Wonder Woman Forces AT&T & Roku To End Their Petty Squabbles

from the gatekeepers-gonna-gatekeep dept

At the start of this year, AT&T's creatively named streaming app, AT&T TV Now (since renamed HBO Max), was unceremoniously pulled from all Roku streaming hardware after a contract between the two companies expired and they couldn't agree on a new one.

It took more than a year of folks not being able to watch AT&T streaming services for this standoff to finally break, and it required leveraging the strength of Wonder Woman to do so. After being unable to come to an agreement for much of the year, AT&T used its ownership of Time Warner to gain a little leverage on Roku. First, it announced that the anticipated Wonder Woman sequel would be released on Christmas day, but only on HBO Max. Then, it announced a major plan to release most major 2021 theater releases simultaneously on both streaming and in theaters.

As the Wonder Woman 1984 release date approaches, Roku appears to have buckled. The sides this week announced a new deal that will finally bring AT&T's HBO Max to Roku:

"On Christmas Day, the superhero sequel “Wonder Woman 1984” from AT&T’s Warner Bros. will premiere on HBO Max on the same day as in theaters. That heightened the stakes for both HBO Max and Roku. The debut will be the biggest moment yet for HBO Max, a bet that a blockbuster film can boost subscribers at a time when the pandemic has shut down many theaters."

One of AT&T's major asks of Roku and companies like Amazon is that they stop selling access to HBO apps via their streaming platforms, instead shoveling folks toward AT&T's HBO Max platform. After a series of missteps and price hikes (caused by merger mania debt), AT&T lost an astonishing 7 million pay and streaming TV customers in just the last three years. It's now using its Warner Brothers catalog successfully for leverage, given Roku didn't want millions of U.S. consumers waking up on Christmas day wondering why they couldn't watch Wonder Woman with everybody else.

Whether this works out as a broader strategy for AT&T remains to be seen. AT&T's rush to release all Warner Brothers films to streaming has pissed off many mainstream directors like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve, who say the company didn't really share its plan with many folks at Time Warner, didn't give much (any) consideration on how the pivot impacted union employees struggling to survive, and is basically just a stunt to spur AT&T's lagging subscription numbers:

"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."

On one hand, releasing films straight to streaming is a good idea given the public health crisis. On the other hand, these directors are right that AT&T's probably the last company on Earth capable of making such a major pivot with nuance or any serious care of craft, given its repeated bumblings so far. Meanwhile it's ironic to watch AT&T, largely a gatekeeping bully in telecom, suddenly face gatekeeper restrictions as it's forced to actually compete. You can expect a lot more standoffs like the AT&T/Roku affair as media and platform giants begin truly flexing their muscles in a bid for platform domination.

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Filed Under: streaming, tv, wonder woman
Companies: at&t, roku


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  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 6:25am

    Phew!

    I'm just glad it's over as I can now legally watch Close Enough (an excellent HBO Max original by JG Quintel whose scripts are mostly consulted by Bill Oakley who made the "Steamed Hams" bit on the Simpsons, among other episodes) and Studio Ghibli movies I missed out on, among lots of other content.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 6:52am

      Re: Phew!

      "and Studio Ghibli movies I missed out on"

      Huh, I'd assumed that they were on Netflix globally but it seems that was another deal that left the US out of the equation. Weird, as I'd have thought that if anyone was going to hoard the rights it would have been Disney.

      Anyway, good choice in content and I hope you discover some gems you'd not seen before!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        crade (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 7:05am

        Re: Re: Phew!

        I just assumed it was Disney who paid them to keep the Ghibli movies out of the U.S. :)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Samuel Abram (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 7:09am

        Re: Re: Phew!

        Huh, I'd assumed that they were on Netflix globally but it seems that was another deal that left the US out of the equation. Weird, as I'd have thought that if anyone was going to hoard the rights it would have been Disney.

        So would I, but I guess in this instance it doesn't apply because Disney was merely the distributor and not the owner of the IP in question.

        Anyway, good choice in content and I hope you discover some gems you'd not seen before!

        Thanks! I'm currently watching Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind! I'm enjoying it, but there seems to be a lot of, um, expositional soliloquys.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 6:39am

    What makes you say Roku appears to have caved and not AT&T or more likely some of both? You think Roku's millions of already paid non subscription customers are more pressure than AT&T's millions of potential "wonder woman might be our chance to get" customers? Way I see it Roku was holding more cards and had no trouble getting along with the other players.

