AT&T Pisses Off Everybody (Especially Christopher Nolan) For Launching Movies Straight To Streaming

from the right-idea,-wrong-implementation dept

To be clear, AT&T has no shortage of nasty habits, whether we’re talking about how the company routinely does too little to thwart criminals eager to rip off AT&T customers, or the way it can routinely be found hoovering up taxpayer money in exchange for, well, less than nothing. But one thing the company did get correct (or at least more correct, more quickly than other counterparts in cable and TV) was that streaming was the future.

Most cable TV companies refused to fully embrace streaming, worried they’d cannibalize existing traditional cable revenue and thinking they could milk a dying cash cow forever. AT&T jumped in with both feet early on, launching a dizzying array of different streaming services. Sure, AT&T then proceeded to lose seven million pay TV and streaming customers in just three years thanks to a series of bone-headed mergers, rate hikes, and idiotic branding choices, but its original instinct to get out ahead of the problem was the right one all the same.

Earlier this month, AT&T announced that Covid had forced it to effectively put a bullet in traditional movie release windows, resulting in the company releasing new Warner Brothers films on streaming the same day they’re released in theaters. It’s obviously a necessary response to an unprecedented threat, and it comes with some caveats. One, it’s only a one-year trial. Two, movies will still hit theaters. Three, you’ll probably pay more for home viewing than is sensible. It’s likely a temporary shift in tactics that’s geared as much toward goosing lagging HBO Max subscriptions as it is public safety.

Still, the decision resulted in no limit of consternation in Hollywood, which was already sore about AT&T’s steady parade of layoffs at Time Warner properties (HBO, DC) it acquired in 2018 (promising no limit of amazing synergies), and the general annoyance of having bumbling telecom executives stumbling around a more creative, competitive sector than AT&T’s used to. Director Christopher Nolan was particularly pissed off:

“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.”

Ouch. For a company that’s struggling to keep pace with the likes of Amazon, Disney, and Netflix, that’s not exactly what you want to hear. Nolan’s biggest gripe is that AT&T, in a rush to drive HBO Max streaming adoption and please Wall Street, doesn’t really understand what it’s dismantling as it works to pivot from brick and mortar releases to the virtual world:

“Nolan said that the Burbank, CA lot was ?dismantling? an ideal distribution system between theaters and homes ?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.”

Of course this being Hollywood, a chunk of this is just errant hyperventilation. Hollywood has long despised any attempt to disrupt the traditional movie release window, despite the fact it’s an antiquated construct that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense during the broadband and streaming era. This is not an industry that takes change or disruption particularly well, and that’s pretty well evident here.

But it would be a mistake to suggest this is entirely just Hollywood being afraid of change, and Nolan’s not entirely wrong.

Having written about AT&T for twenty years I can assure you the company doesn’t really know what it’s doing in the entertainment space. AT&T’s good at two things: running networks and lobbying the government to kill competition. And while it tries to hire competent entertainment-sector executives (like Warner Brothers Chief executive Jason Kilar) those executives will, sooner or later, run up against rigid-minded executives from a government-pampered telecom monopoly that don’t really understand (or care to understand) how creative ventures work.

That was reflected in AT&T’s early streaming headaches, it’s reflective at the consternation at HBO and DC Comics, and it’s also apparent here. Despite a lot of pretense to the contrary, AT&T is making it up as it goes along:

Nolan claims AT&T didn’t really bother to fully consult with Warner Brothers folks before undergoing such a massive pivot, one that’s going to hit union employees particularly hard (something I’d wager, based on its history, AT&T’s not too broken up about):

“The director called the decision by WarnerMedia, owned by tech giant AT&T, as devaluing billions in film assets ?by using them as leverage for a different business strategy without first figuring out how those new structures are going to have to work, it?s a sign of great danger for the ordinary people who work in this industry.”

