HBO Max's plan to completely change moviegoing, explained

Warner Bros.

Last week, something big was coming for the film business. “I guess the whole movie industry changes in, oh, 23 more minutes,” entertainment writer Mike Ryan tweeted last Thursday afternoon, dangling his press release intel. The news in question — that every new 2021 Warner Bros. film will debut on HBO Max at the same time as theaters — certainly was a major enough sea change to worry some folks. This made an incredibly tenuous moment for the movie theater industry look apocalyptic. But was the panic overblown? Who has the most to lose from HBO Max streaming blockbuster releases right at home? Can you even watch HBO Max on your current TV? Below, we’ll walk through the burning questions behind HBO Max and the broader film industry’s current upheaval.

So, what is HBO Max?

Different from HBO Go or HBO Now before it, the new streaming service aims to be the flagship platform for all of Warner Media. It currently boasts an impressive catalog of classic films, to go with a growing library of new series and original movies — on top of everything else on HBO proper. This month will bring Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk, along with the streaming premiere of Wonder Woman 1984. What once seemed to be an aimless platform without much of a cultural footprint to show for it, has maybe just irreversibly shaken up the film industry.

Can I watch HBO Max on my TV? Do I already have it?

It’s complicated. At press time, HBO Max is still unavailable on Roku devices — but after Warner recently signed a deal to make it available on Fire TV devices, it could be fast approaching. If you already subscribe to HBO through its app or most major cable providers, you already have HBO Max Access — all you have to do is download the HBO Max app, and sign in with your existing HBO email and password. There’s something morbidly funny about the Roku contractual dispute and poor messaging potentially torpedoing the movie business...but I haven’t gotten around to laughing just yet.

What movies are coming to HBO Max in 2021?

After Wonder Woman 1984 kicks off the simultaneous theatrical and streaming experiment this month, Warner is offering a bounty of surefire box office hits on HBO Max next year. There’s The Suicide Squad, Dune, and The Matrix 4 headlining the studio’s 17 new films. Mid-budget blockbusters and awards-friendly films are also going this route — including Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, Judas and the Black Messiah, Godzilla vs. Kong, Denzel Washington’s The Little Things, the Sopranos prequel film The Many Saints of Newark, and more. If there’s one caveat, I could see some of the marquee releases getting delayed again if the early subscriber returns aren’t strong. It’s a drastic move that seems to anticipate another full year without normal theatergoing — and possibly much longer if Warner pulls this off.

Who’s upset about this move?

Well for starters, a lot of average moviegoers who desperately fear for the future of movie theaters — I’m one of them! But the industry types whose livelihoods are impacted first and foremost are already voicing their outrage. On Monday, the dam burst open: the Independent Cinema Alliance voiced their disappointment, and pleaded for a return to theatrical exclusivity. Christopher Nolan — yes, the same one who vociferously pushed for Tenet to open in theaters to limited returns during a pandemic — was a little more unsparing, calling HBO Max “the worst streaming service.” Despite him currently reaping exactly what he sowed this summer, Nolan’s more or less on the money here:

“Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

Then, there’s the case of Legendary Entertainment, the production company behind Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong, which is reportedly mulling a lawsuit against HBO over the decision. The New York Times also reports that talent and management agencies were left in the dark until 90 minutes before Warner’s press release, which left them on “war footing.” Literally everyone involved in film production — from marquee stars to crew staffers — are already bracing for a fight over significantly diminished paychecks. Without robust global box office returns, how could you even pay actors and VFX and set design the same amount on a huge production? Something has to give, it seems.

Will HBO Max really kill off the movie theater as we know it?

Although there was legitimate cause for concern from the jump, I’m a little more hopeful than I was on Thursday about this just being a short-term power play. Warner maintains that it’s a temporary move, designed to juice subscriber numbers and get through the pandemic’s second year, but some pundits are already regarding it as their permanent plan to stick out in a crowded streaming marketplace. A guy who’s under contract with HBO Max might be one of their most likely water-carriers, but I’m inclined to trust Steven Soderbergh’s judgment in a recent Daily Beast interview, on if this is the beginning of the end for movie theaters:

“No. Not at all. It’s just a reaction to an economic reality that I think everybody is going to have to acknowledge pretty soon, which is that even with a vaccine, the theatrical movie business won’t be robust enough in 2021 to justify the amount of P&A you need to spend to put a movie into wide release. There’s no scenario in which a theater that is 50 percent full, or at least can’t be made 100 percent full, is a viable paradigm to put out a movie in. But that will change...There are too many companies that have invested too much money in the prospect of putting out a movie that blows up in theaters—there’s nothing like it. It’s all going to come back. But I think Warners is saying: not as soon as you think."

I feel fairly comfortable in predicting that this won’t be the death blow to movie theaters, even if they become more of a luxury product, singularly focused on big event films. (Some would argue that, well, we were basically there pre-pandemic.) In any case, expect a huge uptick in piracy in the coming year — and sustained, passionate pushback from the film industry players who stand to lose the most from a streaming-focused release strategy.