Warner Bros. Pictures, best known for cartoons, the first talking pictures, and early TV series, is making history again. The production company’s entire line of 2021 films will be released as videos-on-demand. That means folks can watch first-run movies from the comfort of their own couches—at the same time the films play in theaters.
U.S. movie studios have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic with theater closings and disappointing ticket sales. Some theaters opened in late summer but closed again as virus cases surged.
The 117-year-old Warner Bros.’ studio is a market leader. Its films account for $1.5-2 billion in yearly ticket sales in North America.
But last year’s stats were dismal. In 2019, Americans bought a billion more movie tickets than they did in 2020. Facing those plummeting numbers, Ann Sarnoff, chief executive of Warner Media, says the company “needed a creative solution.”
So AT&T-owned Warner Bros. is trying something new. This year, the studio will debut movies in theaters—and on a streaming service at the same time. Films will be available to paid subscribers without further charge. Then after one month, the streaming will stop, and movies will continue only in theaters.
The studio considered other options. Studio execs thought about releasing big-budget films in half-full theaters or delaying film releases for another year. But those options were unappealing. “If we saw an end in sight to the pandemic, we might have a different strategy,” Sarnoff says. “But we don’t see that at this moment.”
Warner Bros.’ 2021 schedule includes the live-action/computer-animated comedy film Tom & Jerry, based on the 1940s cartoon of the same name.
Sarnoff says, “We’ve got to get people back in theaters at full capacity at some point.” She calls the new model a “temporary solution” and a “one-year plan.”
Indeed, Warner’s move seems to admit that a recovery for theaters is at least a year away.
“I’m very optimistic that this is a win-win-win for our fans, our filmmakers, and our exhibitors,” Sarnoff says. “We’re getting the movies out. We’re allowing them to be seen on the big screen, which is what they were made for, but giving an alternative.”
“Our content is extremely valuable,” WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar asserts, “unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone.”