Since the coronavirus epidemic crippled theatrical exhibition, the big question has been “Which studio will blink first?”
A bunch of distributors have sold movies to the streamers—Lovebirds to Netflix; Greyhound to AppleTV+; My Spy to Amazon Prime—but those were all softer titles that likely would’ve had trouble finding purchase in the rocky box office turf at the best of times. Universal taking Trolls: World Tour to PVOD didn’t really count, since that was always going to be a middling earner and the studio had already sunk a ton of money into publicity. Some commentators suggested that Disney’s effort to move Mulan to PVOD exclusively on Disney+ was the first eye twitch, but that always felt more like an experiment in line with what Disney’s trying to do in general: move customers entirely within the Disney ecosystem.
Warner Bros. had thus far seemed to be sticking to its guns, releasing Tenet in theaters to a disappointing $56 million, domestic. But it ended up being the first to blink after all. Moving WW84, the sequel to Patty Jenkins’s $400-million-domestic box office beast, straight to HBO Max on Christmas Day while it’s also playing in theaters feels like a sea change.
Look, it makes sense on a certain level. The streaming wars are heating up and, as the Entertainment Strategy Guy noted on his site, we’re still trying to sort through who’s truly in second after Netflix. Trying to figure out an “apples-to-apples” number—that is, how many subscribers each service has in the United States to create a common point of comparison—is tricky. Most analysts compare Netflix’s international numbers to HBO’s domestic figures while also assuming that every Amazon Prime member is a user of Prime Video. All of this is quite foolish.
As it happens, HBO should be well placed in this fight. There are already 38 million subscribers to HBO, after all, and all of those subscriptions come with access to HBO Max. But, as the ESG notes, only 8.6 million people have activated their accounts, in large part because HBO Max wasn’t available on Amazon Fire or Roku, a huge chunk of the market. Rumblings began last month when Decider’s Scott Porch seemed to flummox HBO Max chief Andy Forssell with a question about WW84. Then this week we finally saw a deal between Amazon and HBO announced. Apparently HBO’s nearing a deal with Roku as well, causing stock in the streaming device producer to spike. But how to get people to transfer to HBO Max or sign up in the first place?
Enter WW84. A legitimate blockbuster with an enormous budget from a popular franchise that would’ve done close to a billion dollars in business during normal times, WW84’s move away from theatrical exclusivity is undoubtedly a blow to struggling exhibitors. And Warner Bros. is probably going to end up leaving a fair amount of cash on the table: to equal the box office gross of the original, they’d have to sign up nearly 4.5 million new subscribers and have those subscribers maintain their subs for a year. Alternately, they could get 53 million to sign up for one month and then cancel. Neither of those figures strike me as particularly realistic.
We won’t know for a while whether or not the gamble will pay off. But we do know for sure that Warner Bros. was the first major studio to blink in the face of COVID. And now we need to know one last thing: Is Warner Bros. merely blinking or is this the first step to closing their eyes on theaters altogether?
Book Review: Greenlights (Amazon)
Matthew McConaughey’s memoir, Greenlights, is less a remembrance of Hollywood tales big and small than a collection of Zen koans, reminders to take life in stride in order to achieve success. Part self-reflection, part self-help, Greenlights is, I guarantee you, the only book by an A-list Hollywood movie star you’ll ever read in which he tells multiple stories about how wet dreams changed his life.
Before we get to the nocturnal emissions, however, we get a glimpse into McConaughey’s home life growing up. It’s pretty wild: In our first encounter with Ma and Pa McConaughey, mom breaks dad’s nose in a kitchen fight before the pair collapse onto the floor in a puddle of love, doin’ it right in front of the kids. McConaughey’s younger years were a weird mélange of stability and chaos, his mom and dad getting divorced twice and married thrice, the family moving around a bit to follow dad’s work. Obeying the rules wasn’t as important as not getting caught disobeying them: There was nothing wrong with a little petty crime, so long as no one caught you. Engaging in a bit of grift is less troubling than being a liar. “Outlaw logic,” he calls it.
Despite the occasional fight-and-screw, McConaughey’s youth seems more or less blessed. It’s tempting to say that it’s easy to just go with the flow when you have it, it being charisma, good looks, a joie de vivre that makes l-i-v-i-n a cinch. But it’s the attitude that makes the man more than anything else, a sense of changing what he can change and rolling with what he can’t. As he puts it while recounting a stint in Australia as a foreign exchange student living with a crazy host family, “Life’s hard. Shit happens to us. We make shit happen.”
If that motto sounds basic, well, it kind of is. But it’s also undeniably true. We are the masters of our fate and all the excuse-making in the world isn’t going to change what we do or how we behave. You make the world you want to live in. You’ve got to look for the greenlights in life.
I could spend the rest of this newsletter filling it with hilarious little snippets from McConaughey’s book, like the time his dad and brother got into a knock-down-drag-out fight or his demand to be taken to jail naked after being arrested for playing his bongos too loudly at night because his very nudity served as proof of his innocence. Or I could highlight the wisdom he’s accrued during his travels around the world, like the time he faced off against a champion African wrestler and learned that he won simply by accepting the challenge. There isn’t much in the way of Hollywood gossip, but I could close by sharing the bloody reason why he got the lead role in A Time to Kill instead of Woody Harrelson.
Instead, I’ll leave with what I think is the most important lesson from Greenlights. It comes after McConaughey has entered the University of Texas’s film school and, as a frat boy with tastes that run toward the more conventional, finds himself a bit out of place in the land of goths and kino retrospective junkies. (“Tucked in. Tan. Affable. Nonneurotic.”) He starts to doubt himself a bit, buying into the idea that he’s the weirdo, he’s the one with the problem. Can you go to film school and like Die Hard?
But then he has an epiphany. His classmates: they are just repeating what they think they should say. “We didn’t actually see” the blockbusters he loves, they admit. “We just know it’s shit.”
“Fuck y’all,” he replied. “Fuck y’all for saying something is shit just because it’s popular!”
The result of his realization? “After that day I was comfortable being both in the fraternity and a film student.”
Be true to yourself. Live how you want to live. Make the world you want to live in. Blow through the greenlights.
Assigned Viewing: The Gentlemen (Blu-ray)
Toward the end of Greenlights, McConaughey muses about how some of his recent movies haven’t been huge box office hits, at least compared to his romcom days. He’s sanguine about it, but a little confused. Allow me to suggest you help him perk up a bit by picking up The Gentlemen, Guy Ritchie’s latest British gangster flick.
Underseen when it came out last year, The Gentlemen is a return to form of sorts for Ritchie, whose best mode of moviemaking involves not massive budgets and CGI spectacle, à la his live-action Aladdin, but hard-talking toughs and twisty screenplays, à la Snatch or RocknRolla. And it’s a fine little turn from McConaughey, who plays an American trying to unload his stake in British drugs so he can retire to greener pastures. But Hugh Grant may steal the show as a seedy journalist looking to put the screws to Britain’s upper class for a nice payday; his smarm makes the whole thing work.
It’s a great watch and a key text in the McConnaissance, a term you’ll learn the secret origin of in Greenlights.