HBO Max Nears 12.6 Million Activated Subscribers As AT&T Defends Warner Bros. Release Plan

WarnerMedia has angered nearly everyone in Hollywood. But at least it's got a few million more subscribers, according to AT&T CEO John Stankey, who came to the defense of the divisive Warner Bros. HBO Max release plan, which will debut all of Warner Bros.' 2021 theatrical slate to the WarnerMedia streaming platform on the same day-and-date as theatrical release. Stankey, during his appearance at the UBS Global TMT Virtual Conference, called the decision a "win-win-win" for the company, its partners, and consumers.

AT&T is defending the Warner Bros. HBO Max 2021 release plan, citing the four million HBO Max subscribers the streamer has gained since September 30, bringing the service to nearly 12.6 million activated users. This makes WarnerMedia "ahead of plan" on its streaming service, CEO Stankey told the investor conference on Tuesday, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Stankey said the decision to bring Warner Bros.' 2021 film slate to both theaters and HBO Max will help "penetrate the market faster" amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, adding:

"We were going to be in a situation where the psyche of the population and willingness to go back into theaters, that's going to be a prolonged recovery. The question is what's best to deal with that — it's a win-win-win situation — a win for us, win for customers, win for partners."

While Stankey expressed remorse for the circumstances that brought this decision on and called the lack of theatrical business due to pandemic "unfortunate," the executive defended debuting the films on HBO Max instead of licensing films to other streamers. It would be like giving "competitors additional arms," Stankey said, which is why "we knew we needed to try something different."

"Getting the product out into the important," Stankey said, arguing that the market will be "dictated by what consumers choose to do."

As for the rest of Hollywood that WarnerMedia has angered — from talent, to studios, to agents — Stankey said," I know there's a lot of noise out in the market, people with different viewpoints," but that happens "anytime you are going to change a model."

However, WarnerMedia does have the support of at least one company: NBCUniversal. Speaking at a UBS conference (via Deadline), the CEO Jeff Shell of NBCUniversal, whose Universal deal with AMC is admittedly just one step away from Warner's HBO Max release plan, applauded Warner's strategy, citing the "growing segment of the population that want to watch movies in a non-premium way which is at home."

"I think that theatrical will survive and the more windows collapse, the more money that will be made in the movie business," Shell said, adding "AT&T is taking a different strategy... but anything that collapses windows is good and theaters will be fine over the long term."

Stankey placed importance on HBO Max hitting 12.6 million activated subscriber mark, which is assumed to be the major reason for WarnerMedia's 2021 release decision: to boost the botched rollout of HBO Max, which hasn't nearly reached the heights of Disney+, which surpassed 73.7 million subscribers a year after it launched. Since HBO Max's May launch, the streaming services has reached 28.7 million total subscribers, only 8.6 million of which were "activated" as of the end of the third quarter. The four million new subscribers is a decent gain, but is it enough to justify the box office — and potential litigation — losses that WarnerMedia will have to suffer through? We'll have to see.