Film & TV

HBO Max Versus the Auteur

Caitlin Hall

The traditional model of film distribution is slowly dying, and COVID-19 may be the final death knell for the industry. With many theatres closed for the foreseeable, distribution companies have been forced to find other platforms to compete with Netflix, Disney and Amazon Studios.

Wonder Woman 1984 was the first movie to be released on HBO Max at the same time it premiered in theatres. Warner Bros. then announced that their entire slate of 2021 releases will follow suit, including The Matrix 4, Dune and The Suicide Squad. This decision is much to the dismay of their biggest directors. 

Christopher Nolan made his previous nine films with Warner Bros., but now seems set to terminate their long relationship. This does not come as a surprise, considering Nolan’s insistence on a theatrical release for Tenet, which premiered in summer 2020, at a time when COVID-19 infections were on the rise. Theatres were closed in Hollywood’s biggest domestic markets, New York and California, and the general public consensus was ‘why risk going out to enjoy a pastime that can be done at home’. Nolan’s false romantic notion that Tenet would save theatres comes amid reports that the film didn’t manage to hit the figure it needed to break even. Ironically, Tenet was criticised for its almost inaudible sound mixing – easily solved with the subtitle feature on HBO Max. Perhaps if it debuted online it would have been better received. 

Denis Villeneuve, director of Dune, criticised this decision, for having “absolutely no love for cinema, nor the audience”. However, Steven Soderbergh defended Warner Bros., as “there are just certain economic realities that you cannot wish away”. This may be an easier stance to take as a director without an upcoming film release and personal stake in the matter. Myriads of film fans also expressed their desires to experience films in ‘the way they were intended’, through a traditional, theatrical release. Perhaps the problem here is the inability to choose. Some directors have seen the benefits of streaming services, such as Martin Scorsese and The Irishman, released on Netflix.

Movies are not an individual venture, with hundreds of crewmembers from pre-production to release that all need to be paid. The romantic idea that all films need to be seen in a theatre is fine for the director that wants their ‘artistic vision’ fulfilled, not just within the content of the film but also for its viewing experience. This artistic vision does not pay the bills of crewmembers, nor does it save Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. 

Warner Bros. made their decision public before even telling their filmmakers, which is likely to have made this already unwelcome news even harder to swallow for directors who were understandably frustrated that their films were not going to be released in the way that had been agreed upon. Warner Bros. owns the rights to these films, so it was legally their decision to make, but doesn’t make it any easier to accept.  

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