‘Tenet’ Won’t Hit HBO Max Before Theaters, AT&T CEO John Stankey Confirms

John Stankey, CEO of WarnerMedia parent AT&T, has put to rest a scenario increasingly floated by movie fans hankering for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, saying the film won’t stream before it plays in theaters.

The CEO was asked during a conference call with analysts Thursday about the feasibility of releasing major titles like Tenet on HBO Max and eliminating their theatrical runs. During the months-long closures of movie theaters due to COVID-19, that kind of distribution pattern has been tested by studios like Universal and Disney. But no distributor has tried it on titles at the budget level of the highest end of Hollywood blockbusters, given the hundreds of millions in revenue they would likely forfeit.

“Is it going to happen with a movie like Tenet or something like Wonder Woman?” Stankey said. “I’d be very surprised if that would be the case. In fact, I can assure you with Tenet, that’s not going to be the case.”

In an interview on CNBC immediately after the earnings call, Stankey said a film with the event profile of Tenet can’t be sporadically released in various markets. “It needs to release nationwide,” he said. “So if you have a major metropolitan area — say, Los Angeles — that’s totally out of check and you have other parts of the country that are totally in control, it doesn’t necessarily give you an option to open it in half the country. It just doesn’t work very well that way.”

Beyond those distribution mechanics, Stankey added, “It’s a movie, an experience, that should be seen in theaters. It was engineered to be that way. As a result of that, it needs to show up that way. Certainly, Christopher would like it to be that way. That’s how he wants that piece of work that he’s done to be seen by moviegoers and that’s why it’s going to be something that shows up in a theater.”

Managing through the pandemic, which has created dense clouds of uncertainty, has been anything but easy. But Stankey said the addition of HBO Max, which launched May 27, is helpful to the overall bandwidth of the company. Original movies have already found a place in the fold. Early original offerings on Max include the feature comedy An American Pickle with Seth Rogen, coming in August. Max’s best-reviewed original at launch was the feature documentary Off the Record.

“The longer this goes on, there’s going to be some content on the margins that we’re going to look at and say it may be better served to be distributed in another construct or a different construct. I love that we have that option now. I love the reality that we’ve been able to build a platform where we can get leverage and capabilities out of any content we build, theatrical or otherwise.”

Stankey recalled his previous commentary on theatrical windows and said “there are going to be some shifts” in release windows across the industry. Still, he reasserted that “there’s some content that is going to be more enjoyable and better to see in theaters than in the living room.”

Just prior to Stankey’s remarks, top exhibitor AMC said it is now going to pause the reopening of its theaters until Warner Bros signals it is ready to roll out Tenet.

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