    The directors are right that AT&T has no love for cinema but those that sold to them knew it at the time it's not news now

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2020 @ 6:43am

      Re:

      Good points, as the real question was how long would AT&T wait before the tried to get a return on their investment in films. The longer cinemas remain closed, the longer before AT&T gets any returns from them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nerdrage (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 11:28am

      Re:

      We don't really know the terms of the agreement regarding what % Roku gets for signups via Roku, or for ads. But it's clear that whatever happens, Roku wins if big franchise movies go directly to Roku on the same day as theaters for all of 2021 (did AT&T commit to that in writing? what if the box office gets revived by fall?) AT&T may lose big if this tactic means they can't nurture new brands like Dune or revive dormant ones like Matrix without box office revenues.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2020 @ 7:05am

    I have AT&T for wireless, and they sent me an message saying I could get HBO Max for free because of that.

    Nope, that was a lie. It's just a promotion for 15 days of it. Thanks for the $7 offer, but fuck you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2020 @ 10:02am

    I hear that Wonder Woman cannot put her lasso around a whole corporation. Someone should introduce her to the executives on both sides for - ahem - one-on-one interviews.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    nerdrage (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 11:24am

    corporate shenanigans

    To summarize, AT&T couldn't get Roku to stop playing hardball in negotiations so they sweetened the deal by throwing theaters under the bus an announcing their whole 2021 theatrical slate would go direct to streaming. Meaning, direct to Roku if HBO Max were on Roku.

    That gives Roku the potential of a ton of new subscribers who Roku can then target with homepage ads for their free, ad-supported crap content. That was too juicy for Roku to resist. HBO Max and Roku win, moviemakers and theaters lose.

    However AT&T may also lose. Who knows what the situation will be in fall 2021. If they scuttle Dune or a Matrix revival by sending them direct to HBO Max, and losing box office revenue, they are hurting themselves most of all.

    I don't think Roku lost at all. Roku is the only surefire winner in this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 11:40am

      Re: corporate shenanigans

      ...I mean you do know there's a global pandemic on, yes?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2020 @ 12:40pm

      Re: corporate shenanigans

      If they scuttle Dune or a Matrix revival by sending them direct to HBO Max, and losing box office revenue, they are hurting themselves most of all.

      But how many years can they wait before getting any return of films already made. Box Office returns may take several years after covid restriction end to come back to previous levels, if ever. How many theatres will be permanently lost; (note the seat sale per year and therefore maximum box office per year, is limited by the number of theatres seats available.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 11:43pm

        Re: Re: corporate shenanigans

        "But how many years can they wait before getting any return of films already made. Box Office returns may take several years after covid restriction end to come back to previous levels"

        These are the important points. People aren't going to swarm into cinemas in 2021 the same as they did in 2019, it will take time to recover. The smart money is currently on getting a somewhat crowded slate going so that the people who do want to return to cinemas week after week make up for those who simply won't be comfortable enough to go back, or have got used enough to streaming that they won't bother.

        In the mean time, the studios are going to be less risk happy with the movies they are screening in cinemas. There will be huge competition, and they have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in some of these films already. These will often be tied to multiple investors, who at some point expect a return on their investment. So, they focus on the films they know they can make as guaranteed a return from as possible, while finding another way to recoup the films that aren't as easy to guarantee. So, you have Dune (a movie based on a book whose last theatrical adaptation flopped, from a director whose last movie was underwhelming financially) and Matrix 4 (a way overdue sequel in a series whose last 2 entries did well financially but pretty much everyone agrees sucked, from directors who haven't had a proper hit movie since) going the least risky route.

        I'll say I am personally looking forward to Matrix 4 and especially Dune on a personal level and would have hoped they would have had the proper cinematic release, but I can understand their treatment from a purely business point of view from a studio who is already looking at having to compete with 2 years worth of expected blockbusters squeezed into a few months.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 21 Dec 2020 @ 12:31pm

    Best. Headline. Ever.

    It's about time the superhero community started getting involved with white-collar squabbles.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Dec 2020 @ 12:57pm

    the problem is ATT Is not used to competing with anyone in most markets,
    theres maybe 1 isp and 1 cable company proving a deceny broadband service .
    i think roku is a wiiner because it,ll attract more customers to its platform to watch big movies not released in cinema,s in 2021.
    its used to getting politicans to support laws that limit any potential competition .
    it reminds me of ibm in the 90,s , a gigantic company that finds it hard to
    compete with smaller companys who are willing to innovate and provide new services to the public.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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