Last week’s earthshaking decision by WarnerMedia to launch the entire Warner Bros. Pictures 2021 film slate on its new streaming service, HBO Max, concurrent with a theatrical release, was seen by the industry and the public as the game-changing move that it was clearly meant to be.
But the strategy is already garnering a fierce backlash from at least one of the studio’s top filmmakers, as well as a production company that has a major financial stake in several of Warner’s upcoming blockbusters.
In a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, Nolan fumed, “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.”
The director, whose film Tenet was released in theaters earlier this year to tepid box office results due to the ongoing pandemic, continued, “Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”
Nolan echoed those comments in an interview with Entertainment Tonight: “There’s such controversy around it, because they didn’t tell anyone. In 2021, they’ve got some of the top filmmakers in the world, they’ve got some of the biggest stars in the world who worked for years in some cases on these projects very close to their hearts that are meant to be big-screen experiences. They’re meant to be out there for the widest possible audiences…And now they’re being used as a loss-leader for the streaming service — for the fledgling streaming service — without any consultation.”
The filmmaker behind blockbusters such as Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy added, “What you have right now in our business is a lot of the use of the pandemic as an excuse for sort of grappling for short-term advantage. And it’s really unfortunate.”
The notion that WarnerMedia and its parent company, AT&T, dropped this bombshell without letting a single one of its filmmakers or production partners know ahead of time is fairly shocking and indicates a profound cultural change at a studio that used to pride itself on being a creative haven for talent.
As one agent told the Hollywood Reporter, “You had a decades-long legacy as being known as the most talent-friendly studio. Now you’ve gone from that to a studio that in starburst colors lit up a sign that says, ‘We don’t give a fuck about talent.’”
While artists like Dune director Denis Villeneuve and In the Heights director Jon M. Chu are said to be “shell-shocked” by the decision, others such as The Suicide Squad helmer James Gunn are reportedly displeased with the way that their profit participation in their films is going to be recalibrated. Deadline claims that one proposed formula is a “loss leader for everyone,” while it’s also been reported that the studio had to shell out millions of dollars in advance to Wonder Woman 1984 director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot to offset losses of their guaranteed backend payouts from a standard theatrical release (based on a projected $1 billion gross).
One major player is almost certain to take legal action. Legendary Pictures, which has put up most of the $165 million budget for Dune and reportedly a comparable amount for Godzilla vs. Kong, may file a lawsuit against WarnerMedia.
Variety says the company is hoping to strike a more generous deal first, or possibly sell its stake in the films outright to WarnerMedia, before resorting to some sort of legal move which would likely be based on breach of contract. Increasing Legendary’s sense of frustration are reports that Netflix offered Warner Bros. some $250 million for Godzilla vs. Kong, but the studio rejected the offer — perhaps because it had the HBO Max move already in the planning stages.
Warner’s entire strategy is seen around the industry as a Hail Mary to boost the fortunes of HBO Max, which has suffered from a botched, confusing rollout, its absence on major streaming platforms like Roku, and unfocused branding. Just 8.6 million of HBO’s existing subscriber base of over 30 million have activated HBO Max, a disappointing number for a service that AT&T sees as the future of the company.
But in doing everything they can to leverage the success of that service, are WarnerMedia and AT&T sacrificing every single relationship — with filmmakers, creative guilds, talent agencies, production companies and theater chains — that have been the bedrock of the movie business for decades? That will be the question in the entertainment industry as this miserable 2020 finally comes to a close.