AT&T CEO Defends Warner Bros.' Streaming Plan, HBO Max Nears 12.6M Activated Subs

AT&T CEO John Stankey
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AT&T CEO John Stankey

John Stankey called the bet a "win-win-win" that fits current market trends and consumers' psyche amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

AT&T's WarnerMedia is "ahead of plan" on its HBO Max streaming service, nearing 12.6 million activated users, and can use the decision to bring its 2021 film slate to the service and cinemas to "accelerate that further" to "penetrate the market faster," the telecom giant's CEO told an investor conference Tuesday.

John Stankey, during his appearance at the UBS Global TMT Virtual Conference, called the decision a "win-win-win" — for the company, its partners and consumers — that fits current market trends and consumers' psyche amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Stankey called the lack of theatrical business amid the pandemic “unfortunate." Licensing films to other streamers is like giving "competitors additional arms” though, which is why "we knew we needed to try something different." He added: "Getting the product out into the market … is important." And he warned: "snow ploughing" all films into late 2021 or 2022 won’t help the market. In the end, he argued, the market will be "dictated by what consumers choose to do."

"Having choice" is a good thing at this time, he argued. "We are doing both theatrical and streaming at the same time" rather than putting one above the other. "We'll adjust" if the cinema business returns from the pandemic hit.

WarnerMedia has drawn criticism for Warner Bros.' decision to follow up its decision to send Wonder Woman 1984 to HBO Max and theaters Dec. 25 with a similar plan for its 2021 slate due to uncertainty about when moviegoing will get back to normal amid the ongoing pandemic. The studio on Thursday announced day-and-date releases for its 17-film slate, which will hit HBO Max for a one-month window that starts the same day they will hit U.S. theaters. The slate includes such projects as The Matrix 4DuneGodzilla vs. Kong and Space Jam: A New Legacy.

"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,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan, whose relationship with Warners dates back to Insomnia in 2002, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Acknowledging criticism from Nolan as well as cinema groups, Stankey said: "I know there’s a lot of noise out in the market, people with different viewpoints," but that happens "anytime you are going to change a model."

Discussing the traditional pay TV bundle, the AT&T boss on Tuesday also said that it "has seen its best days." The firm has been considering selling a stake in its DirecTV satellite TV operation.

Stankey said HBO Max could hit the 12.6 million activated subscriber mark Wednesday.

The WarnerMedia streaming service had reached 28.7 million total subscribers, including 8.6 million "activated" users as of the end of the third quarter. The company highlights activations because consumers can not only get HBO Max directly from WarnerMedia, but also via pay-TV providers, which requires them to download the HBO Max app on their smart TVs or other devices. The same is true for customers on AT&T's Unlimited wireless and fiber broadband plans. Activations count the people who download, or "activate," the HBO Max app.

Stankey, who during Tuesday's video appearance sat in front of a screen showing an AT&T 5G logo and the HBO Max logo, said his team has done a "great job restructuring our debt" over the past few months and will shed "tangential" assets that may cause "distractions" from the core focus of the company. That can also help with accelerating a restructuring that has started yielding benefits, he said.

"It’s about creating connections," he said about that, mentioning the firm wants to enable users to create such connections with each other and with "content that they find most important to them."