warner Bros. is stepping things up. The studio has stressed that this is only the plan until the pandemic is over, but once they’ve crossed that bridge, I don’t know if there’s any going back.

I mean, Dune isn’t coming out until October of next year. We’re hearing a lot more about vaccines lately, so surely (hopefully) the pandemic will be more or less under control by then, even if people will be slow to go back to theaters? If Warner Bros. is planning that far ahead, I kind of doubt they’ll stop even after people are willing to go to the movies again.

After all, this is a great way to drive subscriptions to HBO Max, which has lagged behind competitors like Disney+. (Getting the thing on Roku would help, too, although the service is finally on Amazon Fire devices.) And I can see Disney doing something similar, but I don’t know if they’ll even bother releasing movies into theaters.

Anyway, per The Hollywood Reporter, the executives at Warner Bros. made some executive noises about the move, starting with WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff:

"We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group. No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021. With this unique one-year plan, we can support our partners in exhibition with a steady pipeline of world-class films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see our amazing 2021 films. We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors, and we’re extremely grateful to our filmmaking partners for working with us on this innovative response to these circumstances."

Next up is WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar:

"After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months. More importantly, we are planning to bring consumers 17 remarkable movies throughout the year, giving them the choice and the power to decide how they want to enjoy these films. Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all."

Finally, Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich weighed in:

"This hybrid exhibition model enables us to best support our films, creative partners and moviegoing in general throughout 2021. We have a fantastic, wide-ranging slate of titles from talented and visionary filmmakers next year, and we’re excited to be able get these movies in front of audiences around the world. And, as always, we’ll support all of our releases with innovative and robust marketing campaigns for their theatrical debuts, while highlighting this unique opportunity to see our films domestically via HBO Max as well."

Pretty wild. What do you make of it? Are you sad about the death of theaters or happy about the triumph of streaming services? Or maybe I’m making too big a deal of both?

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