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HBO Max Is On a Roll, but Some AT&T Investors Say It Looks Like a Cliff

In this week's IndieWire weekly rundown, a flood of deals may not satisfy AT&T investor dismay. Also: We talk to Joaquin Phoenix, Tyler Perry, Pedro Almodóvar, and more.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Alfie Allen, John Bradley, Liam Cunningham and Isaac Hempstead WrightHBO Primetime Emmy Awards After Party, Arrivals, Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Alfie Allen, John Bradley, Liam Cunningham and Isaac Hempstead Wright at the 2019 HBO Primetime Emmy Awards after party

Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

Happy Saturday! Finally, we can take a break from the onslaught of HBO Max announcements: It’s got “Sesame Street” (and presumably, your children’s souls: How can you deny them Cookie Monster?), it’s got Ava DuVernay doing DC Comic DMZ, casting for a pilot from Sharon Horgan (“Catastrophe”), three new shows from Ellen DeGeneres, that teen dramedy from Lena Dunham, an adaptation of Ray Romano’s novel…

And, it’s got new staff. HBO Max has hired execs from Nickelodeon and Disney to oversee its family offerings, the CEO of Otter Media to handle digital, and new staffing for its nonfiction department led by Lizzie Fox, most recently VP of CNN Original Series.

But increasingly, here’s what it doesn’t have: Many of the people who made HBO a powerhouse in the first place. And if anyone thinks that’s just a paean to the good old days (“I remember when it meant Home Box Office!”), corporate parent AT&T has a few activist investors who would like to have a word with you.

This week also brought the exit of Nancy Lesser, a 35-year veteran of HBO and its most senior PR executive. Nancy is one of those people often referred to as a legend, a Hollywood compliment that can refer to your length of tenure but also speaks to having a personality (something that often gets jettisoned along the way). Nancy told everyone exactly who she was and what she stood for every day, not only in her singular all-black fashion sensibility but also in her consistent championing of HBO with a no-nonsense attitude that everyone respected because they knew it came from real experience. The last time we spoke, it was at HBO’s summer TCA event and she spent five minutes railing me for our “Big Little Lies” coverage of season 2. I defended the story, and listened; she was angry. And at the end of it, she nodded and said, “Thank you for hearing me out.”

Nicole Kidman and Nancy LesserHBO Golden Globes After Party, Inside, Los Angeles, USA - 07 Jan 2018

Nicole Kidman and Nancy Lesser at the 2018 HBO Golden Globes after party

Chelsea Lauren/Variety/Shutterstock

PR is a cost center, so even its senior leadership exits usually don’t rise to the level of corporate concern. This could be an exception: It’s the latest in a line of HBO departures that happened in the wake of AT&T’s $109 billion acquisition of the now-WarnerMedia, and the Elliott investment group, which currently holds $3.2 billion in AT&T stock, is keen to understand exactly what the hell the phone and cable company is playing at. Last month it published a letter that, in some 8,000 words, lays out why it believes this whole WarnerMedia thing currently looks like something of a boondoggle.

Among the sentiments: AT&T has been a disappointing investment for a long time and this doesn’t make it look any better; 20 months in, Elliott still doesn’t know why the company bought Time Warner; and it dedicates a whole paragraph to what it calls “alarming executive turnover, a particularly troubling pattern given the very different nature of its businesses compared to those in which AT&T has historically operated.”

Corporate churn isn’t unusual in the face of major takeovers; indeed, the day after Lesser announced her exit, Global Communications EVP Kevin Brockman promoted three veteran HBO PR execs to senior roles. But what’s odd here is the restructuring risks taking a feature and turning it into a bug. Netflix had to start from scratch; so did Apple, and even Disney. HBO has something of a first-mover advantage in being a brand that has spent decades attracting subscribers dedicated to its content, but what happens when the people who were behind it head for the exits? (Still standing: HBO head of programming Casey Bloys.)

And, like every other streamer, this is playing out against the backdrop of a blood-and-guts competition that has Disney-owned networks telling Netflix that their money is no longer good here, and is reshaping the entertainment industry in real time. Suddenly, Netflix’s struggling stock price and more than $12 billion in debt doesn’t look like the worst thing in the world, and the HBO Max event on the Warners lot October 29 looks less like a marketing opportunity and more like a litmus test.

