AT&T CEO Says HBO Max Movie Premieres Won't Be “The End” of Theaters

AT&T CEO John Stankey says WarnerMedia's decision to send the entire Warner Bros. 2021 slate to streaming on HBO Max the same day those movies open in theaters is not "the end" of theatrical exhibition, calling the move "an appropriate decision for the moment we're in." On Thursday, the AT&T-owned WarnerMedia announced a total of 17 films — including Dune, Godzilla vs. Kong, The Matrix 4, and The Suicide Squad — would be available at no extra cost to HBO Max subscribers on the same day they release in theaters. Warner executives describe the unique initiative as a one-year hybrid exhibition model that came about after the company explored "a couple of different concepts."

Making his first comments to The Washington Post after Thursday's bombshell news, Stankey said the company has "a bunch of movies that are ready to go" that have been "sitting on the shelf" due to ongoing theater closures amid the coronavirus pandemic.

After attempting to revive theatergoing by releasing the Christopher Nolan-directed Tenet over the summer, Stankey said executives didn't feel that "just pushing them until people feel safe going back to theaters was the right answer."

Not only could the move be a "lifeline" for theaters, giving them in-demand titles that will stream day-and-date for the first 31 days, but the move comes as 2021 grows more crowded as a shuffling release schedules has seen a bevy of big movies move out of 2020 into next year — including Universal's Fast 9 and Marvel's Black Widow.

"When we think about the dynamic that's happening with everybody who's making good theatrical content right now, it's kind of creating this big bubble," he explained. "Once we see that the consumer is ready to come back into a theater, if all of a sudden everybody releases their inventory, then that's not going to be a good thing either because there's only a certain amount of theatergoing that the population is going to do at any one time."

Following November reports that Warners worried Wonder Woman 1984 might "get stale" if delayed deep into 2021 — it premieres on HBO Max and in select theaters on Christmas Day — Stankey says there was a feeling at the company that "we're going to have some really good content here that's spoiling and can be used for other purposes."

Stankey cites data suggesting that a "large number" of customers won't feel comfortable returning theaters until the late part of 2021 and goes on to say that "we just think this [strategy] is appropriate for this moment in time and this circumstance. We're lucky as a business to have invested in a streaming platform where we can have the option of doing both and letting consumers choose."

As the move comes under fire from theater chains, Stankey says he believes that movie theaters will "continue to have a role moving forward in society," calling them "an experience for the right kind of content that people are going to want to continue to have."

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He continued, "But look, storytelling on scripted content is getting better and better and better. The experience of watching that content at home in comfortable surroundings, with large screens, and having the convenience of watching it when you want to watch it is getting better and better. So there's no question that we're going to see consumer behavior shifts and those are going to sustain themselves."

Stankey added, "I don't believe that yesterday was the day that was the end. I just think it's another day in a string of data points that's heading in particular directions."