Warner Bros. CEO Talks 'Batman' Filming Halt, 'Tenet' Release Amid COVID-19

Ann Sarnoff - 2020 Impact Awards-Getty - H 2020
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Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff

As the Christopher Nolan film hits theaters in the U.S. and Batman Robert Pattinson tests positive for coronavirus, Ann Sarnoff says, "I think we never expected things to go completely smoothly."

As WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group head Ann Sarnoff marks a year at the company where she was recently elevated to a top position overseeing all content, she agreed to a series of interviews on Thursday tied to the release of Christopher Nolan’s much-discussed and oft-postponed Tenet.

Hours before she was set to begin speaking with the press, the coronavirus pandemic intervened once again, with news that filming on Matt Reeves' The Batman in London had shut down again after star Robert Pattinson reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.

The studio had hoped to keep the focus on Tenet, which opens today where it can in the U.S. after launching internationally last weekend to a better-than-expected $53 million-plus from 41 markets (Los Angeles and New York City theaters remain off limits for now). It also raised the awkward question of whether patrons should risk going to a movie theater at a time when a production that was in theory carefully controlled faced a shutdown. (Cinemas have been open in a number of countries that have done better at coping with the pandemic than the U.S. without any known outbreaks thus far.)

Sarnoff has a very full plate — a disappointing launch of HBO Max, shifting business models, massive reorganizations, and overall disruption and displacement caused by the COVID-19 — and Tenet is an enormous gamble for her and her team. The $200 million espionage epic is braving a traditional theatrical release in the first major test of whether a Hollywood tentpole can prevail amid the ongoing pandemic. Nolan is a fierce advocate of the cinematic experience and has insisted on a big-screen debut. At the same time, Disney is experimenting with Mulan, the other big-ticket movie out this week, offering it for $29.99 to subscribers on its streaming service in the U.S. and other select markets. (The film will be made available theatrically in China, South Korea, Russia and other smaller markets.)

Sarnoff’s hire and recent promotion — she now oversees all content operations — have been viewed skeptically by some in Hollywood. In August 2019, she arrived at Warner Bros. as CEO with oversight of the film and television studios despite being mostly unknown to Hollywood insiders. Before serving as president of BBC Studios America, Sarnoff was president of Dow Jones Ventures, COO of the WNBA and executive vp consumer products and business development at Nickelodeon.

Sarnoff is the first woman to run Warner Bros. and the only high-profile woman in WarnerMedia's upper echelon. In August, her power base increased immeasurably when newly installed WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar ousted Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly and expanded Sarnoff’s purview to all content, including the company’s nascent streaming service, HBO Max. HBO veteran Casey Bloys, a new Sarnoff report, is now overseeing a content team that encompasses the premium cable network, HBO Max and a trio of basic cable channels. Warner Bros. Motion Pictures Group chief Toby Emmerich also continues to report to Sarnoff.

In a wide-ranging Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter, Sarnoff was candid about the challenges of resuming production in the COVID era — "I don’t see things materially changing until there is a medical solution" — why Tenet needs to be seen on the big screen, and how Emmerich will have expanded purview on which of his movies go straight to HBO Max.

Production on The Batman has been halted after a castmember tested positive for COVID-19. It’s been confirmed the person is lead actor Robert Pattinson.

I won’t comment on specifics. We have to protect people’s privacy.

Does what happened to Batman change your thinking about resuming production?

I think we never expected things to go completely smoothly. In fact, as we’ve been getting our protocols ready, we built in contingencies. If someone tests positive, you do contact tracing, you pause, you evaluate, and come back when you can. I think it would have been naïve to think we wouldn’t have certain cases on certain productions. The most important thing is to be ready for when that happens. And we were very much ready.

Do you have any sense at all of when production might return to normal on an overall basis?

I don’t see things material changing until there is a medical solution, unless we were to reach herd immunity somehow. Instead, we are just proceeding as if there won’t be and resuming production as safely as we can.

Regarding Tenet’s release in theaters, there’s a perception that Christopher Nolan controls things. Is that fair or overstated?

It's overstated. Let me share with you the process that we went through. Right when COVID struck, we started looking at alternative ways to think about movie releases. On the Scoob! front, we decided to release it on PVOD. Families were sequestered together and wanted more content. We are very happy with the results. A few weeks later it debuted on HBO Max, where we were very happy with the results as well.

