From the moment Warner Bros. announced its plan to release all of its 2021 movies in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously, the studio has desperately insisted that the strategy would only apply to 2021 and would not be an across-the-board strategy past this year. The idea is that it wasn’t meant to be a new way of doing things, or a blatant plug for HBO Max, but simply a reaction to the ongoing pandemic and a way to give these movies an opportunity to actually come out rather than face endless delays again.
But nobody has ever really bought that argument, to the extent that Warner Bros. already had to reiterate that it’s just a 2021 thing only four months into 2021. Unfortunately, even that reiteration wasn’t particularly clear, with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar declaring that it’s “fair to say” that something like a “big DC movie” would “go exclusively to theaters first and then go somewhere like an HBO Max”—making it sound like he’s not all that convinced himself, at least when it comes to anything short of The Batman.
Now, with COVID variants continuing to spread, Warner Bros. has come out again to say “we promise we’re not doing the HBO Max thing again… probably.” That’s not an exact quote, but the exact quote (via The Hollywood Reporter) from Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff isn’t far off: “Have we thought about going back to day and date? Sure, we thought about it, but we have made our commitments to the theaters to the agents to the talent.” She also added, “Everyone was hoping we would be on the other side of the pandemic by now.”
Sarnoff also shared would could be a clarification of Kilar’s “big DC movie” point, noting that moviegoers over 35 have been more hesitant to go back to theaters while young are more eager to do it, which has led to “big action-adventure movies” doing the best at the box office this year (Shang-Chi, the Venom sequel, and F9 have made significantly more money than any other movie this year). So something like The Batman makes more sense to release in theaters, whereas something smaller that grown-ups will care more about might make more sense—even after 2021—to release on HBO Max.
Still not super convincing, but it seems unlikely that Warner will ever release all of its movies on HBO Max again. That would risk pissing off too many people, including major filmmakers and the movie chains, that are too important.