From the dawn of the movie business, being the head of a major film studio has pretty much always been an incredibly fun and enviable job. In fact, one could say there wasn’t a bad time to be the head of a major film studio for about 100 years straight.
That 100-year fun streak was broken in 2020.
In a typical year, studio executives meticulously plan their “slate” of upcoming releases. They study all the films their machine has produced and decide when each one should debut at the box office. Obviously, the primary objective is to maximize each film’s chances of generating box office revenue through ticket sales.
Movies that are likely to be hits are scheduled around major holidays and away from other upcoming hits being slated by other studios. Movies that look like potential flops are banished to the doldrums of summer, when blazing temperatures create the perfect environment for escaping inside for a few hours.
But what do you do when all movie theaters are closed due to a pandemic that seemingly may never go away?
This is the excruciating position WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar found himself facing in late 2020. He couldn’t simply dump his entire slate of films onto 2022 or 2023. First of all, many of these films had already been waiting a year or two to be released. Secondly, it’s not like there were unclaimed weekends on the slate for 2023 and 2024. And third, what if the pandemic was still raging in 2022 and 2023.
These movies needed to be released.
So Jason Kilar made a controversial decision.
All 16 of the major films produced by Warner Bros. that were supposed to be released in theaters in 2021 would be available to stream for free on the company’s brand new service, HBO Max.
For HBO Max subscribers this was an amazing decision for customers. I personally loved being able to watch “King Richard,” “Dune,” “The Matrix 4” and “The Many Saints of Newark” from the comfort of my couch without having to pay for the download. In retrospect, I would have felt pretty annoyed had I paid for a ticket to see several of those in theaters. And therein lies a conflict.
When a movie star agrees to do a movie, he or she is balancing a combination of upfront salary and backend points with that film’s likelihood of being a box office success (to make those points valuable).
When a movie is offered for free on a streaming platform, the chance of generating any box office revenue basically drops to zero.
Jason Kilar knew this was going to be a problem before he made the decision, and before artists like Christopher Nolan came out swinging against the decision, swearing to never work with Warner Bros again.
So Jason Kilar had to make his angry actors, producers and directors happy.
According to a recent Variety articleWarnerMedia ended up “paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses” to actors, writers, directors and producers who potentially lost money from the company’s decision.
As you might suspect, the biggest make-good payouts went to the studio’s biggest stars. Stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith.
Stars on the level of Denzel Washington and Will Smith both likely received upfront salaries in the range of $20 million for “The Little Things” and “King Richard,” respectively.
After the decision was made to place all movies on HBO Max, both Denzel and Will received make-goods of…
In other words, they each likely earned $60 million for these two movies.
Two movies that were… fine? I mean, “King Richard” was enjoyable… I guess. I have a hard time taking biopics that were produced by family members or the subjects themselves, very seriously (for example, “Rocket Man,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”).
Would either of these movies have been box office smashes? I personally wouldn’t have paid to see either film in theaters in a non-pandemic year. “The Little Things” currently sports a 45% score on Rotten Tomatoes. And that’s a 45% score for a movie that most people got to see for free. That’s like being asked to review a pizza the store gave you for free, and you still give it a 4/10.
Bottom line? It’s always nice to be an A-list celebrity. That’s an unbroken streak.