Dune director Denis Villeneuve was even more blunt in a piece at Variety:

“There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here. It is all about the survival of a telecom mammoth, one that is currently bearing an astronomical debt of more than $150 billion. Therefore, even though ?Dune? is about cinema and audiences, AT&T is about its own survival on Wall Street. With HBO Max?s launch a failure thus far, AT&T decided to sacrifice Warner Bros.? entire 2021 slate in a desperate attempt to grab the audience?s attention.”

Again, this is all a bit more complicated than Hollywood being a disruption-phobic baby (though that’s absolutely part of the equation). Everything about AT&T’s venture to dominate streaming has been a convoluted mess, including the $200 billion in megamergers that saddled AT&T with so much debt it resulted in an investor and consumer revolt. So while pivoting hard(ish) to home releases is the right move at the right time, there’s absolutely no indication that AT&T’s the kind of company capable of doing a good, conscientious job at it based on what we’ve seen so far.

In short, AT&T’s right to adapt to the historic health threat at hand by pivoting hard to streaming, but creatives under the AT&T/Time Warner flag are also probably right to worry that a pampered telecom monopoly with a long history of dodgy ethics will do a crappy job at it.

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Comments on “AT&T Pisses Off Everybody (Especially Christopher Nolan) For Launching Movies Straight To Streaming”

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PaulT (profile) says:

I’m a little torn on this issue. On the one hand, Nolan really needs to start shutting up, because he seems to greatly obsess over a certain type of theatrical distribution, blissfully unaware that a lot people simply don’t have access to the type of experience he dreams of. Yes, you might prefer that people watch the IMAX version, but some of us live hours away from an IMAX screen and will wait. That’s certainly what I’ve done with Tenet. He might want everyone to see the film on perfect projections, but some of us get access to badly dubbed versions screened on old equipment that occasionally run out of focus until someone tells the cinema staff to fix it. He may have strong points elsewhere, but I don’t believe for a second that his "ideal distribution system between theaters and homes" is actually true for a great number of people.

On the other hand, this move seems to have come out of left field and really disrupts thing unnecessarily. Dune had already been held back a year and it’s the kind of movie that seems to really benefit from a big screen screening, so I can understand Villeneuve being a bit upset. It’s a dream project and for it to be first delayed for a year then disrupted before it’s clear what the market will look like at the time of the new release date must be upsetting.

But, at the end of the day, as I understand it, many of these films are still getting theatrical releases. You can’t expect a company to invest $200+ million in a product then have it sit on a shelf indefinitely, when the same company also owns a way to get the films distributed without depending on theatres.

There does seem to be a little more to the story, especially with how royalties and the like vary between the different distribution methods, but this seems to be an argument in large part between cinema purists who want films to be seen at their best from day one, and a corporation who don’t want billions of dollars of product stored somewhere in the hope that they’ll get crowds returning sooner rather than later.

"creatives under the AT&T/Time Warner flag are also probably right to worry that a pampered telecom monopoly with a long history of dodgy ethics will do a crappy job at it"

This is the more realistic complaint. The issue isn’t so much with the philosophical or idealistic view of having everything on the big screen and how that’s somehow damaged by a company releasing to streaming at a time when many people can’t/won’t go to see anything at the cinema, but rather how this particular company will implement this particular idea.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Have you seen the size of some of those home cinema displays?"

The display is not the only important thing – sound is another major aspect, and some films really do benefit from the communal experience of seeing it with other people. If you have a screening room with decent sound you can pump up loud that’s great, but I dare say that a lot of people will be falling short in that area.

It’s all down to taste of course, and at the moment any chance to see a movie is better than not being able to see it at all, or having to risk infection by sitting in a room with people for hours who might not be taking the pandemic seriously. I can just see why a guy who already had his movie delayed for a year would be annoyed that the theatrical experience is no longer going to be the primary focus.

Anna Phylactic says:

Re: Re: Re: @"PaulT" - Theaters are safer than your living room!

having to risk infection by sitting in a room with people for hours who might not be taking the pandemic seriously.

1) If out in public, you’re not "taking the pandemic seriously". UK serfs are highly locked down, effectively lost the privilege of travel.

