WarnerMedia Studios chief on the controversial decision to release new movies on HBO Max

December 19, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

Hollywood was up in arms earlier this month when WarnerMedia announced a bold new theatrical release plan: Movies will premiere in theaters and on its streaming service, HBO Max, on the same day. That includes highly anticipated blockbusters like Dune, The Matrix 4, In the Heights, and Godzilla vs. Kong.

Critics mourned the imminent death of cinemas, now without exclusive windows to generate profits. Industry observers predicted the movie business would change forever. Director Christopher Nolan, whose film Tenet was distributed by Warner Bros. earlier this year, denounced the plan and called HBO Max “the worst streaming service.”

Despite the uproar, WarnerMedia maintains the plan is just a temporary measure following a year in which the entertainment industry was upended by stay-at-home coronavirus measures.

“It’s a pandemic strategy. We have 17 movies ready to go, and we want to be able to release them,” said Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, during a Fortune panel on Monday about the future of media and entertainment.

“What other studios have done is just kicked the can down the road, if you will, and kept pushing the movies off,” Sarnoff added. “Or sold them to streamers or released them digitally on [premium video on demand].”

Sarnoff said that Warner’s strategy is actually in the interest of the exhibitor industry, despite criticism from theater aficionados like Nolan and cinema chains themselves.

“We really wanted [the upcoming movies] to be seen on the big screen,” she said. “We agree with the fact that the theaters are very, very important. We want to help keep the theaters in business. Giving them 17 movies in 2021, much of which I think will still be feeling the effects of COVID, we thought was a pretty good strategy in that regard.”

AMC, the nation’s largest theater chain, doesn’t seem to agree with that sentiment, with CEO Adam Aron saying that WarnerMedia “intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability” in order to subsidize HBO Max.

“As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense,” Aron said. “We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business.”