AT&T CEO: 'Tenet' Will Get Theatrical Release, But Some Films Could Move to Streaming

TENET -Publicity Still  3- H 2020
Warner Bros. Pictures

"There is no question the longer this (pandemic) goes on, there is going to be some content" better served with a different distribution arrangement, says John Stankey.

AT&T's quarterly earnings conference call on Thursday morning also provided updates about the film release strategy of the telecom giant's film studio Warner Bros., which will be of interest to Hollywood insiders.

John Stankey, the former CEO of AT&T's entertainment unit WarnerMedia who recently was promoted to the role of CEO of the parent company, was asked on the call about how the novel coronavirus pandemic has been affecting the film business and distribution strategies.

He reiterated past comments that traditional theatrical releases continue to have an "absolutely important role," but the pandemic means there was a need for "some adjustment in the theatrical construct." He said "we absolutely believe" that tentpole content was "more enjoyable and better to see" in cinemas, "however, I don’t know when theaters are going to reopen."

Asked if WarnerMedia's new streaming service HBO Max would help the company with that, he said: "There is no question the longer this goes on, there is going to be some content" better served with a different distribution arrangement. "I love the fact that we have that option now."

So will some Warner films migrate from cinema to streaming debuts? "Sure, I think that could occur," Stankey said, but he suggested that wouldn't apply to tentpoles like Tenet or Wonder Woman 1984. “I would be very surprised if that was the case," he said before adding he could actually assure analysts that for Tenet "that's not going to be the case."

Nolan has long been an advocate for traditional theatrical releases. Warner Bros. will "continue to work with theater owners" even though it took the animated film straight to premium VOD instead of waiting for cinemas to reopen after the coronavirus pandemic, John Stephens, the CFO of AT&T, also recently told an investor conference.

Due to the pandemic, however, Warner decided to launch the animated Scooby-Doo film Scoob! on premium VOD and scrap its theatrical release. It became available both to rent and to buy in the home on May 15 for $19.99 and $24.99, respectively. In late June, it became available on new WarnerMedia streaming service HBO Max. 

Warner Bros.’ staggered release plan for Tenet, directed by Christopher Nolan, did not get mentioned in detail on the earnings conference call.

With the traditional global day-and-date launch becoming impossible in the era of the novel coronavirus, the idea of releasing new movies on a staggered basis, even if it means only launching a title in markets that are able to open safely — whether overseas or in the U.S., has gained momentum in Hollywood.

Warner Bros. recently said it would ignore the modern-day distribution playbook to launch espionage epic Tenet on a staggered basis, but didn't immediately provide details amid a fluid situation.

Studio insiders told THR that the film would go out first overseas since cinemas have reopened in many European and Asian countries, and sources said the hope was to begin opening the movie in international markets in late August before bringing it to the U.S. in September, even if only in select cities.