I want you to get "vaccinated" soonest possible, and just hope it’s effective against the 17 more infectious mutations already found in the UK.

Anna Phylactic says:

Re: Re: Re:2 @"PaulT" - Theaters are safer than you

2) You’re wrong (on implied premise) that cheap / simple masks protect. At all. Plenty of "studies" done besides obvious that in course of hours, people will at times lift / lower it. One breath at the wrong moment, and you’re just another statistic going into a body bag

3) Your phrasing: "not be taking the pandemic seriously" shows that you believe safety lies in mental attitude. Don’t try to amend. It’s a truly Freudian slip, and indeed, the mask aspect is to identify the compliant.

4) You’re completely mis-informed / mis-overestimated on how "safe" you are:

"The troubling information in this is that 74 percent of new cases are coming from household gatherings and living room spread," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said about the data.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 @"PaulT" - Theaters are safer than

"Your phrasing: "not be taking the pandemic seriously" shows that you believe safety lies in mental attitude."

It does. People who take safety seriously will generally be more safe than people who don’t, unless they have their safety compromised by someone else. Which is why I’m fortunate to have ended up in a career position that means I don’t have to mingle with people who don’t take it seriously.

For reference, I just checked the figures for my local town – we have had 1 new case in the last week, a total of 288 for the pandemic overall in an area covering around 30,000 people. How are the figures looking where you live?

"74 percent of new cases are coming from household gatherings"

Well, that data is irrelevant since I don’t live in New York and the culture here is rather different. But, let’s go with that – yes, gatherings are obviously going to spread the disease. This is a surprise to you? As for bars/restaurants – how busy are they compared to last year? I doubt they’re as busy as normal, so if people are going to each others’ apartments instead of to bars then no shit they’re going to spread it more.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 @"PaulT" - Theaters are safer than your living r

"Theaters are safer than your living room!"

Yes, since they’re currently closed and nobody goes in there, it’s safer than my 2 person, one cat household. When they re-open, they will get ore dangerous because they’re full of idiots who think their convenience outweighs the safety of those around them.

"UK serfs are highly locked down, effectively lost the privilege of travel."

I don’t live in the UK, so I’m fine. I do wish they had voted someone in charge who was a competent administrator rather than another incompetent Tory, but other than having to visit my family remotely this year it’s not really affecting me on a personal level.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Bruce C. says:

This begs the question...

The question that I’d ask Mr. Nolan and the others is: what should AT&T do instead? Limiting distribution of new films to theaters in 2020 and early 2021 isn’t going to put more buttocks in theater seats, or at least not enough to make a dent in the sales problem. AT&T’s response with simultaneous streaming release is really the only way for the show to go on.

Hollywood would do better to prepare for most theater chains going belly-up before this is over. Even if every film was exclusive to theaters for a full year, you can’t sell tickets if the theaters are under lockdown rules as non-essential businesses.

Maybe AT&T will pick up a theater chain for cheap in the coming months and suddenly we’ll be hearing about AT&T saving Hollywood. At least until they botch the turnaround.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Respect... but...

I have a lot of respect for Mr. Nolan. His movies — including Inception, the Dark Knight Series, and Tenet [which I’ve yet to see] — have received great acclaim. So… yes, he’s a VERY talented director, and WikiPedia says over $5.1B of success [although of course there’s more to a movie’s success at the box office than a director].

HOWEVER, all that having been said, movie theaters in my state are shuttered. They have been closed for months. I can either watch things on streaming services, or download them to watch via PMS. One could argue that "If you can’t watch them in the theater you should pay to stream them" but we’ve hashed/rehashed the 20+ streaming services that help you "be a cord-cutter" and are more of a hassle than freaking cable. [Not going to rehash that here].

So, sorry, Mr. Nolan. I respect your achievements, and you’ve obviously gotten to where you are (directing all the Dark Knight movies, geez, that’s a resume builder!!) by being successful and talented. The problem here isn’t AT&T or any other streaming service. Movie theaters are closed. COVID is rampant. Sorry that reality didn’t intrude into your Hollywood or UK homes.


