Digital streaming release of new films should only be a temporary strategy

Warner Bros.’ recent decision to allow streaming of all of its new movies on HBO Max in 2021 is facing controversy. The studio’s plan will enable its 17 slated movies to debut in cinemas and its online streaming service at the same time. 

The pandemic has dealt a significant blow to the film industry, with over 5,400 theaters closing down in 2020. In order to counter the negative impact, film studios such as Walt Disney and Universal Pictures have already changed their plans for theatrical releases and allowed streaming of their new films either partly or exclusively online.

Usually, newly-released movies will be exclusively shown in theaters and stay in a theatrical window for about three months before appearing on streaming platforms. For theaters, this serves as their main source of income. However, the value of this distribution model decreases during the pandemic as more and more film studios are concentrating on streaming platforms. Warner Bros.’ decision to stream its own movies on HBO Max can also be seen as a sign to promote their platform and make it a strong competitor against Netflix and Disney+. 

Even though Warner Bros.’ decision only applies to movies that will be released this year, many believe it has changed the future landscape of the film industry. Film directors and talent agencies have expressed their disappointment toward this issue. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who has been working with Warner Bros. since 2002, is a strong proponent of theaters. He vehemently criticized HBO Max, calling it “the worst streaming service.” Denis Villeneuve, the director of “Dune,” also stated that Warner Bros.’ parent company, AT&T, has “absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here,” and is sacrificing Warner Bros.’ 2021 productions to “grab the audience’s attention.”

Theaters are not the only group that suffers from this change in movie distribution. The directors, actors and members of the crew will also face new challenges because their direct revenue also comes from the theaters. Warner Bros. did not negotiate with its clients before announcing its new streaming strategy. This affects the original contracts they signed and brings out controversies over the amount of compensation that they may receive. This also discourages movie talents from working with the studio.

Movie theaters are and should remain the most ideal place for the audience to watch movies because they provide the best visual and sound experience. Unlike computer and TV screens, the big screens are better at exhibiting the colors, lighting and qualities of the film, and all the other works and efforts expended by the cinematographers and members of the lighting and grip crews. The massive speaker system in theaters also provides a much better sound quality, which helps to enhance the movie experience.

Movie theaters also provide the best atmosphere that allows the audience to fully immerse themselves in the movie experience with fewer disruptions from the outside world. Unlike watching a movie at home, where it can be paused and resumed at any second, the audience will need to dedicate an uninterrupted part of their time to focus on the storytelling, which makes their experience more special and memorable.

If streaming new films online becomes a regular practice, audiences may be discouraged from entering theaters to enjoy the best movie experience. What is more, movie theaters will take away the jobs of cinema staff and cause a higher unemployment rate within the industry. Given the fact that over 60% of the domestic theaters are closed, these employees are already having a hard time making ends meet. Hence, it is necessary for students to support the local business by going to cinemas to watch new films.

It is understandable that movie studios are trying to find an alternate plan to make up for their economic losses. However, this should only be a short-term change, and studios should go back to the traditional distribution system after the pandemic to protect the valuable and collective theater experience shared by the audience.