No CinemaCon presentation would be complete without an introduction (and often, an introduction for the introduction). Before the two-hour preview of the Warner Bros. slate Tuesday evening, AMC Theatres content chief Elizabeth Frank spent her time addressing Warners like a prodigal son that committed the mortal sin of releasing its 2021 theatrical slate day-and-date on HBO Max.
“Warners has entertained broad audiences generation after generation,” she said. “2021 put that reputation and some of those relationships to the test. Warner Bros. Pictures is back here on this stage at CinemaCon, today, having held to its word to start 2022 with renewed focus and commitment to theatrical exhibition.”
Coming off the strong theatrical performance of “The Batman” ($760 million worldwide), which waited 45 days before HBO Max, Warners seemed to prove the National Association of Theatre Owners’ new favorite mantra: “Simultaneous release is dead as a serious business model.”
Warners execs were duly chastened. WarnerMedia day-and-date architect Jason Kilar is now a former CEO, and the studio’s execs now operating under the banner of Warner Bros. Discovery brought a clear message for the exhibitors and press inside the Colosseum: We were wrong.
Warner Bros. Pictures Group Chairman Toby Emmerich opened by referring to the company’s “new chapter,” as he presented a slate that includes “The Batman” sequel, Oliva Wilde’s Harry Styles and Florence Pugh-starrer “Don’t Worry Darling,” several DC installments, Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” and Timothée Chalamet in “Wonka.”
“All of these movies share one thing in common: they were all made for and can only be fully experienced on your big screens first,” Emmerich said to applause from the crowd that included thousands of theater owners and managers from the country’s top circuits.
Warners distribution chief Jeff Goldstein backed up that sentiment with a promise: “Today we honor that history with a reinforced commitment, our commitment, to great storytelling and bringing these stories to your screens.”
For the next two hours, the studio pulled out all the stops. Luhrmann spoke of how “the human condition” needs everyone working together to get audiences back to theaters. Wilde assured everyone that her film was “engineered specifically for the theatrical experience.” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson picked on audience members by name and led a group-shouting recording session that he said would be used for a fight scene in the upcoming DC installment “Black Adam.”
In short, Warners did everything but utter the words “We’re sorry and we won’t do it again.”
CinemaCon glad-handing has always represented a kind of fantastical reality that only Hollywood could construct about itself, but this year’s conference reflects a shift in the power balance. Cinemas are regaining control after the pandemic lows of shattered theatrical windows and brazen day-and-date moves.
On the Warner Bros. Discovery earnings call earlier Tuesday, chairman David Zaslav acknowledged its own unforced errors. “There was a question about whether opening a big movie, should we really collapse the entire motion pictures business on streaming?,” he said. “And I think I’ve been saying ‘no,’ but I think now the data is starting to show that when you open a movie in the theaters, it has a whole stream of monetization. But more importantly, it’s marketed and it builds a brand.”
Later that morning, NATO president John Fithian offered a more sober assessment about why he believes day-and-date is largely gone for good.
“Look at David Zaslav’s comments and watch what Warners does over the next three years,” he said. “I think you’re going to see more theatrical content. Yes, there will be movies that need to made made for HBO Max. For us that’s a good thing, because we’ve always had two different kinds of movies — we always had movies for theaters and movies for television … the consumer knows the difference.”
Fithian says first-run theatrical movies can combat piracy, but it’s more likely that studios are focused on a harder truth: You just can’t make as much money when a movie has a streaming premiere. (Looking at you, Netflix.) And after two years of bitter disagreements, it seems like the CinemaCon love fest between studios and exhibitors finally comes from long-awaited common interest.