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Hollywood hopes James Bond and ‘Dune’ can lure COVID couch potatoes back to the cinema

October 13, 2021, 8:30 PM UTC

A pandemic-scarred Hollywood hopes big, tentpole movies best seen on the silver screen combined with an improved experience in theaters can tempt older cinemagoers to return to the movies.

Speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff said audiences at greater risk of contracting COVID remain wary of sitting in the cramped conditions found in a multiplex with potentially unmasked strangers. 

That’s why studios kept pushing back releases including No Time to Die from rival studio MGM. The final James Bond installment starring Daniel Craig finally hit theaters at the end of last month.  

“Bond did attract an over-35 audience; that’s a good sign,” Sarnoff told the summit on Tuesday. “I know for a lot of my friends it was the first time they went back to the theater this past weekend.” 

Movie theaters meanwhile learned a lot during the pandemic, according to Sarnoff, in terms of instituting the right kind of hygiene protocols. Now that providers can ensure clean, safe, and user-friendly experiences at the cinema, Sarnoff said her company’s science-fiction epic Dune, coming out next week and featuring Hollywood stars like Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson, could be another box office draw.  

“It’s an amazing movie. We opened it in Venice to great fanfare, so we’re really excited about that,” she said. “That’s a big-screen movie, so we hope that those kinds of movies will compel people to leave the home.” 

Sarnoff defended her December 2020 decision to move forward with 17 movies that had their theatrical releases—“with full marketing spend,” as she emphasized—compete with coinciding premieres on her HBO Max streaming platform.

“At a certain point, a movie has a shelf life, so it’s like, how long do you hold it?” she said. “It leaked in the press, we had to announce it, and then the people with whom we hadn’t spoken yet were upset to have read about it, and that was very challenging.”

Sarnoff pointed out HBO Max paid full market price, since the parent company’s internal transfer price “had to pass the sniff test” for guilds and unions. The reward was Warner Bros. was the only studio to release movies in the early part of this year.

“We made some great movies that came out—Godzilla vs. Kong, where we made almost $500 million—so we actually helped the movie theaters stay open by releasing our movies rather than pushing them forward [into a future release],” she said.  

“The combination of us with the right kind of movies and them with the right kind of experiences—I think that will get people back,” Sarnoff noted.

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