Even with the first coronavirus vaccines on the verge of making their way to the public, the movie theater industry is still months or maybe years from a full recovery. It will be a long time before a large portion of the population is vaccinated, and even longer before people feel confident going into enclosed, public spaces like theaters for extended periods. So while every Hollywood studio has a full slate scheduled for theatrical release in 2021, the year will almost certainly look as chaotic as 2020 did.

In fact, one studio isn’t waiting until 2021 to announces its intentions to stray from the time-tested model of theatrical release followed by home video. Today, Warner Bros. revealed its plan for what it calls a “hybrid distribution model,” that will release “its 2021 film slate via a unique, consumer-focused distribution model in which Warner Bros. will continue to exhibit the films theatrically worldwide, while adding an exclusive one month access period on the HBO Max streaming platform in the U.S. concurrent with the film’s domestic release.”

 Warner Bros.’ press release specifically mentions the following 17 titles as part of the “hybrid” plan — including all of their biggest blockbusters for the year, including James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, Denis Villeneuve’s update of Dune, the long-awaited Space Jam sequel, and The Matrix 4 from Lana Wachowski. It appears that every single one of these movies will debut in theaters and on HBO Max on the same day — at least in the United States:

  • The Little Things
  • 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
  • The Matrix 4

Warner Bros. was already using a version of this hybrid model to release its last remaining 2020 blockbuster, Wonder Woman 1984, simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max on Christmas. Interestingly, WB didn’t wait until after that release to announce this decision. That could mean that HBO Max subscriptions have shot up so much since the Wonder Woman announcement that they feel encouraged to try this strategy for all their movies. Or it could mean, the state of movie theaters is so dire that they felt like they didn’t have much other choice.

Whatever Warners’ reasons, this announcement immediately changes the complexion of the streaming landscape. Not even Netflix, with all its money and endless supply of content, can compete with that list of titles above in terms of sheer size of blockbusters, A-list talent, and brand recognition. And it could spark other studios with their own streaming services to follow suit. This is not only huge news; it could be the start of an even bigger trend.

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