AT&T's (T 0.07%) WarnerMedia segment just launched an aggressive attack on the movie industry status quo. The company announced it will be releasing its 2021 slate of films on the HBO Max streaming service next year at no additional cost. This is supposedly a "one-year plan," but if I know anything about human beings, I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes part of the new normal.
How HBO Max's film debut works
WarnerMedia says it will release films on HBO Max for one month alongside a theatrical release next year. HBO Max is currently only available in the U.S., so films will be distributed to international markets via theaters where permitted. But given the dismal haul from Chistopher Nolan's Tenet, planned as a summer blockbuster, this move makes sense. Consumers' appetite for the silver screen is diminished because of the pandemic.
A new entertainment-at-home industry is flourishing instead. Disney (DIS 1.15%) took the opportunity to debut Mulan on Disney+ for $29.99 in September, but no repeat plans have been announced since, except for a back-office reorganization of its content and distribution businesses.
But WarnerMedia is certainly upping the ante. It already announced that Wonder Woman 1984 would launch on the streaming service on Christmas Day, and it will be joined (again, just for one month) by films like The Little Things, Godzilla vs. Kong, The Suicide Squad, Dune, and Matrix 4. This could be a brilliant strategy to boost its HBO Max subscriber count (it had 38 million HBO and HBO Max customers at the end of September). It's a number that has fallen way behind the nearly 74 million Disney+ has amassed.
Of course, this isn't exactly going to be a successful coup against Disney. But for movie theaters? Maybe. AT&T bundles HBO Max with select unlimited-data mobile and home internet plans, but even if a household ponied up the full-price $14.99 a month, it's set to save some coin in 2021. Two or three family trips to the movies can eat up an annual HBO Max subscription faster than a hungry kid can empty an overpriced bucket of popcorn.
It's now other streaming services' turn to answer. The movie theater business' coffin hasn't been nailed shut yet, but the reasons for consumers to go back to the cinema keep disappearing. And if studios figure out how to turn a profit from their streaming services, the global box office as we knew it could be permanently much smaller.