You may have to wait longer to see big movies on your streaming devices.
Earlier this year, Warner Bros. Discovery’s “The Batman,” the latest cinematic depiction of the Caped Crusader, hit HBO Max 45 days after it opened in theaters. At the time, this move actually read a bit like an act of restraint on the part of the streaming service.
After covid vaccines became available last year, people started slowly coming back to movie theaters, but it wasn’t until fall that the box office started showing signs of life. At the time, the future of movie theaters looked uncertain at best, and a pre-merger Warner Bros. (WBD) – Get Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. Report devised a strategy of releasing films such as “The Suicide Squad” and “Dune” in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously, as way to boost subscriber numbers for the streaming service.
At the end of last year, HBO agreed to cease the same-day released practice, and Cineworld (CNNWF) , parent company of Regal Cinemas, signed a multi-year agreement with Warner Bros. to show its films in Cineworld movie theaters in the U.S, and Warner Bros. shifted to a 45-day window of theatrical exclusivity.
At first, it seemed like a tight window of theatrical exclusivity to appease theater chains such as AMC (AMCX) – Get AMC Networks Inc. Report, followed by a speedy push at a streaming service was going to be the model going forward. But with box office attendance looking healthier, it seems this idea is getting a rethink.
Disney Tweaks the 45-Day Window
This year Disney (DIS) – Get The Walt Disney Company Report has adopted a similar 45-day wait for films such as “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and “Lightyear.”
But the 45-day release window has come and gone for Disney’s other superhero film of the summer, “Thor: Love and Thunder,” but the film won’t be on the platform service until September 8, aka Disney+ Day, the company’s celebration of its streaming service and perhaps a sign of a shift in strategy.
Similarly, the window has come and gone for Warner Bros. recent hit “Elvis,” but that’s not set to hit HBO Max until September, and there’s no information about when Paramount Global’s hit “Top Gun: Maverick,” the biggest film of the summer, will be available on Paramount+, though it is currently available on video on demand services.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Back in the Blockbuster Video days, it was customary for a film to not be available to rent until at least three months after it arrived in theaters, and a half a year’s wait wasn’t unthinkable if the film stayed in theaters long enough; the blockbuster “Titanic” was available to rent eight months after its December 1997 release, and the film was so popular that it was still in theaters at the time.
Even as streaming services and video on demand caught on last decade, blockbuster films such as “Avengers: Endgame,” still didn’t hit the secondary market until at least three months after their theatrical release.
While we might not be going back to that model necessarily, it does seem that studios are easing back on the rush to get their biggest films on streaming services as fast as possible, and there are two people who are largely responsible for the shift.
In 2020, many studios experimented with releasing the films they assumed would be blockbusters onto their streaming services, as was the case with Warner Bros. Discovery and “Wonder Woman 1984.” But Tom Cruise insisted that “Top Gun: Maverick” be held back instead of being released via Paramount+ (PARA) – Get Paramount Global Report, saying that was “never going to happen.”
Cruise is a hardline defender of the theatrical experience, and also a defender of the percentage of the backend he makes from a film’s box office, and is using his clout to make sure theaters don’t completely lose their audience to streaming services, with The Hollywood Reporter noting the actor had “had lawyered up a year earlier when the studio notified him that ‘Mission: Impossible 7’ would have a 45-day theatrical window — far shorter than his usual three-month run — before streaming on Paramount+.”
For a while, studios needed to balance how to maximize their theatrical profits with boosting their streaming subscriber numbers and not angering theatrical chains too much. But thanks to the success of “Top Gun: Maverick,” which has earned more than a billion dollars worldwide, Cruise has the leverage to deescalate Paramount’s push into streaming, and has demanded that none of his films for the company show up any earlier than three months after release, as he feels that putting a film up any sooner, or having a set streaming date, will disincentivize people to see it in the theater.
Similarly, Warner Bros. Discovery’s new CEO David Zaslav has announced that the company “will fully embrace theatrical,” with a theatrical shift away from making expensive movies just for HBO Max, which is one of the reasons “Batgirl” was recently shelved, as well as a rethinking of the 45-day window, which was the strategy pushed by his predecessor Warner Media CEO Jason Kilar.
Zaslav doesn’t want to cut into the profits of Warner films, and Decider has reported that the streaming release of theatrical films “moving forward would be determined on a case-by-case basis, rather than the strict 45-day window.”
“When you’re in theaters, the value of the content and the overall viewing experience is elevated,” Zaslav said on a recent earnings call. “Then when the same content moves to PVOD, and then streaming it is elevated again. As films moved from one window to the next, their overall value is elevated, elevated, elevated. We saw this clearly demonstrated with ‘The Batman’ and ‘Elvis.’”
So now the status quo of waiting a few weeks to watch the latest blockbuster has changed, and if you want to see popcorn fare, you’re going to have to be more patient. Or just head to the theater, as Cruise would prefer.