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The HBO Max cinematic experiment could finally justify the SVOD’s top-tier price tag

Wonder Woman 1984

WarnerMedia has announced its latest strategic push to maximise HBO Max’s chances of success in the new year: bringing its entire cinematic slate to streaming.

Proving that the call to shift Wonder Woman 1984 to the SVOD was not a one off, the company will launch all of its 2021 cinematic releases day-and-date on HBO Max and in theatres in the US.

This ranges from cartoon comedy Tom & Jerry to Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated Dune remake and even the first Matrix movie in almost 20 years.

The move represents the latest aggressive push from WarnerMedia to boost HBO Max, which added 8.6 million subscribers in Q3.

The strategy itself is an interesting experiment – and Warner itself has branded it as a year-long experiment as the cinema industry in the US continues to battle with an accelerating third wave of Covid-19.

Rather than simply releasing the films on the platform, as Disney, Netflix and others do, WarnerMedia is explicitly putting a timer on the movies. Starting with Wonder Woman 1984, any of these cinematic releases will be available for a one month window, after which they will be exclusive to cinemas before then following the typical route of physical and digital sales and eventually landing back on HBO Max.

This will also coincide with the much-requested introduction of 4K and HDR to the SVOD, with each of these new cinematic films promised to be released in the superior video fidelity.

Warner will hope that this limited release window will ensure that users keep their subscriptions up through the year as new films come out, rather than just dipping in and out as-and-when the films they are interested in pop up on the service.

Explaining the move, Warner Bros CEO Ann Sarnoff said: “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 US will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.”

Certainly while the UK and the rest of Europe appears to be turning a corner on the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that any positive steps in the US on a federal level will only be made following the inauguration of president Joe Biden on January 20, with current president Donald Trump currently appearing more concerned with challenging the results of last month’s election.

Tenet failed to perform in the US box office, a contributing factor to WarnerMedia’s streaming decision

A cautiousness for the future is combined with Warner being burned by the box office in 2020. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, while performing well internationally, made just over US$40 million in the US (from a budget of US$205 million). The film failed to get audiences back in seats – partly due to the fact that cinemas in major cities like San Francisco and New York still remain shut, proving that there is little viability in launching major releases in the US for the foreseeable future.

Warner’s approach diverged from the norm somewhat from the start of the pandemic, when studios like NBCUniversal made their cinematic films available for rental on storefronts like iTunes and Amazon.

Warner will have undoubtedly considered this, and the company has evidently calculated that the films will better serve them as an attraction for subscribers on HBO Max.

From a user perspective, the addition of these latest blockbusters will go some way to justify a high price tag which has been a major criticism of the service. While costing around the same as Netflix, HBO Max costs almost a full US$10 more than Disney+, while NBCU’s Peacock has a range of tiers maxing out at US$9.99 per month.

It is also worth comparing this strategy with that of Disney, which has made a similar decision to pull a number of its previously planned cinematic releases – such as the upcoming Pixar movie Soul.

Disney’s approach perhaps shows a more bullish attitude towards the streamer which has achieved 73 million subscribers in less than a year. All but two of Pixar’s films from the past decade made more than US$500 million at the box office, proving that the studio has been a stable cash cow for Disney since its US$7.4 billion acquisition in 2006.

Such is Disney’s confidence in Disney+ that it is reportedly considering moving its other films like Cruella and Pinocchio to being streaming exclusives, while reserving cinematic releases for its big franchise releases such as films in the Marvel and Star Wars brands.

Pixar’s Soul will release exclusively on Disney+ on December 25

Warner however, while clearly prioritising HBO Max, is still showing a desire to keep the big cinema chains onside while also placating viewers who want to see cinematic spectacles like Dune on the big screen.

Warner’s streaming approach is also heavily US-centric. The company has announced that it will replace its HBO streaming products in Europe with HBO Max in 2021, but those subscribers will not gain access to these cinematic releases.

For now we can only speculate on what the future holds for HBO Max, but this latest announcement clearly shows that the company is serious about it being a Netflix-rivalling success.