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Amid HBO Max and Warner Bros. chaos, entertainment executives defend streaming push

AT&T, NBCUniversal chiefs boast new subscriber numbers

Christopher Nolan may be seething, but CEOs for AT&T, NBCUniversal, and ViacomCBS each reiterated their commitment to streaming at a UBS conference on Monday amid chaos in Hollywood.

Following WarnerMedia’s announcement that it would shift the Warner Bros. 2021 movie slate into a hybrid release, debuting movies on HBO Max at the same time they hit theaters, AT&T CEO John Stankey provided a small update on HBO Max as he defended WarnerMedia’s decision.

The streamer is nearing 12.6 million active subscribers, according to Stankey, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter. That’s about 4 million more since AT&T’s last update in late October. Active is the key word. Technically, HBO Max has 28.7 million eligible subscribers who can upgrade from HBO’s linear cable plan into Max, but not all of those with eligible plans have jumped on the offer. It’s something that WarnerMedia and AT&T executives know is an issue — one not likely helped by the confusing branding and rollout — and one that executives are hoping having high-profile movies will help solve.

Stankey believes having the films will help to “penetrate the market faster” and scale the platform’s subscriber growth at a time when people in the United States aren’t likely to get out to theaters for much of 2021.

The first move came when Warner Bros. shifted Wonder Woman 1984 to a simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO Max. Then, everything else followed. Internationally, where HBO Max doesn’t exist and WarnerMedia has less incentive to grow a product and where movies might perform better with more theaters open, films will play exclusively in theaters before hitting digital retailers. In the US, where HBO Max growth is a vital concern and theaters remain closed in key markets, WarnerMedia is using the opportunity presented to them — even if it angers different parts of Hollywood.

“I know there’s a lot of noise out in the market, people with different viewpoints,” Stankey said, adding that this is anticipated “anytime you are going to change a model.”

Stankey was in part addressing comments made by Nolan, who has worked with Warner Bros. for years and condemned the move. Talent agents and the various guilds within Hollywood were also taken aback, and reports that Legendary Pictures is planning legal action over Dune and Godzilla vs Kong’s move have started appearing. Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff also addressed the backlash in a new interview with CNBC, saying that changes were brought on by the pandemic, using Nolan’s Tenet as a way to demonstrate Warner Bros.’ commitment to theaters.

“We have many movies, which are ready to go, and they’ve been sitting on shelves,” Sarnoff said. “We thought this was the most creative and win-win situation to bring them out.”

It’s not just AT&T and WarnerMedia executives who positioned the pivot to streaming as an inevitable and irrevocable move forward in the industry. NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell spoke at the same conference, announcing that Peacock reached more than 26 million signups, but he didn’t specify how many were paid.

Shell, like other CEOs, defended the importance of theatrical experiences. Universal isn’t shifting its slate of 2021 movies to Peacock, although Peacock isn’t exactly the same bet that HBO Max is for AT&T. If theaters are still not where they need to be by the time F9 comes out in May, it’s a little easier for Universal to delay the title instead of feeding it into Peacock.

Still, there’s always the possibility that Shell and his company could move titles to Peacock or, more likely, digital retailers in 2021. It was Universal that first angered theater chains like AMC after moving Trolls World Tour to a digital-only title in March, and it was Universal that worked out a deal with AMC to shorten the period of time a movie must play in theaters. As cliche as it’s become in 2020, it’s impossible to say for certain what companies will do in the next six months because it’s impossible to know what the next six months hold.

“I think that theatrical will continue to thrive and the more windows can collapse so there’s other ways to see things at home and in a less premium fashion, the more money is going to be made by everybody involved in the movie business and it’s better for consumers,” Shell said.

Finally, ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish also spoke about the company’s interest in developing a number of streaming platforms, including CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount Plus) and its free, ad-supported streamer, Pluto TV. Bakish revealed that ViacomCBS is predicting about 40 million average monthly Pluto TV users around the world and 19 million combined subscribers for CBS All Access and Showtime’s streamer.

When it comes to next year’s movies, however, Bakish wouldn’t say one way or another what happens. The CEO noted that the company has 12 movies, which includes four major franchise films. Regardless of what happens, Bakish recognized that even in a post-COVID 19 world, “it’s pretty clear that the theatrical windows will evolve and get shorter.”

“I think there is a role for theatrical... but in parallel, some of these new monetization paths that we’re seeing are going to be more common,” Bakish said, as reported by The Streamable. “I think the film category will continue to be strategic and valuable, but is certainly evolving.”

The issue boils down to talent and various agencies wanting what they know and executives wanting what’s next. Hollywood is experiencing its own “move fast and break things” moment. (Let’s see what happens with Disney during its big investor day focused on streaming initiatives.) The issue is that the film industry’s structure isn’t built for moving fast, and the cost of breaking things is yet to be seen.