This film is streaming now. Or is it?

Cinema doors have swung open, but fans of on-demand may need to be patient

Gal Gadot at the premiere of the first Wonder Woman film in 2017. Its sequel will open in Irish cinemas on December 16th, in contrast to a ‘day-and-date’ release in the US. Photograph: Chris Delmas/AFP

Gal Gadot at the premiere of the first Wonder Woman film in 2017. Its sequel will open in Irish cinemas on December 16th, in contrast to a ‘day-and-date’ release in the US. Photograph: Chris Delmas/AFP

 

As sign-offs to film reviews go, “streaming now” and “available on-demand” are both very 2020 and frustratingly vague.

Are these two hours of blissful distraction going to show up on a service for which I already pay? Is it possible to rent this movie extravaganza as a once-off purchase without committing to another monthly subscription and, if so, when? Does “available” mean available in Ireland? The journey from curiosity to disappointment can be swift.

To be fair, investigation of precise times and locations was also required when cinemas were a thing. The full quirks of on-demand availability can take too much time and space to explain.

And to be fairer still, cinemas are still a thing, just about. Most Irish-owned ones have reopened, or are on the cusp of doing so. They have been joined by AMC Theatres-owned Odeon Cinemas and, from Friday, by Vue, although the latest update on the financial rollercoaster that is Cineworld suggests it will not warm its popcorn once again until some point in early 2021 (Nphet permitting).

But there is little doubt that, in a year when exhibitors worldwide have been on their knees, not a great deal of mercy has been shown to them. Instead, film distributors have rushed to cut deals with streaming services, or – even more ominously for cinemas – the parent companies of film studios have taken the opportunity to build up their own nascent streaming services, perhaps even sacrificing cinema profits to do so.

Enter Warner Bros. Each week in 2020 seems to bring a new industry announcement that illustrates a further tilt away from the norm of big-screen opens in favour of streaming as the new cultural default. But even by 2020 standards, Warner Bros’ declaration that its entire 2021 roster of films will land simultaneously in cinemas and on subscription video-on-demand service HBO Max was a “kapow” moment for beleaguered exhibitors whose strength to fight back has been sapped by a succession of government public health orders.

Warner’s 2021 roster includes science fiction adaptation Dune, crime thriller The Little Things, video game spin-off Mortal Kombat, tennis biopic King Richard, long-awaited franchise instalment The Matrix 4 and comedy Tom & Jerry (of cat-and-mouse fame). These films, and others, will be added to HBO Max for a month from the same day as they arrive in cinemas.

But there’s an important caveat to this. HBO Max, which like Warner Bros is part of AT&T-owned Warner Media, is a five-month old service that is only available in the US. So Warner’s 2021 business model – known as day-and-date releasing – will not be replicated in Ireland, where cinemas are still likely to retain exclusivity for at least a short period.

Christmas release

Take, for example, Wonder Woman 1984. Warner Bros had already said in November that the superheroine sequel would be released in cinemas and on HBO Max on December 25th. This is a US-only strategy on both fronts, given the Christmas Day movie-going tradition is, like HBO Max, missing in action in this part of the world.

So how can Irish fans of Diana, DC Comics and/or daft fun consume the film? The answer is old-school. After a year of blows, cinema owners in Ireland and Britain will consider it a modicum of respite from Covid-19 devastation that this big slab of blockbuster action will open in actual cinemas on Wednesday, December 16th.

While the film’s on-demand availability in this territory is yet to be confirmed, cinemas are expected to retain exclusivity for at least 28 days: trade bible Variety reported last week that Warner Bros is in the process of inking a premium video-on-demand deal with Sky that would see the film become available to rent (through Sky Store) a month after its cinema release.

Compared to the day-and-date scenario in the US, a month might seem like a long time, but it is dramatically shorter than the 16-week theatrical window that was, until recently, the usual length of time that cinemas had movies like this to themselves. A month of exclusivity – combined with the fact that not everybody has access to Sky – might be enough to persuade people back to cinemas, masked yet chasing those pre-pandemic feels.

Inevitably, not everybody will be satisfied. Even avid Irish cinemagoers might, in this time of heightened risk, like to have the simultaneous on-demand option offered to HBO Max customers in the US, now that they can see that such “creative solutions”, as Warner Bros chief executive Ann Sarnoff put it, are possible.

But news reports of HBO Max’s arrival in Europe in the second half of 2021, which surfaced after remarks by HBO Max Global head Andy Forssell, bear closer inspection. What Forssell actually indicated was that where HBO already has a direct-to-consumer product – that’s Spain, Portugal the Nordics and several Eastern European countries – it would be “upgraded” to HBO Max.

Sky deal

The streaming service seems unlikely to join Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, Apple+ and Sky’s Now TV in targeting Irish customers anytime soon. Warner Media only last autumn extended its HBO content deal with Sky and that agreement, which also included pay-TV rights to Warner Bros films, was widely understood to run for five years.

This would more or less rule out a proper HBO Max launch in any of Sky’s key markets until the middle of the decade.

Of course, as we have learned this year, pretty much anything can happen between now and then. What was unthinkable for the entertainment industry a year ago has become the reality several times over.

Streaming services, as evidenced by Netflix’s latest price rise, have never been more powerful. Sceptical eyebrows have flown at Warner’s claim that its release strategy is just for 2021. Only one thing is certain: this story can’t have a happy ending for everybody.

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