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After the Warners-HBO Max Explosion, Theaters May Look More Kindly on Netflix

Speaking with Boxoffice Pro, NATO CEO John Fithian also said failing to obtain billions in federal aid for theaters would be "catastrophic."

An AMC Movie Theatre sits empty while being closed due to COVID-19 pandemic on October 29, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

An AMC Movie Theatre sits empty while being closed due to COVID-19 pandemic on October 29, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

Michael Buckner for Variety

Paradigm shifts make for strange bedfellows. With Warner Bros. serving as current corporation non grata with its HBO Max announcement, National Association of Theater Owners president and CEO John Fithian told the hosts of Boxoffice Pro Podcast that the Warners move made Netflix bookings more attractive to major theater chains.

“If they stick with this model, they are going to lose their talent, they’re going to lose their filmmakers, they’re going to lose their big projects,” he said. “And those people are going to go to Netflix and Amazon and Apple… The idea of [theaters] working with a company like Netflix is now more attractive than it was a year or two ago.”

Fithian, who emphasized that much of what he expressed were his personal views, spoke to the podcast in his first extended comments since Warners announced its 2021 film slate will debut day-and-date in theaters and on HBO Max. The podcast was recorded December 6 and available to registrants via Boxoffice Pro LIVE Sessions. It will be published to podcast platforms December 9.

Even more important, Fithian said, was the need for exhibition to participate in the $908 billion COVID-19 aid package currently under frantic negotiations in Congress. That proposal includes $5 billion earmarked within the $15 billion Save Our Stages (aka the SOS Act), which is primarily allocated to concert halls and live theaters.

Fithian said objectors to the act’s inclusion includes Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is one of the key Senators pushing the full aid package. Failure to include SOS until a possible post-inauguration bill, he said, would be catastrophic for theaters.

Congress is often reluctant to aid publicly traded companies, as well as those with foreign ownership. On that basis, that would exclude subsidies for AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, which are the chains that generate the majority of the annual domestic box office.

Nevertheless, Fithian said he believed theaters would be back to full strength by summer and indicated that Regal, which is currently closed, could reopen in March — predicated on the successful distribution of vaccines.



Warner Bros.

Sources indicated to Fithian that the Warners-HBO decision was made at the level of corporate parent AT&T, and made not only without consultation with theaters or their creative partners, but also made above studio level. He said exhibitors understand pandemic strategies and accepted the decision to release “Wonder Woman 1984” both in cinemas and at home. Similarly, Universal’s negotiated plans for Premium VOD play quickly gained acceptance, but Fithian said the Warners strategy went beyond pandemic concerns. Each exhibitor decides if it will play any or all of these films.

Whether Netflix, Amazon, or Apple have designs on significant play at theaters is unclear. Fithian’s newfound warmth for Netflix may suggest that an enemy of his enemy is his friend.

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