Film studio Warner Bros. sent shockwaves through the film industry this week when it announced that its entire slate of 2021 movies — and its big Christmas film, “Wonder Woman 1984” — will debut on one streaming service the same day they appear in movie theaters, even though exclusive distribution windows for new movies are foundational to theaters’ business models.
Or, to put it another way, Warner Bros.' parent company AT&T suddenly has a ton of new exclusive content that will be delivered not by independent vendors across the country — which is to say, movie theaters — but by its lucrative products: HBO Max, its home internet service in many cases and probably a few mobile phones, too.
AT&T — which is also the parent company of HBO Max, where Warner Bros. movies will be available for streaming for one sole month after release — sells home internet connections to more than 14 million people at an average of $52.43 every month. It made more than $2 billion in the three months ending Sept. 30. AT&T’s internet service is part of its Entertainment Group, the same part of the company that oversees its huge catalog of entertainment holdings, including the new “Dune” movie, slated for release under the new terms.
The sense that I actually own anything I feel like I've paid for is slipping away.
A major problem in the cable, phone and internet businesses — which have been intertwined in the U.S. since the web first started coming into people’s houses, and which are mostly provided by publicly traded companies — is making sure profits steadily increase. If you personally owned AT&T, you’d be a billionaire many, many times over, but because the company is publicly traded, its shareholders want to see growth every quarter in order to get a return on their investment. That’s simply not going to be possible forever, even if the core businesses are always healthy and reliable.
So AT&T needs to make sure its bottom line keeps on increasing. Sometimes it does this by acquiring a profitable company; other times by cutting corners, charging exorbitant rates or slimming down customer service. The company’s $85 billion purchase of Warner Bros. parent WarnerMedia was finished in 2018, despite some opposition from President Donald Trump, who wanted to punish CNN for covering his administration with insufficient deference. (AT&T is, of course, not the only telecommunications company that owns major news and entertainment assets.)
All this is to say that AT&T doesn’t merely need you to buy their goods or services; it needs to make as many of its goods as possible into services that you pay the company for every month and that it delivers using its own phones and cables. So instead of selling individual DVDs, it wants you to pay for a streaming video service; instead of selling you paper comic books, it offers you a digital library to rent; instead of selling video game discs and cartridges, it offers you “season passes” that add new material to your game every few months after you buy a game; instead of selling you movie tickets, it offers you simultaneous streaming on its proprietary, paid video channel.
The only entities that seem to be benefiting from this brave new world are the companies that sell us strictly limited licenses to enjoy entertainment for as long as they see fit.
Not all of this is uniformly bad: It’s great to be able to read back issues of “The Flash” from my childhood without scouring eBay or the quarter bin at the comic book store for years on end, and I like extra levels on my video games. But the sense that I actually own anything I feel like I've paid for is slipping away.
The intellectual property game, of course, has gotten dicier for everybody during the information age. Artists receive a pittance from streaming services like Spotify for music they’ve poured themselves into, and the money consumers spent on Google Music might as well have been flushed down the toilet unless they agreed to a new set of terms and conditions and migrated onto Google’s new music service.
Indeed, the only entities that seem to be benefiting from the brave new world of always-available entertainment are distributors like AT&T and Disney — the companies that sell us strictly limited licenses to enjoy music, movies, books and games for as long as they see fit, through delivery systems they require us to pay even more for, which allow them to circumvent the retailers, fabricators and couriers in the rest of the economy. There are small competitors to these behemoths — Bandcamp, for example — but the virtual space these companies dominate is starting to feel as cramped as the physical world.
The good news is that these companies don’t like risk or change, and risk and change are what make good art. Even if the next 20 big-budget sci-fi movies are only available by buying a $500 annual subscription to some proprietary app on my phone, the artists whose efforts make those movies valuable still exist independently of the stock market. There are Alan Moore comics published by little independent presses and Denis Villeneuve movies I can buy on Blu-ray. The massive digital spectacles that have made up much of our moviegoing in the past decade are certainly impressive and often fun, but they’re not the sum total of filmmaking. (They’re often not even very good on a television screen, as many people might be about to discover.)
It’s easy to forget that great art is, on some level, an anti-capitalist exercise; its value is immutable and is as likely to come from a poor person as a rich person, or from an established artist as an obscure one. Much of what we’re talking about at the movies or on television isn’t great art, but the possibility that some of it might be is what keeps us going back to watch or read, again and again. The attempt to rent (and thereby limit) access to that possibility is a contemptible one — but the ease with which great art finds its audience, no matter its distribution, means that any attempt to control access to it also seems doomed to fail.