TV "Box Office": Consciousness Of Streaming
Denzel Washington (l) and Jared Leto in "The Little Things" (photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Inc.)
Big Screen features debut concurrently on the Small Screen in Warner Bros. distribution model for 2021

On January 29, director John Lee Hancock’s psychological suspense thriller The Little Things, starring Academy Award winners Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, is scheduled to premiere both in theaters around the country and on HBO Max. The Little Things will be available on HBO Max for 31 days from its theatrical release in the U.S. at no additional cost to subscribers.

This marks the beginning to a new year in which Warner Bros.’ pandemic-induced simultaneously streaming TV/theater distribution model will take hold--on the heels of this past Xmas weekend’s rollout of Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters and on HBO Max.

Warner Bros. Pictures Group’s 2021 release slate is also expected to include Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom & Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, In The Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy, The Suicide Squad, Reminiscence, Malignant, Dune, The Many Saints of Newark, King Richard, Cry Macho and Matrix 4.

“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative for the Warner Bros. Pictures Group,” said Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO, WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group (of which Warner Bros is part). “No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021. With this unique one-year plan, we can support our partners in exhibition with a steady pipeline of world-class films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see our amazing 2021 films. We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors, and we’re extremely grateful to our filmmaking partners for working with us on this innovative response to these circumstances.”

Jason Kilar, CEO, Warner Media, stated, “After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months. More importantly, we are planning to bring consumers 17 remarkable movies throughout the year, giving them the choice and the power to decide how they want to enjoy these films. Our content is extremely valuable, unless it’s sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone. We believe this approach serves our fans, supports exhibitors and filmmakers, and enhances the HBO Max experience, creating value for all.”

Toby Emmerich, chairman, Warner Bros. Pictures Group, added, “This hybrid exhibition model enables us to best support our films, creative partners and moviegoing in general throughout 2021. We have a fantastic, wide ranging slate of titles from talented and visionary filmmakers next year, and we’re excited to be able get these movies in front of audiences around the world. And, as always, we’ll support all of our releases with innovative and robust marketing campaigns for their theatrical debuts, while highlighting this unique opportunity to see our films domestically via HBO Max as well.”

However not all view this business model as the “win-win” described by Sarnoff. Several major directors have pushed back against the Warner Bros. plan for 2021, including one of the studio’s most preeminent filmmakers, Christopher Nolan, who was quoted as saying, “It’s a unilateral decision that the studio took. They didn’t even tell the people involved. You have these great filmmakers who worked with passion and diligence for years on projects that are intended to be feature films with fantastic movie stars. And they’ve all now been told that they’re a loss-leader for a fledgling streaming service.”

Some films originally intended for theatrical release, though, made a major mark in 2020 via streaming platforms. For example, Hamilton--the filmed Broadway musical based on the life of U.S. Constitution framer Alexander Hamilton--premiered on Disney+ during the Fourth of July weekend, drawing a massive audience to the streaming service. RadicalMedia produced what’s been nicknamed “Hamifilm,” the live capture taken from two on-stage Broadway performances with most of the original cast in June 2016. The movie was originally scheduled to open in theaters in October 2021. But the pandemic moved up that timetable and shifted the venue from cinema to households and other streaming destinations. The critically acclaimed Hamilton film delivered a special shared experience to audiences, bringing a much needed dose of virtual togetherness during isolating times.

And in an Oscar season unlike any other, work from feature filmmakers has as of late received critical acclaim playing for a primarily streaming audience, including David Fincher’s Mank (Netflix), Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks (Apple TV+), and in the offing is Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday, for which Hulu recently acquired U.S. distribution rights. Meanwhile The Walt Disney Co. steered Pixar’s Soul to Disney+ in the U.S. Soul opened theatrically in some international markets. Additionally a notable project intended for streaming TV, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (Amazon Prime) anthology series, gained Oscar momentum last month when it won the Best Picture honor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Now a debate has emerged over whether Small Axe, a series of five films, is Emmy or Oscar-eligible. 

Set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, the Small Axe films each tell a different story involving London’s West Indian community whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will despite rampant racism and discrimination. Even though this collection of films is set some decades ago, the stories are as vital and timely today as they were for the West Indian community in London at the time. Small Axe is a celebration of Black joy, beauty, love, friendship, family, music and even food; each one, in its own unique way, conveys hard-won successes in the face of great adversity.

Perspectives on Zoom
While the awards season jury remains out for Small Axe, other directors are on the Zoom circuit to in part build audiences for their films while bolstering Oscar prospects. Having the likes of Fincher and Coppola advancing features that are mostly connecting with U.S. viewers on streaming platforms underscores how firmly--if perhaps only temporarily--smaller screens have taken hold for first-run features in the wake of COVID-19.

Writer-director-producer Coppola recently participated in a Zoom session with stars Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans to promote On The Rocks. Coppola described the film as “a love letter to New York City,” noting that she wanted to take a creative departure with something lighter in tone. On The Rocks, she continued, plays like a father-daughter (Bill Murray-Rashida Jones) buddy story with a screwball comedy twist yet connecting with some important themes along the way.

Coppola felt fortunate to have finished filming right before production was shut down due to the pandemic. Having the freedom, she said, to roam about the city, capturing what NY feels like and what it means to so many, was a treat--albeit done on a tight shooting schedule of 28 days.

Coppola also praised her cast, including Murray with whom she has a fruitful track record. She said that the actor “always brings some sort of magic to the set,” often through “unexpected things,” noting that he’s at his best when called upon to be “more vulnerable and heartfelt” which yields work that is “touching.”

To promote Mank, Fincher was in on a Zoom session with such colleagues as cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, editor Kirk Baxter, production designer Donald Graham Burt and costume designer Trish Summerville. They swapped stories and shared insights about Mank, including Baxter’s aversion to coming on set. The editor explained that he loves “not knowing the artifice,” preferring to concentrate “on the parts of the frame I can influence.” Fincher meanwhile acknowledged that he has an inclination to overthink things at times but deeply values how he and his compatriots continually push to achieve more, experimenting on different fronts. There can be benefits, noted Fincher, to pushing and testing things out, akin to how makers test the weave of fabric, helping them to “end up with a piece of fabric that can stand the test of time.”

Long-term impact
Still to be determined are what lasting effects, if any, the pandemic will have on industry distribution models. Some think audience appetite will grow for first-run features on streaming platforms--at least serving to shorten the exclusivity window for theaters once a semblance of normality is regained after the pandemic.

But many remain firm believers in the in-theater shared experience. During a keynote session at the virtual American Film Market back in November, Elissa Federoff, president of distribution at NEON, said, “We know that audiences will come back to movie theaters, that the theatrical landscape will be vibrant again. This is very exciting news about the vaccine because potentially it makes the span of time a little shorter.” She affirmed, “I truly believe there is no virtual offering, there is no streaming equivalent, there’s no digital equivalent to being in a movie theater with an audience having a completely immersive experience in the dark, no phones, no talking, no distractions and of the audience being a character in that film. That really changes the whole dynamic.”

Multiplatform releases remain part of the business equation, continued Federoff. “NEON is not a company that believes every film is one size fits all--there will always be films for us and for the entire world that will need a very long and thought out release in theaters for 180 days before they go to VOD.  We love those.  Films like Honeyland.  We would have never released that in any other way than a long thought out release. Parasite, same thing. But then there have been other films like Snowpiercer that we did in a compressed window and we put it on VOD and it was very very successful for us.  It made in excess of $10 million on VOD.  And the fact that we can be flexible, I think just opens up many more avenues in our business.”


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