Normally, that would not be a big deal. But with the Christopher Nolan espionage thriller leading the charge for the reopening of multiplexes in the U.S., Sarnoff was eager to check out the moviegoing experience for herself at the sneak peek offered by Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas in Greenwich.
“I can’t tell you how exciting it was,” Sarnoff told Variety about her first visit to a theater since the pandemic forced the shutdowns of exhibitors across the U.S. in March. “It felt so good to go see a movie with friends. It felt incredibly safe. We weren’t crowded together. We all had reserved seats and we were socially distanced.”
“Tenet” is unspooling domestically this week about 2,800 screens. That’s a smaller footprint than what a typical wide release would enjoy, but it was enough to get the movie off the shelf after its original July 17 release date had to be scrapped.
Sarnoff said she’s encouraged by the returns from the film’s international debut last week. Moreover, Warner Bros. is committed to keeping “Tenet” in U.S. theaters for a good stretch in order to give prospective ticket buyers time to get comfortable with the idea of returning to multiplexes.
“We’re using the old marathon-versus-sprint approach. We’re in it for the long game,” she said. “It’s so unprecedented to launch it this way. We’re feeling good and waiting for some numbers to start coming in.”
Nolan is famously a proponent of the big-screen experience for his work, so there was little chance that Warner Bros. would have considered a VOD release strategy for “Tenet.” But that was never a source of strain between the filmmaker and the studio because both camps were in agreement that it made sense to wait until the COVID-19 conditions improved. At present about 60%-70% of theaters in the U.S. are open, with the big exception of markets like New York and Los Angeles.
“We love this movie. We really thought it deserved to be on the big screen,” she said. “We’re very grateful for the fact that we have movie theaters back now. We’re getting so much press that it’s another layer of publicity that we are grateful for. We are hearing very good indicators from our research.”
Sarnoff gave credit to AMC, Regal, Cinemark and other exhibitors for being collaborative with the studio on “Tenet” launch plans and for working to communicate the message that it is safe to return to theaters. NATO has helped drive the push for exhibition industry standards for protocols and cleaning programs between screenings.
Because there are so few new movie titles available, WB has been able to secure more screens per multiplex than they would typically command, even for a blockbuster title. At some locations, “Tenet” screenings will be as frequent as every hour.
“We’re excited that the theaters have really stepped up for this movie,” she said.
Although “Tenet” is a hopeful sign, COVID-19 outbreaks are still a major threat to health and Warner Bros.’ production on “The Batman” in the U.K. was shutdown again this week amid the news that star Robert Pattinson — has come down with the virus. Sarnoff declined to comment on the specifics of the situation, citing privacy concerns, and pointed to the studio’s earlier statement that it is following contract tracing and quarantine protocols.
The upheaval of the pandemic is driving other changes to the theatrical experience. The sudden shuttering of theaters spurred studios, including Warner Bros., to offer movies for premium VOD purchase. Universal Pictures set a groundbreaking pact with AMC Entertainment that greatly reduces the window of theatrical exclusivity on some titles to as little as three weeks and allows theaters to share in some of the VOD revenue.
Warner Bros. has been “in discussions” with exhibitors to gain more flexibility in theatrical windowing, Sarnoff said. The studio learned a lot with the distribution of “Scoob!,” a family film that had been set for summer release, but wound up going out on premium VOD and then to WarnerMedia’s fledgling streamer HBO Max.
“The exhibitors are interested in engaging with us on that topic,” Sarnoff said of windowing. “It goes back to the idea of really putting the audience first. Some movies attract audiences to theaters for long runs and others do not. Having flexibility in the model is good for all of us. If we can collectively make money by changing windows than we will all make more, and we can make better movies and put that money back into the business.”
The broader changes in the film and TV industries are reflected in the significant shakeup that dramatically expanded Sarnoff’s purview last month. After joining Warner Bros. last year as chair-CEO, Sarnoff was named head of WarnerMedia’s Studio and Networks Group, giving her oversight of programming for HBO and HBO Max as well as adding ad-supported cablers TBS, TNT and TruTV to a portfolio that already included TCM and Cartoon Network. The moves were instigated by WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, the former Hulu chief who took the reins in April.
The shakeup at WarnerMedia led to the surprising ousters of senior executives including former WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt and HBO Max/Turner programming chief Kevin Reilly. It also coincided with a wave of layoffs at Warner Bros. as the studio seeks to realign its operations for a new era. With greater focus on Warner Bros. supplying content for HBO Max and other direct-to-consumer distribution channels, the studio is shifting resources away from traditional distribution and marketing functions.
Now that the oversight of Warner Bros. production and HBO/Turner network falls under the same unit, Sarnoff said the company has a better process for making decisions about how to produce and distribute content from the studio that remains one of Hollywood’s largest suppliers. Kilar has been very clear on his mandate to build out HBO Max and make other direct-to-consumer properties a priority, as well as to grow the company’s global footprint.
“Those are the guideposts we’re working with now,” she said. “Having that clarity of vision makes it easier for all of us to adjust our strategies.”
Sarnoff cited the success of the massive DC Fandome virtual event that the studio held last month to help generate more pop culture buzz for its vast archive of superhero and comic IP. The event was in keeping with the company’s heightened focus on serving fans and promoting its biggest brands as WarnerMedia courts DTC dollars.
“After Fandome we saw viewership of our DC movies pop on HBO Max,” she said. “We’re using all our businesses to drive new businesses.”
The circumstances of the pandemic forced WarnerMedia to look for virtual options for building brand buzz. That led to the creation of DC Fandome, which had such potential that the studio split it up into two parts, the second of which will unspool as on-demand options on Sept. 12. The enthusiasm within Warner Bros. for creating content for Fandome was so strong that nearly 500 cast members and producers from DC-related properties were engaged.
“One of the big themes we’ve been talking about since the beginning (of her tenure) is using our content and our IP in bigger and better ways,” she said. Kilar has emphasized that a big priority for the studio is nurturing “fan connectivity and engagement.”
Fandome was largely a promotional event, but the strong response has executives considering options for making it a money-making franchise.
“It’s clear we have a very big fan base that wants to stay very connected to us,” she said. “We’re going to keep doing it in the spirit of super-serving fans and then see if there’s a way to monetize it.”
As for HBO Max, Sarnoff pushed back on the suggestion that the service has gotten off to a slow start and has been handicapped by distribution problems. “There’s been a bit of friction in the system but we’ll make progress on the deals,” Sarnoff said of licensing pacts needed with Amazon and Roku to make it easy for users of those services to access the HBO Max app.
“Ultimately everybody’s who on the service has had a great experience. I’d put our content up against any new service — we have the four-quadrant service with a compelling range of programming,” she said. “The product itself is amazing, and that’s why I’m very optimistic.”