AT&T Boss John Stankey “Couldn’t Be More Pleased” With HBO Max Progress, Nods To “Mulan” Release Strategy

AT&T CEO John Stankey says he “couldn’t be more pleased” with the progress of HBO Max since it launched in May.

Appearing online Tuesday at the annual Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference, Stankey acknowledged the initial numbers are not sky-high. Earlier this summer, the company reported getting 4.1 million sign-ups in the first month, about one million of which were direct additions as opposed to existing HBO customers activating their HBO Max subscription at no charge.

“I know it sometimes gets lost within the context of, there’s a company called Netflix that’s done a remarkable job of building a franchise over many years,” he said. “You sometimes get laid up against what they’ve done over the course of a decade. … I understand that that standard is a high standard and it’s one that we aspire to get to. But we’re not going to get there overnight. Nor are we trying to build the exact same product that Netflix has.”

While Disney has gotten ample credit on Wall Street for quickly surpassing 60 million subscribers, Stankey said Disney “had a very different set of plays to run than WarnerMedia/AT&T had to run. I think in the context of where we started this, we’ve done incredibly well.”

Stankey asserted the value of those incremental additions in the overall HBO revenue picture. “HBO had been stagnated at a customer count, the only time it went up a little bit was when a new season of Game of Thrones would come out and then it would kind of work back down the back side.”

Retaining the existing base for HBO while broadening out to attract new customers willing to pay $15 a month was “not a trivial shift for this management team,” Stankey said. “They deserve a lot of credit for getting this done.” HBO Max, he added, has already surpassed its Year 1 subscriber projections laid out at the WarnerMedia investor day last October. “Would I like it to be more? Would I like it to be faster? Sure,” Stankey said, but he cited the impact of COVID-19 on production as a major headwind. “We’re not doing this for a year,” he said. “We’re doing this to build a platform that can sustain for the next decade.”

Disney’s flagship streaming service (and, by implication, the “premier access” release of Mulan) came up a few minutes later when Stankey addressed the state of theatrical movie business. Warner Bros has seen spotty returns in the U.S. on Tenet, though the Christopher Nolan tentpole has surpassed $200 million global basis. “We’re in the middle innings of a nine-inning game” in terms of understanding exhibition and consumer habit during the pandemic, Stankey said. A full grasp of those dynamics will come only when things go “‘back to normal,’ where people are moving around in society without fear of risk,” the CEO added.

The development of HBO Max and experiments like Scoob, which went out as a PVOD title are going to mean new release patterns will continue to be used on upcoming titles, Stankey said. “The theatrical and feature business will be one that probably has a variety of different forms of distribution,” he said. Achieving scale with HBO Max is key, he added, because it is “so important to have the kind of flexibility that you see Disney flexing on Disney+ and how they’re doing things.”

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