Wednesday, December 9, 2020

In Laman's Terms: So About That Warner Bros./HBO Max Deal

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

In 2009, NBC decided to give Jay Leno his own primetime comedy show entitled The Jay Leno Show. For five days a week at 10 PM, Leno would be the only thing on the NBC airwaves. It was a bizarre move done not out of creative impulses but of commerce. Leno's contract was up, NBC had given his Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien, but the network didn't want him to go to a competitor. Wanting to still make money off Leno, The Jay Leno Show was born.

The decision caused disastrous ripple effects across all corners of the television landscape. Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show lost its ubiquity having to air directly after a Jay Leno talk show. The placement of the show at 10 PM five days a week also meant there was no chance to launch five new adult dramas, the programs that used to be the default programming for NBC at 10 PM. Understandable anger erupted from showrunners and members of the Writer's Guild. It was a decision that really benefited no one except for Leno's pockets and studio executives.

In the Bill Carter book The War for Late Night chronicling this whole catastrophe, there's an anecdote from Conan O'Brien describing an NBC executive with no broadcasting experience who still wanted to make swift changes to the schedule of NBC. O'Brien described this individual as "like a new head of a factory that makes warheads who just walks in and starts swinging a wrench around". This executive didn't see late night hosts or their shows as more than just chess pieces to be shuffled across a board. In other words, there's no tact, no consideration for others, just a desire to emphasize one's prowess. 

I've been thinking of that anecdote and the whole Jay Leno show debacle a lot in the days since AT&T announced that all 2021 Warner Bros. titles would be receiving simultaneous debuts in theaters and on the AT&T streaming service HBO Max. It was a bizarre move building off a prior announcement that Wonder Woman 1984 would be undergoing this release pattern on December 25. The fallout on this decision has been enormous. For one thing, there's the fact that AT&T kept this so close to the chest that none of the people involved in these movies knew this was happening. 

Keeping directors and producers in the dark like this made AT&T's decision feel downright despicable. It shows an immense disregard for the artists who put their heart, soul, and tears into these movies. To boot, theater owners were kept out of the loop on this decision too. My heart goes out not to mega-conglomerates like AMC or Regal but to independent theater owners. They're already navigating a rocky exhibition landscape and now AT&T drops this bombshell out of nowhere that needlessly threatens an entire industry and countless jobs. As AT&T displayed when they pointlessly shut down FilmStruck at the end of 2018, this conglomerate doesn't care about movies or the people it lays off. This corporation and the richest people who run it only care about getting their stock up.

The coldness informing the Warner Bros./HBO Max decision is only reinforced by how AT&T executives have, much like the actual launch of HBO Max, utterly bungled things at every opportunity when it comes to talking about this decision. WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar's attempt to dub the HBO Max/Warner Bros. news as "For the fans" rang as a cringe-worthy attempt to channel Kevin Feige while acting like P.T. Barnum. Meanwhile, AT&T CEO John Stankey has shown little regard for the filmmakers or independent theater owners he and his cohorts have jeopardized. 

Stankey talks about "the horse leaving the barn" in regards to streaming being the future, but that's not really accurate. It's more like AT&T set a house on fire and are now shrugging and saying there's no way the house can be saved. If you hadn't set it on fire in the first place, maybe it could have been saved. Instead, Stankey and the other AT&T heads have just shrugged off all the consequences of their decision, just like AT&T shrugged off laying off 1,000+ people during a pandemic in November.

Naturally, such behavior from a conglomerate has inspired warranted outrage, particularly from the parties involved in 2021 Warner Bros. titles. Godzilla vs. Kong and Dune producer Legendary Pictures is considering a lawsuit against Warner Bros. The Hollywood Reporter reports that directors like Jon M. Chu are flummoxed by this choice. Who could blame them? 

Now, I do want make one thing clear here: streaming is not an inherently bad thing. People with certain physical and mental disabilities aren't able to attend theatrical screenings of movies, streaming makes those titles accessible. To boot, the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic makes it unsafe to go to movie theaters. The film industry will inevitably have to evolve to respond to the fact that there's really no way of returning to what was considered "normal" prior to the pandemic. This piece is not minimizing any of these factors. 

Rather, it's supposed to call out AT&T for treating their filmmakers like trash. It's one thing to reach out to these individual directors and talk about putting their projects on streaming. It's another thing to just plop them onto HBO Max without any forewarning. The rash HBO Max/Warner Bros. decision has enormous ripple effects on filmmakers and theater owners that, as shown by the dismissive comments from people like Kilar and Stankey, are being totally ignored by a massive conglomerate. 

Much like the NBC executives responsible for the 2010 Tonight Show debacle, the AT&T executives have swung a wrench around inside the Warner Bros. factory without any consideration for the consequences of their actions. 

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