WarnerMedia made waves with their recent decision to release their entire 2021 slate on HBO Max and in theatres simultaneously. This unprecedented move threatens to shift fundamentals of the film industry, particularly the role of theaters and box office performance. Black creatives have a complicated history with the box office. For decades, Hollywood has held onto the fear that Black stories don’t have wide enough appeal to perform well in theatres. This myth has been an obstacle for Black voices trying to make it on the big screen and shapes the types of narratives that do get picked up in Hollywood.
Warner’s new model, which deemphasizes box office performance, could present new opportunities for Black writers and directors. If this model sticks around Hollywood could become more open to “taking risks” on Black films, particularly unconventional stories. Cinematic tropes often guide which movies executives are willing to bet on. For example, Black Panther was expected to perform well and opened in 4,020 US theatres, whereas Moonlight’s profit potential was less clear. The film debuted at Telluride Film Festival then had a limited box office release in just four theatres. Moonlight peaked at 1,500 theatres only after it won three Oscars.
HBO Max could make it easier for avant-garde and minority centered films to find their niche. In the conventional release model, executives feel pressured to cast a wide net in box office advertisements. On demand streaming means that Warner Bros can abandon that wide net and advertise their new releases based on user viewing history. Warner Bros’ Judas and the Black Messiah (airing in February)will provide a first look into how this new model impacts viewership of Black films.
I wouldn’t bet on a Black film renaissance just yet. Warner claims they will revert to the conventional release model after 2021. This possibility seems remote considering the box office declined 80% last year and forced many theatres to permanently close. For the new hybrid model to remain viable in the long term, HBO Max will need to find a solution to churn. Churn represents the number of canceled memberships across a streaming service’s user base. HBO Max had a churn rate of approximately 20% at the end of last year. If Warner’s new release model alters this user behavior, then we could see even more change across the industry. Black creatives stand by.