AT&T executive defends decision to release movies on HBO Max

(Photo courtesy AT&T WarnerMedia/Handout; Graphic by The Desk)

An AT&T executive responded on Tuesday to criticism from filmmakers and other creative professionals over the company’s decision to release all of its 2021 theatrical films on streaming service HBO Max.

Speaking at the Citi Global TMT West Virtual Conference, AT&T’s chief financial officer John Stephens said he believes the company will continue to have a lasting and meaningful relationship with the talent, directors and other creative workers who are instrumental to the production of the movies distributed by Warner Bros.

“We’ve got a long history of working with the talent and will continue to work with them. I think we’ve got a reputation that goes [back several] decades,” Stephens said. “Warner Bros. studio in particular — it’s just decades and decades, almost a hundred years.”

Late last year, AT&T executives announced the company’s decision to release its slate of movies direct to consumers via its owned-and-operated streaming service HBO Max. The move came in response to the ongoing global health pandemic, which forced movie theaters across the United States to suspend operations for months — a situation may theaters still find themselves in.

The move proved unpopular with theater owners who said the decision to release movies directly to streaming consumers instead of the traditional route would only further hurt an industry that was already suffering the effects of the pandemic.

It proved unpopular too with some content producers who accused AT&T of using their films to prop up HBO Max, which until recently had struggled to gain traction among streaming video subscribers.

AT&T was not the first company to choose streaming as an alternative to theatrical releases last year: Comcast and the Walt Disney Company also released movies online, though each came with a premium price tag that was close — or, in some ways, exceeded — the cost of a single movie ticket.

But AT&T pushed the concept forward by committing to releasing a staggering amount of movies this year on HBO Max: 17 films that were slated to debut exclusively in theaters will see a simultaneous release on HBO Max as well, where the videos will be available for 30 days without an additional fee.

Last month, the first of the 17 films, “Wonder Woman 1984,” debuted on the service. The move helped convince more than a half-million new subscribers to shell out $15 a month for the service, according to a report. (The film debuted to lukewarm reviews.)

No one at AT&T has committed, or even hinted, that releasing movies directly to consumers over streaming services is the way of the future. Instead, the company’s top bosses say it’s more of a wait-and-see approach — a plan that makes sense now but might be reversed in the future.

“We are trying to use these valuable pieces of content in the best way we can in coordination with the theaters, and with HBO Max, we feel good about utilizing this in the best way we can and we’ll see how it goes,” Stephens said.