On the Tenet front, we also had a finished movie, which we are very proud for people to see. As the summer unfolded, we started thinking about more innovative ways of releasing the movie. What if we didn’t put everything up front toward the opening weekend? Theaters were very upfront about saying they could give us three to four times as many screens as normal. So that started to change our thinking. We are happy with where we are. Some markets still aren’t open, but it is a marathon and not a sprint.

Theaters have instituted a host of safety protocols, but are you concerned about risks of asking people to gather in an enclosed space?

Of course. We have done quite a bit of research throughout the last few months about people’s concerns and preferences. We started to monitor behaviors of people going back to outdoor restaurants and indoor theaters. It gave us a lot of data about specific markets and the behavior that people are likely to exhibit when theaters reopen. Our approach is to never make anyone go to a theater if they aren’t comfortable. But it isn’t one size fits all. Some people are more comfortable than others.

Would you ever consider doing a hybrid PVOD-theatrical release for a big tentpole, much as Disney is doing with Mulan?

I don’t completely understand Disney’s strategy, but they are releasing Mulan internationally in some theaters. I’m rooting for anybody who is getting a movie out. Fans are anxious for new content. I actually went to see Tenet last night in Connecticut. I’m in Bedford, New York, and drove 10 minutes to the theater with friends. And it was amazing. It was safe. There were no crowds. I even found a way to eat popcorn with a mask on. Of course my mask smells like popcorn now.

Did you ever consider putting Tenet on PVOD considering the ongoing pandemic?

No. It is a remarkable, cinematic, beautiful film. It is so impactful. It is a movie meant for the big screen. I’m very proud of our approach. A lot of people are pushing stuff into next year. Tenet absolutely deserves to be seen in theaters.

What is the thinking on Wonder Woman 1984, which is due out in mid-October? Will you you move it to the Dune slot in December?

We are still figuring out the strategy for all of our movies. We have quite a lot done. Obviously, Wonder Woman 1984 is up next. For now, it is where it is. Like I said earlier, certain movies deserve to be on the big screen. My belief is Wonder Woman is one of those.

HBO Max’s launch has been considered less optimal. Now that there’s been a big reorganization, are you talking about simplifying things and changing the name? Would you consider new pricing, or anything that might change the HBO Max approach?

These are early days for me. Casey and I are partners in diving in since neither one of us was working on it directly before. So we are really studying the consumer feedback, the content performance, et cetera. The good news is we are seeing incredible engagement. Stay tuned.

There’s a lot of scuttlebutt with all the studio reorgs, and Susan Rovner looking at NBCUniversal. Can you give us any idea as to when Peter Roth might retire, or what you might do to retain someone so that they don’t go to a rival?

I’m sorry I can’t comment because it’s all speculation at this point. I don’t have anything official to say.

How much creative input do you intend to have in terms of content?

My job is to lead the group. I’m not giving notes. I may have an opinion about something. I have incredibly capable people working for me. I’m very happy with them running their businesses. That is one of the reasons John Stankey hired me: I break silos. My job is to pull it all together and make it more valuable for creators. They now have one-stop shopping. We just have so many platforms to work with.

With the NBC reorg, it seems like you come in the door and they decide where the product goes. How will Warner Bros. approach this?

Let me give you an example of how this new structure simplifies things. Toby Emmerich will now focus on whether a project is a theatrical release or whether it is better for HBO Max, in which case he’ll talk to Casey and Sarah Aubrey. Now that everything is under one roof, it is much easier and more harmonious.

Will Toby decide that well into the process?

It will be right out of the gate [is] what the intention is in terms of which distribution route a project will take. It will very rarely be a pivot.

Where are the AMPTP and the guilds at in terms of return-to-work talks? We understand there are issues around work hours, sick day compensation?

I’m very informed and we have a very good team that has been negotiating. They are fairly optimistic that we are starting to reach some agreements with the unions.

On a personal level, after all these months, after Tenet finally opens and you get the news about Batman, how do you cope with such uncertainty?

I think it is what I said about Tenet: You have to be patient. You have to open in markets where you can. It's the same with production. You produce when you can. I don’t see it as anything that changes our strategy.

You just got a new promotion and a whole new team you have to deal with on Zoom.

I was able to interact with many in person before we went into lockdown. I certainly spent a lot of time with Casey and Sarah and Sandra [Dewey]. You definitely get Zoom fatigue. We are also trying to be creative. I am returning to L.A. in a few weeks even if we aren’t all in the office. We can do walks together or socially distanced ice teas. We will take it a step at a time. I will never take a hug for granted again.