Of Course AT&T Is Doubling Down on Its Chaotic HBO Max Premieres

Of Course AT&T Is Doubling Down on Its Chaotic HBO Max Premieres
John Stankey speaks onstage at HBO Max WarnerMedia Investor Day Presentation at Warner Bros. Studios on Oct. 29, 2019 in Burbank, Calif. (Photo: Presley Ann, Getty Images)

You know who thinks WarnerMedia’s “hybrid” release model is a great idea?

The people who own WarnerMedia.

As the company’s plan to release all of its 2021 films both in theatres as well as on HBO Max the same day continues to draw criticism, CEO of WarnerMedia parent AT&T John Stankey is doubling down on the company’s unprecedented film debut model. Speaking at a virtual conference hosted by UBS on Tuesday, Stankey reportedly characterised the controversial decision as a “win-win-win,” perhaps ignoring the fact that industry figures and theatres seem to feel differently.

“Any time you’re going to change a model, I know it creates a degree of noise,” Stankey said, per the Wall Street Journal. “Ultimately, rational parties will step back and look at this and say, giving theatre owners a predictable release of content over the next several months that they can plan around and start to work their business around is a good thing for them.”

Sure, having films to show at all may put theatres in a better position than having none, but the lack of any formal windowing policy for exhibitors — coupled with the fact that the films will be made available to HBO Max subscribers at no additional cost — doesn’t exactly offer a lot of incentive for consumers to pay per-head ticket fees to see those films in theatres, and during a pandemic, no less.

It’s also a curious decision that could alienate not only theatres but creatives whose films are now releasing straight-to-digital. Tenet director Christopher Nolan said as much in a strongly worded statement to the Hollywood Reporter.

“Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theatres and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing,” Nolan said. “Their decision makes no economic sense and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

AMC chief Adam Aron also issued a statement last week condemning the move.

“Clearly, Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidise its HBO Max start up [sic]. As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense. We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business,” Aron said in a statement shared with Gizmodo. “We have already commenced an immediate and urgent dialogue with the leadership of Warner on this subject.”

There is an argument to be made that the ever-shifting release dates for films that have been pushed back again and again as a result of the pandemic aren’t doing those films any favours, a point raised last week by Wonder Woman 1984 director Patty Jenkins, whose own film will debut on HBO Max on the same day it opens in theatres.

Beyond film delays and cinema closures, though, many consumers simply don’t feel comfortable returning to theatres at all right now. And the expectation that it will take time for consumers to return to these spaces appears to be a major factor in WarnerMedia’s move.

“Our feeling was, in the theatrical business, based on our best discussion with experts, we were going to be in a situation where the psyche of the population and people’s willingness to go back into large venues — that’s going to be a little bit of a prolonged recovery,” Stankey said, per the Journal. The thing is, none of us has any idea what that “prolonged recovery” is going to look like, and WarnerMedia may very well have jumped the gun by promising to release all of its 2021 films — rather than merely a few at a time — on its streaming service.

As with WarnerMedia’s bizarre scheme to eventually throw ads on HBO Max, the extended hybrid release model feels like another poorly conceived decision motivated by immediate gains rather than any actual long-term vision. If AT&T’s hope is to run HBO’s reputation with both Hollywood and viewers straight into the ground, it’s doing a fantastic job.