HBO Max Won’t Get ‘Tenet’ First; But Smaller Films Might Go Straight to SVOD: Stankey

(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

WarnerMedia’s big-budget summer blockbuster movies Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 will not be bypassing their theatrical and home-video release windows and premiering directly on HBO Max, John Stankey, CEO of parent company AT&T, told investors Thursday.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on, and theaters remain closed across the U.S., other lower-budget theatrical films just might go the straight-to-SVOD route. 

“There’s no question the longer this goes on there’s going to be some content on the margin that we look at and say that it may be better served to be distributed in a different construct,” Stankey said during AT&T’s second quarter earnings call. 

Also read: Will HBO Max use Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ as a ‘Battering Ram’ Against Amazon and Roku?

Earlier this week, the equity analysts at LightShed Partners stirred debate with an interesting proposition: with filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated espionage thriller Tenet, produced at a reported cost of $200 million, pushed off the summer release calendar due to COVID-19 theater closures, AT&T and WarnerMedia might consider writing down some sizable short-term losses and debuting the film—along with another pushed back summer blockbuster, Wonder Woman 2018— directly on HBO Max. 

Doing so would greatly bolster HBO Max signups, while pushing top connected TV platform operators Roku and Amazon to come to terms to support the HBO Max app. 

The challenge would have been daunting: Not only would theater chain owners go nuts to see huge tentpole releases slip from their grasp, but the film’s talent deals, structured risk-aversely to box office performance, would be have to be re-tied to SVOD guarantees. Nolan, an acclaimed filmmaker with a fondness for the big screen, would have also had to be convinced. 

For now, Tenet remains pushed off the theatrical release calendar; Wonder Woman 1984 is tentatively schedule for October 2. 

For his part, Stankey said that there are some films that do fit the direct-to-SVOD bill. 

“Some content is going to be more enjoyable and better to see in theaters than in the living room,” Stankey said. “We want to work with our theatrical partners and exhibitors and try to get through this very difficult period.”

He added that WarnerMedia has already “retooled” some of its production deals to fit SVOD release. 

“There are going to be some shifts as we move forward here,” Stankey said

So what might those films be?

Scrolling further down the release calendar to the parts that haven’t yet been so disrupted, Warner Bros. is still scheduled to open low-budget horror sequel The Conjuring 3 on September 11. 

Notably, WarnerMedia's film unit also has filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the latest cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel, set to bow theatrically December 18. 

Also boasting a reported production price tag of over $200 million, Dune is more in line with Tenet than the kind of “on-the-margin” films WarnerMedia is looking for to go straight to HBO Max. 

But the French-Canadian Villeneuve, coming off 2017’s commercially disappointing Blade Runner 2049, doesn’t have Nolan’s Hollywood clout. 

And if the pandemic is still enough of a U.S. public health problem to shutter movie box offices during the active holiday release season six months from now, theater owners might see their influence wane further, as well. 

Daniel Frankel

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!