“The Batman,” featuring Robert Pattison as The Caped Crusader, is one of the biggest hits of the year. But if you haven’t gotten around to seeing it, don’t worry. It’s now on HBO Max (DISCA) – Get Discovery, Inc. Class A Report, even though it only opened on March 4.
And the most surprising thing is that sort of ultrafast turnaround from theatrical release to streaming premiere is that it’s no longer all that surprising. That might be a good thing for movie fans, but is it a bad thing for the movie industry?
The Theatrical Release Window Is Tighter Than Ever
As DVD sales, the advent of streaming and Video on Demand rental all changed the ways people could see films, theater owners lobbied for a period of exclusivity, generally at least 90 days, before a big studio film was available anywhere else.
As VOD became more popular in the back half of the ‘10s, it became fairly common for independent and low-budget films to be available to rent through Apple as soon as they were released in theaters. But generally, studios would hold off on making their big hits available too early.
Even as recently as 2019, hit films such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” weren’t available on streaming or Blu-Ray until at least three months later. But studios who were still reeling from the collapse of the DVD market (once a very lucrative revenue source for film studios) in the wake of the streaming boom were looking for other ways to monetize their product.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a film’s audience could grow over time, and sometimes positive word of mouth could turn a long-running film like “Harold and Maude” from a box office under-performer to a hit. That model still works for some independent or boutique films, but studios are aware that these days, films make most of their money in the first month, at least in terms of ticket sales.
So the studios are eager to either strike a licensing deal with Netflix, or put their latest film on their own streaming platform (every major studio but Sony has one) in order to boost their subscriber numbers. But the studios also don’t want to anger distributors and theater chains. Or at least, they don’t want to anger them too much.
But for studios, finding the sweet spot between keeping theater owners happy, but also keeping subscribers happy, has proved to be a tricky balance.
Is 45 Days Now The New Normal?
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed society in ways we are still only now understanding, and that’s certainly the case with the film industry.
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When theaters largely closed in 2020, the studios all took different tactics.
While Marvel certainly had the option to release “Black Widow” on Disney+ (DIS) – Get Walt Disney Company Report, in the summer of 2020, but it decided to hold off a year, until the availability of vaccinations made it so people felt safe going back to the theaters.
But Warner decided to release its hotly anticipated superhero film “Wonder Woman 1984” onto its recently relaunched streamer HBO Max, as well as the Oscar nominated film “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
But last year was one of unsteady rebuilding for a film industry that wasn’t sure of the way forward.
Even as vaccines became common, many people were understandably nervous about returning to theaters. So for all of last year, Warner Bros released high–profile films such as “Dune” and “The Suicide Squad” into both theaters and HBO Max on the same day. (The relatively weak performance of “The Suicide Squad” was taken as indication that people were still a bit nervous to back to theaters.)
But by the fall, studios had chosen what, for them, seemed to be a happy medium. Theaters could have blockbusters like “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” or the Ryan Reynolds comedy “Free Guy” for 45 days exclusively, but then studios such as Paramount Warner Bros. and Disney would put them on streaming.
So that good news for beleaguered theater chains like AMC (AMCX) – Get AMC Networks Inc. Class A Report, which desperately relies on franchise films to get people to buy tickets, is that it has at least some exclusivity. But is it getting the short end of the stick?
“The Batman” has proved to be a big hit, with an impressive U.S. box office total of $365 million. But a decade ago, previous Batman films did even better, with “The Dark Knight Rises” pulling in $448 million, and “The Dark Knight” pulling in $534 million.
With that in mind, by putting the Pattison take on Batman on streaming services so quickly, is the newly formed Warner Bros. Discovery undercutting the film’s ability to eventually match those numbers?
And will AMC feel the pinch when more casual filmgoers, who once upon a time would have caught a popular film on a Tuesday evening a month later to avoid the crowd, now know they only need to wait six weeks before it hits streaming?
After a dry run in 2021, “The Batman” feels like the first stress test for Hollywood’s new 45-day streaming model. How it plays out for both AMC and HBO Max will tell us a lot about the way movies will be released and seen going forward.