CES: Warner Chief Ann Sarnoff Says Sending First-Run Movies to HBO Max Driven by Circumstances

Warner Bros.’ move to send first-run movies to the studio’s new streaming service HBO Max concurrently with their theatrical release was dictated by the pandemic, said Ann Sarnoff, CEO, WarnerMedia Studios and Network Group, during the virtual CES Jan. 13.

“We’re pivoting to be able to adjust to the environment we live in,” she said, adding, “I have some amazing movies that I would like the public to be able to see.”

As cinemas shuttered due to COVID-19, the studio made a controversial decision to release its theatrical slate through 2021, including Wonder Woman 1984 released on Christmas Day, in theaters (that were open) and at the same time on HBO Max for 31 days.

“We needed an alternative,” Sarnoff said. “Remember, this is a global theatrical release and HBO Max is only in the U.S.”

It’s very hard to launch a film theatrically in a pandemic, she said, noting that marketing in cities where a film is playing is planned out weeks in advance and, with theaters in danger of closely at any time, that wasn’t feasible.

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She noted that earlier in the pandemic the studio was able to release Christopher Nolan’s Tenet theatrically.

“We knew Tenet would play well overseas” where more theaters were open, she said.

Sarnoff joined the company in the summer of 2019, following the exit of Kevin Tsujihara, who left the position after allegations of sexual misconduct. When she discussed taking the studio job with AT&T CEO John Stankey, “he talked about breaking silos,” she said, and that has become one of her key aims.

“It is something I’m most excited about and most proud of,” Sarnoff said, noting “how siloed Warner Bros. was in and of itself.”

She has instituted weekly meetings on the company’s big franchises to discuss collaboration.

“You don’t want your fans to see your org chart,” she said, adding, for instance, “they can see the movies don’t have anything to do with the TV.”

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Sarnoff’s career prepared her well to become the first woman to head up the venerable Warner Bros. studio, she said. Before joining the studio, she was president of BBC Studios Americas, where she was responsible for driving growth and profit across the United States, Canada and Latin America. She oversaw L.A. Productions, linear and digital program sales and co-productions, home entertainment and licensing. She also led efforts to amplify BBC Studios’ global brands “Doctor Who,” “Top Gear” and the natural history brand “BBC Earth.” As board chair of the streaming service BritBox, Sarnoff guided the development and growth of the direct-to-consumer service, which offers U.S. and Canadian customers British television programming.

“My job at the BBC, I was the only executive that wasn’t sitting around a table in London, so I had to be a collaborator,” she said.

Stints at BBC and Nickelodeon helped her learn to work with “incredible franchises and IP,” she said.

Building out the franchise at Nickelodeon “has served me very well to this day” as she has the responsibility for driving such franchises as “Harry Potter” and the Wizarding World, “Game of Thrones” and the DC Universe, she said.

“We started thinking about what we could do for our DC fans this year,” she said of the superfan event the company launched virtually in September.

Called “DC FanDome: Explore the Multiverse,” the 24-hour event allowed fans to create and control their own viewing experience from more than 100 hours of on-demand content from television, films, comics, games and more — highlighting the work of more than 500 artists, writers and other talent from around the globe.

“We were able to connect virtually and celebrate the amazing movies we have coming out … as well as our TV shows,” she said, noting Venus Williams designed a whole line around Wonder Woman 1984.

Increasing diversity is another aim at the studio, she said.

“It’s a huge issue for me,” she said. “I’ve tried to blaze trails my whole career.”

She recalled having to conform to a male culture in an early job, hiding “female characteristics.”

“In terms of being a woman in this industry, it hasn’t been easy,” she said.

She says it’s a danger to have a “homogenous corporate culture where people are kind of finishing people’s sentences.”

A diverse workplace pays dividends, she said, adding that she learned from female colleagues to “get a seat at that table and make a difference.”

Studio Bosses ‘Rooting’ For Theatrical Turnaround

With the nation’s movie exhibitors either shut down and or hamstrung by COVID-19 safety protocols, the industry is eyeing fiscal ruin as studios push back major releases until next year and wary moviegoers stay home.

Speaking Oct. 15 on a virtual panel at the 2020 Milken Global Conference, Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, and Ann Sarnoff, CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, were asked if the studios would consider acquiring financially distressed theaters after a federal court in August struck down the 1948 Paramount Decrees abolishing studio ownership of movie theaters.

“We have no plans to do that currently,” Langley said, sharing a sentiment echoed by Sarnoff, who said “We have no plans either.”

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The executives’ unanimous responses underscore just how far exhibitors such as AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas have fallen. It was just a year ago that the theater industry generated $11 billion in revenue — a tally that is projected to plunge 80% in 2020. Now, Regal has re-shuttered all North American and U.K. screens indefinitely, and AMC Theatres parent AMC Entertainment announced it would run out of cash by the end of the year without more borrowing.

“I’m kind of an armchair sociologist and I believe people want to have communal experiences and especially with certain genres,” Sarnoff said in a nod to select tentpole titles such as Wonder Woman 1984, which is still slated to release in theaters on Christmas Day — and multiple delays.

“We’re big fans of the exhibitors,” Sarnoff said. “They’ve been good partners of ours for many decades. We’re rooting for them. I know it’s tough sledding right now. I’m hoping they come out on the other side, probably even stronger.”

