The HBO Max Streaming Controversy, Explained
Last week, WarnerMedia announced that it would release its entire slate of 2021 films on its streaming service HBO Max on the same day as their theatrical release dates. As many as 17 films, including Godzilla vs Kong, Dune, and The Matrix 4, will be available to watch for no extra fee for a month, on the platform that is, as of now, only available in the US for a monthly fee of $14.99.
What prompted this?
The announcement felt like an extension of the studios' earlier decision to release Wonder Woman 1984 in both, theatres and on HBO Max, on December 24. A simultaneous release not only provides US viewers with the chance to watch the film in the comfort of their home but the option to catch it in the theatres where it's screening, should they feel safe to do so, given the pandemic.
Almost immediately, however, articles began speculating that WB's latest move was more a risky-short term plan to boost HBO Max subscriptions — currently at 8.6 million — to keep shareholders happy, than a well-thought-out scheme in the films' best interests. In a hard-hitting statement published on Variety.com yesterday, Dune director Denis Villeneuve called the decision "a desperate attempt to grab the audience's attention." "There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here. It is all about the survival of a telecom mammoth, one that is currently bearing an astronomical debt of more than $150 billion," he wrote. Expressing concerns over the high possibility of his film being pirated, he added that his earlier decision to move its release date from December 2020 to October 2021 was in the hope that Covid vaccinations would have advanced.
"HBO Max will benefit materially from this decision," WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar told Vox.com. "But that wasn't the only consideration by any means. It really started with a) the fans, b) the pandemic, and then HBO Max being able to play a central role in what I think is a very innovative solution."
Why are filmmakers protesting?
Insiders alleged that WB had neither informed its filmmakers about the decision to simultaneously release their films on streaming, nor about any plan to compensate them for the loss of box-office revenue owing to this decision. There were reports that Legendary Entertainment, which bore a significant percentage of the production costs on Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong, was contemplating legal action against the studio.
Four days after WB's announcement, director Christopher Nolan, who has been working with the company for nearly 20 years, denounced its decision. "Some of our industry's biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service," he told The Hollywood Reporter. The publication also reported that the 18,000-member Directors Guild of America had sent WB a "sharply worded" letter demanding that their issues with the plan be addressed in a meeting.
The New York Times later reported that Wonder Woman 1984 director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot had each negotiated a payout of $10 million from WB in exchange for supporting its release plan. This amount was arrived at after the two argued that they would've earned a substantial sum had the film released exclusively in theatres and done well. Following this, representatives for WB actors Denzel Washington, Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Keanu Reeves, Hugh Jackman and Angelina Jolie began to ask why their clients weren't offered similar terms.