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Now that HBO Max Has Ditched Its 45-Day Film Release Strategy, Will It Save Warner Bros. Discovery?

Joshua Thiede

As Warner Bros. Discovery continues its big-cut business strategy, new shifts in release schedules and which platform titles are landing on have made it harder for subscribers to know where and when to find the content that they’re looking for.

Just over two years after its initial launch, HBO Max is pulling back on its promise to bring theatrical releases to its library 45 days after they debut in theaters. Instead, the studio appears to be positioning itself as a premium video-on-demand (PVOD) provider for its theatrical releases, before they come to the company’s flagship streamer.

According to Variety, the harbinger for this windowing change appears to have been the King himself as “Elvis” has not yet made it to the HBO streaming service, despite being released in theaters 60 days ago on June 24. Instead, the Baz Luhrmann biopic has found its way onto Prime Video, Vudu, and other platforms for rent or purchase.

While not especially noteworthy on its own, the streamer’s previous two box office releases, “The Batman” and “Fantastic Beasts: Secrets of Dumbledore,” followed the 45-days-in-theaters rule before landing on the service, but as the leadership has changed at WBD, so has its philosophy on how to handle titles and maximize revenue. While it is still early days for the studio’s new windowing strategy, it appears that this change puts WBD in line with most of its competition by taking each release on a case-by-case basis.

While HBO Max will still eventually get all of the movies from its corporate sibling studio, it does still have deals with other content providers in place that bring theatrical films from other studios to the streamer. Both Disney’s 20th Century Fox and Searchlight studios and Lionsgate still have first-run agreements with HBO Max for streaming. The Disney studios’ deals are holdovers from before the company acquired Fox, which had Pay-1 deals with HBO for cable and HBO Max for streaming. Originally created for cable networks, Pay-1 agreements indicate where a film will be available following its theatrical and exclusive on-demand releases.

With its new strategy, WBD may be taking a page out of Sony’s playbook. After getting out of the streaming business, without a service to call its own, Sony relies on partnerships with other platforms to field its new releases. Netflix currently has Pay-1 rights to Sony films, with Disney picking up the properties later on down the road. However, as evidenced by the long delays in getting big-budget films like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Uncharted” to streaming, the studio was able to maximize its revenue stream by keeping them available for rental and purchase longer than if they were going straight to an in-house streamer.

While WBD is not going to move its major releases to platforms owned by competing companies, if it is going to emulate anything from Sony’s model, the company could keep major releases in its PVOD pocket longer as a way to further monetize their runs. Furthermore, as the company is removing more and more original films and series from its library, we could see WBD license those titles to other streamers, most likely to free, ad-supported TV (FAST) channels.

However, another alternative in the Zaslav playbook is a possibility as it has been reported that he is looking to launch his own set of FAST channels. One of the channels being rumored would feature legacy Warner Bros. titles including “Gone with the Wind” and “Citizen Kane,” films that shaped America in the early years of the silver screen, creating a fresh source of revenue from IP that only Warner Bros. has the rights to.

It’s difficult to tell how things will turn out for HBO Max under its new Warner Bros. Discovery leadership. While Zaslav may not be making many friends as he axes planned and existing projects, he may be making the tough choices needed to bring the newly unified company back to profitability. The only question is, how much will that cost consumers in terms of money and affection for the once pristine HBO brand?

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