Sony says it’s already seeing some benefits from WarnerMedia’s big HBO Max bet

Technology

Sony Pictures saw a “bit of a boom” in interest from Hollywood creatives who want to work with a studio committed to theatrical releases, according to the company’s CEO.

The uptick in interest comes just after WarnerMedia announced its 17 movies planned for 2021 will premiere on HBO Max the same day they hit theaters. For WarnerMedia executives trying to figure out how to bolster subscribers for its new streaming service and release films in an era when the return to theaters is uncertain, the move makes sense. Plus, WarnerMedia executives will tell you they’re still committed to theatrical releases, pointing to Tenet’s release. Others in the industry will point to Tenet as a reason for the HBO Max move.

While Sony could sell a title to a streamer — the company sold Tom Hanks’ Greyhound to Apple earlier this year for $70 million — CEO Tony Vinciquerra told CNBC the company remains committed to more traditional releases.

“The real benefit has been the number of incoming calls from talent to us saying, ‘We want to be doing business with you because we know you’re a theatrical distributor and producer,’” Vinciquerra said. “That has actually worked very well for us.”

One important reason Vinciquerra can commit to theaters is because Sony Pictures doesn’t have a major streaming service. Therefore, its blockbusters will continue as theatrical exclusives before moving to other platforms (digital retailers and cable). There are some advantages Sony is finding within the industry’s shifting moment. Executives want a more flexible release period, ideally looking at 30-day exclusivity in theaters. Currently, most movies play in theaters for up to 90 days exclusively.

Like other CEOs, Vinciquerra wants the option to keep a movie in theaters for a shorter period of time if it’s not performing as well, while also keeping high grossing movies (think Spider-Man) in theaters for as long as possible. Unlike other executives at companies like Disney and WarnerMedia, however, Vinciquerra also doesn’t have to worry about growing a streaming service (Sony instead sees big financial return in licensing after movies hit the home market), giving Sony room to be the studio that actually can commit to keeping its films in theaters.

With WarnerMedia offering people in the US the option to stream at home, and Disney moving some of its titles to Disney Plus exclusively, Sony has more room on the calendar to figure out where to drop its smaller number of blockbusters to generate the most revenue. Having more freedom within the calendar is especially key in 2021 when there is, currently, a blockbuster scheduled practically every week. Trying to find an emptier weekend to debut a movie — one that might have space to find an audience for weeks — becomes a little easier, and could help with contract negotiations.

“When we dated [Once Upon a Time in Hollywood], I knew a year in advance, because it was the second week of Lion King, that absolutely positively [Once Upon a Time] would not open at number one,” Tom Rothman, Sony Pictures Chairman, told The Hollywood Reporter in late 2019. “And the conversation we had with the filmmakers was, ‘Even if we get your biggest opening ever, I promise you will not be number one. But I also promise you it’s a great day for the movie.”

None of this means Sony is suddenly going to become the biggest studio in the world, or the only place directors want to work. As distribution methods change, so do contracts. When the world does enter a post-pandemic phase, and people venture out to watch movies, Disney and Warner Bros. will likely rule the box office once again. In 2019, Disney amassed $13.15 billion at the global box office, accounting for more than 50 percent of the marketshare. Warner Bros. came in second with $4.4 billion, and Sony trailed with $3.5 billion.

What Sony’s commitment does mean, however, is the studio has a massive advantage with filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Dune director Denis Villeneuve, both of whom publicly decried WarnerMedia’s move. Disney, WarnerMedia and, to an extent, NBCUniversal have to consider their costly and shiny streaming platforms in need of constant new content, while Sony does not.

Netflix has dipped its toe into theatrical releases (especially for awards consideration), but its primary audience is at home. Amazon Studios has stepped back from theatrical releases in order to focus on Amazon Prime subscribers. Apple remains a question mark: would the trillion dollar company commit to a 40-day theatrical window if it meant working with top talent, before moving titles to its Apple TV+ platform? Seems like a definite possibility.

Sony is betting on theaters, and talent, to drive its business. That’s not new, but as other companies focus on streaming, it does feel especially notable.