In seismic shift, Warner Bros. to stream all 2021 films

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This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Timothee Chalamet, left, and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from the upcoming 2021 film "Dune." Warner Bos. Pictures on Thursday announced that all of its 2021 film slate will stream on HBO Max at the same time they play in theaters. (Chia Bella James/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

NEW YORK – In the most seismic shift by a Hollywood studio yet during the pandemic, Warner Bros. Pictures on Thursday announced that all of its 2021 film slate — including a new “Matrix” movie, “Godzilla vs. Kong” and the Lin-Manuel Miranda adaptation “In the Heights” — will stream on HBO Max at the same time the films play in theaters.

Among the myriad release plan changes wrought by the pandemic, no studio has so fully embraced streaming as a lifeline. But after disappointing domestic ticket sales for “Tenet," and with the majority of U.S. theaters currently closed, the AT&T-owned Warner Bros. will turn to a hybrid distribution model next year. Films will debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max in the U.S. After one month, they will stop streaming and continue to play only in theaters.

The move follows Warner Bros.' decision to put “Wonder Woman 1984” on HBO Max in December, along with a concurrent theatrical run. If that pivot sent shockwaves through the industry, Thursday's announcement rattled Hollywood to the core.

“Given the unprecedented time that we're in, we needed a creative solution to address our fans, our filmmakers and our exhibitors, said Ann Sarnoff, chief executive of WarnerMedia Studios, in an interview. “Big and bold is a necessity right now.”

Sarnoff called it a “temporary solution” and a “one-year plan.” The studio said other options — releasing big-budget films solely in reduced capacity theaters or delaying films another year — weren't appealing. Warner Bros.' move amounts to an acknowledgement that any full rebound for theaters is still a year or more away.

“We've got to get people back in theaters at full capacity at some point. If you read the medical experts that's going to take a while to work its way through the system," said Sarnoff. “If we saw an end in sight to the pandemic, we might have a different strategy. But we don’t see that at this moment.”

HBO Max is only available in the United States. Internationally, the studio’s 17 films planned for 2021 release will roll out exclusively in theaters.

Warner Bros.' decision resonates especially because the 117-year-old studio of “Casablanca” and “Harry Potter” has long been a market-leader in Hollywood — and one known as especially supportive of theaters. The studio has generally ranked among the top two studios in market share over the past decade — most recently dwarfed only by Walt Disney. Warner's films typically account for $1.5-2 billion annual in ticket sales in North America — a lot of money to compensate for in HBO Max subscribers. Warner Bros. confirmed the films will be available to subscribers with no further charge.