Los Angeles (CNN Business)The Warner Bros. decision to make its 2021 movies available on streaming service HBO Max the same day they hit theaters comes after a long stretch that offered clarity on what studios want in terms of shrinking release windows, and what theaters want (or don’t) to protect their business.

Both sides are still guessing at what consumers want — a mood made even more difficult to read by the pandemic, and perhaps especially, how they’ll feel once there’s genuine light at the end of that tunnel.
The AT&T (T)-owned studio — part of WarnerMedia, as is CNN — jolted the entertainment industry by announcing its 2021 plans on Thursday. And it follows skirmishes between other studios and theater chains, including Disney (DIS) and Comcast (CCZ) unit Universal over “Trolls World Tour,” since coronavirus derailed theatrical release schedules earlier this year.

Studios have long sought greater flexibility in terms of releasing movies to digital and on-demand platforms, while theaters want to preserve their exclusivity for as long as possible. The pandemic’s impact has clearly given the former leverage in shrinking the standard 90-day gap between theatrical and home release on major films, which was already under pressure with studios intent on offering premium content to generate more streaming subscribers.

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