Thad (profile) says:

Re: Respect... but...

I don’t have any sympathy for the arguments that people should be seeing movies in theaters right now, but I do think Nolan has a point that AT&T management doesn’t understand creative works and has been rapidly dismantling its creative subsidiaries. (Mad Magazine is going all-reprint, and I’ve read predictions that DC will stop publishing comics within two years.)

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Economics...

Movie stars want to have a luxury lifestyle. This requires an income. Movie studios provide this income… when they have an income (sometimes not ever, David Prowse RIP). Movie studios make money from various sources including sponsored elements and theater seats.

Movies employ THOUSANDS of people including those same stars, other actors, extras, animation experts, CGI processing firms, production firms, public relations, advertising, marketing, etc. etc. All these people have some need for income, be it rent, a mortgage, car payment, or even if they own all these things outright (in Los Angeles, Ha!) there are recurring payments for consumables such as food, fuel, utilities, telecommunications, ISP, etc. These people do not want to be out of money because we can’t go to a theater.

So here we are, a year into a pandemic, 9 months into shutdown for some US states, 5 months in mine, and theaters are shuttered. That means to get all these people some money we can turn to the governments of the world. Most have come through. The US has some incompetence at the top so while there was one aid payment in March and another one slated for December, they are almost meaningless. Don’t get me wrong, I think $600 is much better than $0, but that’s my electric bill during a summer month.

Streaming allows the studio to release the "product", get some pay, pay the people listed above who helped create the "product" and everyone wins to some extent — or if you’re a pessimist, everyone loses less.

I have no love for AT&T. A tiger doesn’t change its stripes and they are the hallmark of a monopolistic death-star-logo kill-the-competition sons of bitches. That having been said, I don’t fault them for releasing online that which they can’t release in theaters.

Obligatory comment on the whole "regions" thing on DVDs and Blu-Ray™ — part of a scheme to leave out certain parts of the world from a current movie release. Now with streaming that crap is obviated.

AT&T, you suck, but streaming movies in a timely manner IN ALL PLACES EQUALLY is a good thing.

There’s my 2¢. That’s $50 Canadian I think.


Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Arizona [rabbit hole] rules about what's closed / open by whom

TL;DR – the "rules" are "fluid" with Tucson fighting Arizona.

Long version:
Yeah, I’m in Tucson, Arizona. The governor (R) has declined to close anything. The City of Tucson has attempted to work around that, and not to get too deep into politics… the City is fighting the State because the governor issued an exec. order saying nobody can override his non-closure order. For now that’s in the "about to go to the courts" mode… and businesses are unsure about whose rules they should follow.

Bars – no.
Restaurants – yes.
Theaters – not no but not yes.
Gyms – no but that’s also up in the same air
Malls – yes [although personally I think that’s worse than bars!!!]

Some theaters ARE open, but showtimes, movie availability, etc. are not what existed pre-COVID. National chain Harkins has their outlets open but the "great" venues are not accepting online ticketing.

If I was a movie producer right now… I’d still go for streaming. The "fluid" situation makes people unwilling/uncomfortable to go to the three Harkins theaters (and the "indie" Loft Theater). The theaters typically pay a lot to acquire, schedule, and show the movies, and with few people willing to show up… schedules have become sparse.

So, technically, yes, theaters are open. Logistically, not so much. It’s like having a freeway with 4 lanes but you don’t know when you plan your trip whether you’ll get 4, 3, 2, 1 or no lanes.


Anonymous Coward says:

including Inception, the Dark Knight Series, and Tenet [which I’ve yet to see] — have received great acclaim.

Tenet is overrated. Good effects and filmmaking, but just another high-concept film with a questionable plot. The confusion of Inception, without the novelty—the concept being too similar to Upside Down (2012), and, to a lesser degree, Memento.

(FWIW, it’s been available in bdrip for like 2 weeks now.)

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