She recently celebrated her first year anniversary as the first woman to oversee Warner Bros in its 97-year history on August 22 (coincidentally on the same day as the studio’s DC FanDome day, which drew 22 million global visitors), and she heads into a weekend when the Burbank, CA lot is looking to bring life back to movie theaters, and the motion picture industry for that matter, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. She also was recently promoted to her new role a few weeks ago as head of WarnerMedia’s Studios and Networks Group, overseeing all content focus teams, including Warner Bros Pictures, HBO, HBO Max, the cable networks, and gaming.
As the industry looks to come back from the pandemic, not only priming content supplies for the big screen and streaming, she’s seeing productions return at Warner Bros for The Matrix 4, Fantastic Beasts 3 on the big-screen side (unfortunately, The Batman had a setback today with Robert Pattinson) and such HBO Max series as Flight Attendants and Gossip Girl going into pre-production.
“I saw the movie for a second time last night, but with an audience and I’m on a cloud,” Sarnoff said about Tenet. “It’s so great on so many levels to be back in theater. It’s a movie that wants to be on a big screen.”
The studio is rewriting the distribution playbook on Tenet, opting to go without big markets New York City and Los Angeles which are still closed due to the pandemic, pre-releasing abroad (where it’s made $53M) and in Canada before the U.S. But why release the Nolan event feature this early in the pandemic when it’s so hard to make money, especially off a $200M feature? Other studios have pushed some of the bigger completed titles to 2021.
“You look across the hundreds of countries where we debuted Tenet, many more theaters were open in the U.S. and they were craving product,” she said. “We’ve been analyzing numbers and consumer behavior, so we’ve been studying this since COVID began. We crunched the numbers and figured out a way to make it work. Don’t spend all your money upfront! Pace yourself, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Release it, don’t expect a huge opening weekend, but as you know, even though there’s reduced capacity, we’re getting more theaters per location. We felt this was the right thing, until there’s a vaccine, I don’t know how much it’s going to change between now and then. For the markets, where cases are low, and people feel safe to go to movies, I’m excited to give them this amazing movie.”
Tenet vs. Mulan
Now, while Warners is trying to reignite the shifting theatrical space during the pandemic, Disney is also looking to make their own playbook by releasing their intended theatrical $200M feature Mulan straight to Disney+ at the extra cost of $29.99 to subscribers (in those territories that have the streaming service, the movie will play on the big screen elsewhere). The service announced yesterday that they’re making the Niki Caro-directed epic for free by Dec. 4.
Is this a strategy that HBO Max will emulate with upcoming theatrical tentpoles?
Says Sarnoff about Disney+’s Mulan move, “I do’t know if I completely understand the strategy, but anyone who is releasing movies right, now, I’m rooting for them. It is a different strategy that they’re taking in the U.S. versus international, and we’ll watch closely to see how they do. I think the silver lining of COVID is that we’re all experimenting in different ways and watching closely what the other does. Hopefully as an industry we’re stronger having had multiple experiences.”
A PVOD Exhibition Deal of its Own?
Warners is at an interesting crossroads like its rivals Disney and Universal, between maintaining theatrical windows for big screen fare, and extending content to their streaming service. The studio in recent history, like Uni, has been forthright about its interest in reducing windows.
As far as the studios’ embrace of theatrical windows, Sarnoff says “I don’t think it’s a one-size fits all. One of the reasons why I’m excited about my new responsibilities to bring HBO Max into the fold on a programming consideration basis, Toby Emmerich who runs motion pictures, can take pitches and then decide which of these stories have the most theatricality, if they want to be on the big screen, versus our compelling stories, but perhaps, we might take, as we did with Scoob direct to digital in some cases, or direct to HBO Max in other cases. The wonderful thing right now, is that we have optionality. And the reason why you want optionality is because you want to put the fans first. Not all fans are created equal, and certain fans want to go to theaters, and others fans during COVID want to watch on their screens at home.”
“I’m bullish that all the models will survive and that theatrical will definitely be a huge part of our go-forward strategy, but I think there will be more flexibility in the windows going forward; the circuits have been willing to engage in that,” she adds.
As far as whether Warners is hammering out its own PVOD share deal with a big circuit ala Universal-AMC’s deal, Sarnoff answers, “We’re really collaborating with the big circuits and really understanding how we can make it a big win-win for them, for us and the fans, because certain movies have long lives in theaters, and others don’t, and you need flexibility in the model to migrate it to another format if it’s not working in theaters. Right now, I don’t have news for you, but there’s a tremendous spirit of collaboration and mutual interest in which we’re pursuing on our discussions.”
The Future Reporting of PVOD and Streaming Numbers…
FX Boss John Landgraf has continually called streaming services, like Netflix, on their hiding or oft-beat reporting of viewing numbers. As the pandemic has fast-tracked innovative theatrical-PVOD or streaming models, we asked Sarnoff whether we could expect the studios to finally open the books on such figures. Box office is barometer of success, national and global economic, and company health. Not to mention, it’s a means to keep content creators accountable, especially to its creative partners. While numbers leaked that Universal/DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour made close to $100M on PVOD in its first cycle, other PVOD titles like King of Staten Island, Irresistible, and more haven’t reported their numbers.
Answers Sarnoff, “I do think we’ll get to a point where those numbers will be disclosed. With Scoob which was released after Trolls World Tour, we’re still figuring out how it’s all going to work. Theatrical releases are followed by home ent, etc., you have to figure out how the whole ecosystem is going to be impacted by the change in release strategy, and I think at least for us, we didn’t want to release numbers until we knew what they meant, and how we were going to restructure our deals along the way. So, I think what you saw was a first time trial of ‘let’s see what happens’ and if it becomes more standardized, then my guess you will still start to see those numbers. We just have to figure out how the whole ecosystem works with a different model.”