What theatrical window changes could mean for streamers like HBO Max, Disney Plus

The Many Saints of Newark
Warner Bros. 'The Many Saints of Newark' will premiere in theaters and on HBO Max the same day. Will that keep happening beyond 2021? (Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Over the last year and a half, the movie industry has had to be adaptable with the shifting of release dates and devising different strategies for getting films out to the masses. One of the most popular methods has been the hybrid release strategy of releasing films in theaters and via streaming on the same date. However, with there being a light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic (still work to be done, though) the studios, streamers and movie theaters are trying to figure out how they can work in harmony in a post-pandemic world.

One thing is for sure, the 90-day theatrical window that was standard for all movies playing in theaters is a thing of the past. But, theaters are fighting tooth and nail to quell day-and-date streaming releases, as they believe it has eaten into the box office of some recent movies, like Black Widow and The Suicide Squad.

What does this mean for streaming services like HBO Max, Disney Plus and more, which have been heavily promoting the availability of the latest movies? Here’s an overview of what to expect.


HBO Max on a TV

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HBO Max has had the most bold strategy for streaming new movies, making the entire slate of 2021 Warner Bros. films available the same day on HBO Max as theaters and at no extra cost for subscribers to their ad-free, $14.99 per month subscription plan. This has allowed subscribers to watch films like Godzilla vs. Kong, In the Heights, Space Jam: A New Legacy and The Suicide Squad for initial 30-day windows (they will eventually return to the service at a later date). Dune and The Matrix 4 are among the titles still to come.

From the get-go of this plan, WarnerMedia has said that it was only meant to be for 2021, and recent actions are confirming that. Warner Bros. and AMC Theaters have come to an agreement that will see the studios movies play exclusively in theaters for 45 days starting in 2022. Warner Bros. previously made a similar deal with Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas, in April.

This means that new Warner Bros. movies would not appear on HBO Max until at least 45 days following their premiere in movie theaters, though it is unclear at this time if all films would appear as soon as that exclusivity goes away or if they may wait longer in particular circumstances.

HBO Max isn’t losing out on brand new movies altogether, though. Warner Bros. previously announced that it would be making more than 10 movies that will debut on HBO Max. This was the case prior to 2021, when films like Let Them All Talk and An American Pickle premiered exclusively on HBO Max. 

Disney Plus

Disney Plus on Apple TV

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The Walt Disney Company, with the MCU, Star Wars and other massively popular film properties, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to the movie landscape. Unsurprisingly, it has been setting its own terms throughout this whole process.

Disney Plus has been playing with hybrid strategies for its films throughout the pandemic as well. While some movies have been made available immediately on Disney Plus at no extra cost — most notably Pixar films Soul and Luca — subscribers have had to fork over some cash to stream a handful of new movies.

Starting with Mulan, select Disney films have been available through Disney Plus Premier Access, where Disney Plus subscribers can purchase newly released movies for $30, but then they have them as long as they keep their subscription. Raya and the Last Dragon, Cruella, Black Widow and Jungle Cruise followed this same model. It hasn’t been without controversy, with theaters blaming this for films’ dips at the box office and even Black Widow’s Scarlett Johannson has sued Disney over her compensation because of the strategy.

At this point in time, Disney has not announced that any of its upcoming films will be available through Disney Plus Premier Access. The studio has committed to a 45-day exclusive theatrical window for upcoming movies, including Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Free Guy, after which they’ll be available on home entertainment. The success of those films convinced Disney to commit to theatrical releases for the remainder of its 2021 slate.

Paramount Plus

Paramount Plus logo

(Image credit: ViacomCBS)

The newest streaming service, Paramount Plus hasn’t had much controversy with theaters because it’s had a strategy in place essentially since the beginning that seems apt for a post-pandemic world.

While it has Paramount Plus original movies that premiere on the streaming service, like The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run and Infinite, that skip theaters altogether, the movies that do head to theaters will be there for 30-45 days before they become available on Paramount Plus.

This has already been put into action with A Quiet Place Part II. The horror sequel was one of the first big tentpole movies to have an exclusive release in theaters since last year, setting a then pandemic box-office record. To date it has made $159.4 million at the U.S. box office ($295 million globally).

Paramount Plus will do the same thing with Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick, which is slated for a theater release on Nov. 19, likely putting it on Paramount Plus right around Christmas or the start of the new year.


The Peacock app on Apple TV

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Peacock has struggled to make the headlines that HBO Max and Disney Plus have since it launched in 2020. Part of this is because outside of The Boss Baby: Family Business there hasn’t been a highly anticipated film that has landed on the service. That will change going forward.

Peacock, which is owned by NBCUniversal, has finalized a deal with Universal Pictures and Focus Features, also in the NBCUniversal family, that will see their films head to Peacock when they become available for streaming. Per the agreement, new films will arrive on Peacock no more than four months after they play in movie theaters

The deal begins in 2022 and will include films like Jurassic World: Dominion, The Bad Guys, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, The 355 and Halloween Ends. Though not specifically mentioned, box office will likely play a part in determining the timeline for these films to hit Peacock. Separately, Universal will develop and produce original films for Peacock starting in 2022.

Universal movies will also branch out from Peacock at some point, as the studio has made a multi-year licensing deal with Amazon Prime Video and IMDb TV that will see those services stream Universal films about four months after landing on Peacock (eight months after theaters)

It was not confirmed in the initial announcements if these new movies would be available to all Peacock users or only those who subscribe to Peacock Premium packages.

Another wrinkle in Universal's strategy, it made a deal with AMC and Cinemark theaters allowing it to make its movies available through VOD platforms as early as 17 days after releasing in theaters; 31 days if the film makes more than $50 million in its opening weekend.


Image Credit: Screenshoot

(Image credit: Netflix)

Even before the pandemic, Netflix has been in a battle with theaters over the exclusive theatrical window. They’re strategy varies from film to film, as some were always meant to be strictly streaming plays, while their big awards plays had to navigate theater releases.

Films like The Irishman, Roma and A Marriage Story would get short, generally two-week theater runs before launching on the streaming service, satisfying award rules. However, because that ran afoul of the then 90-day theatrical window policy, many theaters would not show the films.

Unsurprisingly, Netflix has been pleased with the shrinking of the theatrical window to 45 days, but the streaming service still has not made any commitment to whether it will adhere to this new policy. Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead had a brief run in theaters before launching on Netflix, but it is unclear if other Netflix films this year will do the same. They won’t have to play in theaters to qualify for the Oscars. 

Apple TV Plus

Apple TV logo on an Apple TV 4K

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When it launched in 2019, Apple TV Plus said it wanted its movies to have exclusive runs in theaters before coming to the service, though it had only made “overtures” to theater chains and likely was hoping to avoid the 90-day window. But any plans fell through as the only Apple TV Plus Original movie to hit theaters was The Banker for two weeks before the world shut down. Since then, all Apple TV Plus films have played exclusively on the streaming service. 

That’s going to change with the Sundance-winning film CODA. The film is set for a hybrid release, debuting in theaters and on Apple TV Plus on Aug. 13

Other Apple TV Plus original films set for a 2021 release include a recording of the Broadway show Come From Away and the Todd Haynes-directed documentary The Velvet Underground, both of which are currently planned for exclusive streaming releases.

Beyond this year, Apple TV Plus will have Martin Scorsese’s next film, Killers of the Flower Moon starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It will play on Apple TV Plus and in theaters, though specific details on its release are still unknown. 

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.