Joaquin Phoenix and Todd PhillipsNYFF57 New York Premiere of "Joker", New York, USA - 02 Oct 2019

Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips

Dave Allocca/StarPix/Shutterstock

So what else happened this week? That clown movie opened, which is on track to break October box-office records even as its critical kudos take a nosedive. (Also: director Todd Phillips whining that the world won’t let him be funny? Not a good look.) Ben Travers covered New York Comic-Con, which included M. Night Shayamalan’s reveal for his new Apple series, “Servant.” The Academy Museum finally found a leader who can hopefully guide it safely through its very messy and protracted birth.

Martin Scorsese thinks the MCU has the same cinematic appeal as, say, the Magnum XL-200. Noah Hawley talked to Kate Erbland about making a “magical realism” astronaut movie. Sundance hit “Blindspotting” is going to become a Starz series! (How about one for “Sorry To Bother You”?) Jacqueline Lyanga is shaking up Film Independent. Apple will premiere its first feature, “The Banker,” as closing night of AFI Fest.

Tambay Obenson spoke with Tyler Perry about his new Atlanta studio. Remembering his father, Perry said: “He’d come home, so happy that he made $800 on a home he’d built, but then I’d notice that the white man would sell the house and make $80,000. So I then knew that I always wanted to be the guy who owned and sold the house, rather than the guy who built it.”

Anne Thompson talked with Joaquin Phoenix about making “Joker,” who admitted he didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the script by Phillips and Scott Silver: “After reading through the script a few times, I never picked it up again.”

Jordan Peele made a megadeal with Universal, coronating the writer-producer as the Kevin Feige of the Monkeypaw universe. Bill Desowitz looked at the upcoming de-aging FX face-off (sorry) with “The Irishman” and “Gemini Man.” Libby Hill considered Season 2 of the Facebook Watch series “Sorry For Your Loss”: When your series is about recovering from grief, what do you do for an encore?

Chris O’Falt covered a battle over production permits at a New York City council meeting, with amusing results. Eric Kohn’s interview with Timothée Chalamet made all of us feel old. (“I grew up watching Netflix,” the actor said.) Eric also talked to Pedro Almodóvar about his autobiographical new film, “Pain and Glory.” Said the director: “I got bored studying things I didn’t know.”

Magnolia bought “Stealing Horses,” Norway’s Oscar Entry. Greenwich Entertainment will handle the awards release of Alex Gibney’s Putin documentary, “Citizen K.” Kino Lorber declared itself an arthouse iTunes with the launch of its own streaming platform. And legendary Santa Monica video store Vidiots will get a second lease on life, in Los Angeles’ Eastside neighborhood of Echo Park.

If you haven’t seen our video about what really NYC strippers think about “Hustlers” — well, you should. (As stripper Kit Carson said: ”I don’t know if any of these Hollywood producers have been to strip clubs before.”) Watch it here. Also, check out this great gallery that sums up a century of cinematography in 13 films.

Trailers! Universal’s “1917.” Tom Six’s “The Onania Club.” HBO’s “His Dark Materials.” Warner Bros.’ “Richard Jewell” and “Birds of Prey.” STX’s “The Gentlemen.” IFC’s “Baroness Von Sketch.” Zeitgeist/Kino Lorber’s “Recorder.” Netflix’s “Insatiable,” “Eli,” “I Lost My Body,” and “6 Underground.” Gunpowder & Sky’s “Everybody’s Everything.” ARRAY’s “Burning Cane.” Showtime/Greenwich’s “The Kingmaker.” Juno Films’ “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael.” Cohen Media Group’s “Serendipity.”

Reviews! Beyond David Ehrlich’s review of “Joker” (an incendiary pan after its Venice Film Festival premiere), we had Netflix’s “In the Tall Grass,” “45 Seconds of Laughter” from NYFF, and A24’s “Low Tide.” From TV: Fox’s “Almost Family” and CBS’ “All Rise.”

Finally, the Star Wars universe has its first openly gay, mixed-race couple: Flix is a Gozzo, while Orka is a Chadra-Fan. Welcome!

Have a great weekend,

Dana

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