It’s entirely likely that December 3, 2020, will go down as the day moviegoing suffered a fatal ice pick from the cold, calculating hand of the streaming revolution. That was the day WarnerMedia, the entertainment division of AT&T and corporate inheritor of Warner Bros.—century-old studio home of Kubrick and Eastwood; Bugs Bunny and Harry Potter; Casablanca and Gone With the Wind—announced it would release its entire 2021 slate straight to the American living room via limited runs on its HBO Max service. (And in whatever theaters would have them too.) From 40,000 feet, it was a sensible, even perfunctory, move. Theaters have been largely shut down by COVID for a year and could be on ice for another. WarnerMedia has a nine-month-old streaming service fighting a near-impossible battle against Netflix and Amazon. The movies sitting on its shelf, which included Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman sequel and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation, could give the floundering app a boost.
Hollywood didn’t quite see it that way. While Disney and Universal had experimented in the pandemic with straight-to-streaming runs, the scale of the Warner Bros. announcement was an affront. In Hollywood logic, Warners had ignited a bomb under the rickety framework holding the whole town together. With one voice, in public statements and private murmurs, the entertainment community rose as rarely before.
“AT&T has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history. There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here,” Villeneuve wrote in Variety. Christopher Nolan, the studio’s most consistent rainmaker, twisted the knife: “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.” The otherwise discreet and circumspect CAA chief Richard Lovett issued a public letter: “Warner Brothers has made a statement that relationships with artists and their representatives are not important to the studio.” (WarnerMedia declined to comment for this story.)
By the LOGIC that defined Netflix’s rise, EVERYONE is the ONLY audience worth having.
So why the torches in the streets against an otherwise artist-friendly studio? For starters: the money. Particularly the idea that artists might lose a bunch of it. Most of the major players involved in a film work for a percentage of the film’s gross; that is, its gross at the box office. Warners was potentially robbing the participants of an expected payday. (Another possible translation for the agents’ messaging in all this: Now you’re going to pay. And pay big. Sure enough, reports surfaced in January that the studio would adjust contracts to reflect the new box office reality.) Egos factor in as well, of course. Many of these directors made their movies with the notion that one day audiences would enjoy them in theaters.
But the response was also a primal scream, pent up for years.
Just how the erstwhile Ma Bell found itself to be the enemy of entertainment is a perfect case study in the various pressures at play in moviemaking circa 2021. In one sense, this is all a sideshow to the larger battle being waged by telecom giants to wire the nation with 5G connections. The price tag for that build-out has been estimated at more than a trillion dollars, beside which a film studio, which in a good year might bring in $4 billion, is a pinprick in the bucket. Having built this network, the phone company will want things to run through it, attracting people (and their data) to the service. But AT&T was no reckless Silicon Valley tech bro. The company had become known for a risk-averse accountant’s culture. Their efforts were led by John Stankey, a six-foot-five actual L.A. native who looks like a linebacker and talks like the footnotes of a business-school textbook. First as mastermind of the company’s Direct TV acquisition, then as czar of the company’s combined entertainment properties, then as chief of the entire company, Stankey pursued a strategy that attempted to re-create the Netflix miracle out of the odds and ends he’d inherited.
That miscellany included the most highly regarded brand in television: HBO. But while Succession viewers might be a lot of people, they’re not everyone. And by the logic that defined Netflix’s rise, everyone is the only audience worth having. In one of Stankey’s first acts upon taking control of the Time Warner portfolio, the company announced that the streaming world of HBO would now become HBO Max, adding a surname more associated with gallon-size Slurpees than high-end TV productions.
Then there was the original content. Most services try to have something that smells like a hit in the front of their lineup for launch time. Max lit the candle without anything bigger than an Anna Kendrick rom-com anthology. Warners powers also failed to work out a deal to make the new service available on major OTT providers Amazon Fire TV and Roku.
The phone company could not just give up, particularly not with an estimated $158 billion in debt. After signing on as WarnerMedia CEO in April, just before the launch, former Hulu CEO Jason Kilar had one obvious tool at hand: a whole studio full of movies. As fate would have it, thanks to the COVID pandemic, these movies were just sitting in a barn waiting.
Meanwhile, Nolan launched a very public nudgenik campaign demanding the studio release his latest film, Tenet, on big screens in the middle of the pandemic. Eventually the studio gave in and Tenet bombed at a mostly closed box office, essentially ending talk of any studio releasing any major movie in American theaters in 2020.
With that experience fresh and the new service floundering, Kilar made the move that studio chiefs have dreamed of since the days of Betamax. Few believe Warners’ insistence that they’ll return to the theaters, status quo ante. The window is smashed open and there for other studios to step through.
For years, the debate has raged as to whether this precise move would steal already-dwindling audiences from the theaters or create a whole new one. Now we get to find out! All for the low price of burning your bridges to Hollywood’s creative community, who vow Warners will now be the studio of last resort.
At the start of the new year, there were signs of détente. The standoffs with Roku and Amazon were settled, and so the service is now near-universally available. Despite lukewarm to brutal buzz on Wonder Woman 1984, early analysis indicates it gave HBO Max a big bump in subscribers and interest. The negotiations will go on as Warners tries to win back the trust of the Hollywood talent pool with some combination of massive checks and hand-holding. The directors, however, don’t seem to be lining up just yet. Soon after the announcements, Wonder Woman series auteur Jenkins revealed that she is moving on to Disney to make a Star Wars film. (She’s still signed on for fast-tracked Wonder Woman 3, which Warner Bros. swears will have a theatrical release.)
But even as the town moves on from the whole episode, a deeper fear remains: that with this move, Warner Bros. has cracked the capstone. The collapse of film-going is coming fast, as companies race to retool for a brave new streaming age, perhaps leaving Hollywood’s most romantic figure—the swashbuckling visionary director—behind for good.
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