Langley said Universal also remains committed to theaters despite Universal Pictures more proactively embracing premium VOD and transactional VOD than any other studio. Indeed, Universal this summer succeeded in getting AMC Theatres to agree to a 17-day theatrical window in exchange for sharing PVOD revenue.

“It took Covid-19 to demonstrate that it is not cannibalistic but it is, in fact, additive,” Langley said of PVOD. “It will enable us to continue to make movies and put them in theaters.”

Sarnoff said Warner Bros. has grappled with the concept of early release PVOD and digital retail, saying that doing so might seem an easy option, when in reality it is messing with tradition.

“It’s not so easy as it’s happening, because oftentimes these are new moves that you’re making so you have to think about all of the constituents,” Sarnoff said. “You have to think about your fans and what they want, and predict what the results are going to be without any market data.”

Tricia Melton Named Chief Marketing Officer, Warner Bros. Global Kids, Young Adults and Classics

WarnerMedia has named former Time Warner marketing executive Tricia Melton chief marketing officer of Warner Bros. Global Kids, Young Adults and Classics. Melton reports to Tom Ascheim who, as previously announced, is joining Warner Bros. June 15 as president of Global Kids, Young Adults and Classics.

Melton will lead the global marketing and brand strategy for the new Global Kids, Young Adults and Classics division, which includes Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang (all previously overseen by Michael Ouweleen, who was recently promoted to president of Adult Swim), as well as Warner Bros. Animation (television) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

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She will be responsible for all marketing aspects, including brand management, creative, social and integrations, across all platforms. Additionally, she’ll work collaboratively across all of Warner Bros. and the entire WarnerMedia organization in support of key franchises and properties. Melton will be based at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank and begin working remotely on June 29.

“Tricia is creative, strategic and ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation in marketing,” Ann Sarnoff, chairperson of Warner Bros. Entertainment, said in a statement. “We’ll look to her expertise and experience to help us shape our overall messaging and consumer outreach as we formally launch a unified kids, young adults and classics business at Warner Bros.”

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Melton joins Warner Bros. from Freeform, where, as SVP of marketing, brand, creative and communications, she led the marketing vision for the network and spearheaded its successful strategic repositioning as a progressive, multi-platform, young adult brand.

Prior to Freeform, Melton served as SVP of entertainment marketing and branding for TBS, TNT and TCM. In that role, she led high-profile, innovative and award-winning marketing initiatives for cable fan favorites, including “Conan,” “The Closer,” “The Last Ship,” “Rizzoli & Isles,” “Falling Skies” and “Dallas.”

WarnerMedia Clarifies Theatrical Commitment

After AT&T COO John Stankey said he doubted movie theaters could rebound quickly under the shadow of the coronavirus, subsidiary WarnerMedia Entertainment went into damage control clarifying the executive’s comments during the telecom’s April 22 fiscal call.

WarnerMedia properties include Warner Bros., HBO and Turner.

Stankey said the virus and resulting theater closures would change consumer behaviors and expectations regarding how they access filmed entertainment.

“We’re evaluating our product distribution strategy, re-looking at volumes and the required support levels we need in a down economy,” he said. “We’re rethinking our theatrical model and looking for ways to accelerate efforts that are consistent with the rapid changes in consumer behavior from the pandemic.”

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Re-thinking the theatrical model is often alarmist code for doing away with the traditional 90-day exclusive box office window and expediting retail channel distribution, including home entertainment.

Indeed, Warner is rushing animated release Scoob! to retail channels on May 15 — its original theatrical release date.

“Now our focus is on defining and leveraging the new normal across all of our operations,” Stankey said.

Those comments prompted Ann Sarnoff, CEO of Warner Bros., to reiterate to the media the studio’s support for traditional theatrical releases, including holding back tentpole movies such as Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 for future box office distribution.

“We remain supportive of the theatrical experience and our exhibition partners, and are confident that our tentpole titles … are exactly the type of films that will have people eager to return to theaters,” Sarnoff told The Hollywood Reporter.

Warner Plans Digital Release for ‘Scoob!’; Was Set to Be First Big-Screen Animated Scooby-Doo Movie

With movie theaters still closed, Warner Bros. is releasing the upcoming animated feature film Scoob! directly to home viewers.

The film — the first full-length animated Scooby-Doo adventure intended for the big screen — becomes available May 15 for premium digital ownership and premium video-on-demand (PVOD) in the United States and Canada.

Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO of Warner Bros., said in a statement, “While we’re all eager to be able to once again show our films in theaters, we’re navigating new, unprecedented times which call for creative thinking and adaptability in how we distribute our content.

“We know fans are eager to see Scoob! and we’re delighted we can deliver this feel-good movie for families to enjoy while they’re home together.”

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Scoob! will be available for a 48-hour PVOD rental for $19.99 or premium digital ownership for $24.99 beginning May 15, The title will be available on participating digital platforms.

Scoob! reveals how lifelong friends Scooby and Shaggy first met and how they joined with young detectives Fred, Velma and Daphne to form the famous Mystery Inc.

“Now, with hundreds of cases solved and adventures shared, Scooby and the gang face their biggest, most challenging mystery ever: a plot to unleash the ghost dog Cerberus upon the world,” according to a Warner Bros. press release. “As they race to stop this global ‘dogpocalypse,’ the gang discovers that Scooby has a secret legacy and an epic destiny greater than anyone imagined.”