AT&T Boss John Stankey Defends Theatrical-HBO Max Plan As “Opportunity To Make Lemonade Out Of Lemons”

Despite the industry dust-up over WarnerMedia’s controversial 2021 theatrical-HBO Max release strategy, according to AT&T CEO John Stankey, the move was “the right call,” essentially “using the unfortunate set of circumstances around the pandemic for an opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons.”

When asked this morning on the Q4 earnings call about the long term prospects of the strategy, which kicked off last month with the release of Wonder Woman 1984, Stankey launched into a defense. While there weren’t any viewership numbers revealed about WW1984 on HBO Max in the face of its lackluster $148M+ global gross, AT&T did report that HBO Max subscriptions doubled in Q4 to 17.2 million compared with the third quarter, largely due to WW1984. 

“As we indicated in making the write off, we felt like we had a little bit of a spoiling asset here, that needed to be used more effectively,” said Stankey about WarnerMedia’s movie to take its entire 2021 theatrical slate and make it day-and-date in theaters and on fledgling streaming service HBO Max at the same time.

While it’s been perceived that the theatrical-HBO Max day-and-date release strategy for the entire 2021 Warner Bros slate was indicative of the studio burning down the house to keep warm, especially as it launched its streaming service, Stankey pointed out the conglom’s foresight in predicting the theatrical marketplace.

“The data points have come in and are consistent with the assumptions,” said Stankey.

“We stepped back and thought of the theatrical business. No one went to theaters in 2020. It was a pandemic. Just like nobody got on an airplane, nobody went to hotels, nobody went to restaurants. All those businesses had a bit of a dislocation because of that and the theatrical business had a bit of dislocation,” added Stankey.

“You’ve seen other studios have continued to snowplow releases in the second half of the year, which cements our view. We’ll see a crowded theatrical field in late 2021 and early 2022,” said Stankey, “We don’t believe that magically just because there’s more content showing up in theaters all at the same, that’s going to dramatically increase the moviegoing population at that time,” said Stankey.

He added, “In some cases, maybe the dynamic of the media and the press was a little oversold or intense on both ends of the spectrum in my point of view. We told you, when the team decided to make this move it was appropriate for this moment in time. The team made the call. It was a bold and aggressive swing, it was done with a lot of thought as to what needed to occur with the subscriber base.”


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