Why Warner Bros. chief isn’t worried about reopening production, despite COVID-19 on ‘Batman’ set

Ann Sarnoff
(Robert Voets/Warner Bros.)

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” hits U.S. theaters this week, in a high-stakes gamble on the big screen experience.

It’s a pivotal moment for Warner Bros. chief Ann Sarnoff, who spearheaded the unprecedented move to launch a $200-million movie at a time when theaters in the biggest markets — Los Angeles and New York — remain closed.

Sarnoff, who became head of the studio just over a year ago, is optimistic about “Tenet’s” prospects, though she’s not expecting a “blockbuster” opening weekend.

“We’ve been thinking about this since COVID began, and crunching the numbers, talking to theaters and looking at our own economics and how we could think a little more laterally and creatively in how we open a movie,” said Sarnoff, speaking publicly for the first time since she received a huge promotion to head of WarnerMedia’s studios and TV networks group. “We’re not going to expect a blockbuster weekend. We are in it for the longer haul, more of a marathon versus a sprint.”

The release comes at the end of a tough summer for the industry and amid much turmoil within WarnerMedia, which has been thinning its ranks in response to the economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and changes in consumer behavior. The company, now owned by telecommunications giant AT&T, has shed hundreds of workers, including numerous senior executives.


Even trickier, perhaps, is the return to production for movies and TV shows.

Warner Bros. is eager to get movie sets started again, imposing strict protocols to prevent outbreaks as demand for content rises.

But already, there has been a setback. The studio recently restarted shooting Matt Reeves’ upcoming franchise reboot “The Batman” in Britain, but shut it down Thursday after Robert Pattinson, who plays the caped crusader, tested positive for COVID-19, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to comment.

Sarnoff declined to comment on the outbreak, citing privacy concerns. However, she said she is not worried about the decision to return to production.

“When something does happen, we have protocols,” she said. “We have contact tracing, etc., to be able to manage and to pause and then resume. I don’t think anything is going to be completely back to normal until we get through the pandemic.”

“Tenet” debuts in 2,800 theaters during Labor Day weekend after a solid $53-million premiere in 41 foreign countries. At stake is the future of the theatrical movie industry, which was already under pressure from the rise of competition from at-home entertainment options. “The question becomes who feels comfortable going to movies and who doesn’t,” Sarnoff said.

Sarnoff this week saw the film with the public at the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas in Greenwich, Conn.

“It was pretty full but not in a way that made you uncomfortable,” she said. “And I actually did get popcorn and I found a way to eat it while keeping my mask on — which I was very proud of.”

As ‘Tenet’ begins its U.S. debut and California inches toward reopening, some moviegoers are less concerned than others about returning to theaters.

The public health crisis has spurred a wave of experimentation for Hollywood, especially when it comes to how entertainment firms get their movies to the public. Studios including Warner Bros. have tried out digital releases during the shutdown, unleashing “Scoob” for video on-demand in May and then on HBO Max. “It was very successful,” Sarnoff said, without giving sales figures.

“But we are in a mind-set ... to experiment and learn,” she said. “And especially when you are in an unprecedented time, you want more shots at that. Rather than shutting down, and doing nothing — let’s try something different. I am all about that innovation and letting those creative juices flow.”

In another bold move, Walt Disney Co. on Friday starts selling its live-action “Mulan” for $30 through Disney+, skipping American theaters.

AMC and Universal Pictures recently announced an industry-shaking deal to shorten the long-protected theatrical window to as few as 17 days for some movies, a dramatic reduction from the normal 90-day delay for home viewing.

Sarnoff declined to say whether Warner Bros. was close to a similar deal with exhibitors, but said the industry needs to move away from a “one size fits all” approach to releasing films, even after the pandemic subsides.

“The spirit of that is we’re looking for a win-win here,” Sarnoff said of talks with exhibitors. “Not everyone wants to see something in a theater, and not all movies play the same length in theaters. Having one model really is not the right approach so we are talking to them about how we can get more flexibility into the system.”

When Sarnoff joined Warner Bros. a year ago, becoming the first female CEO of the nearly century-old studio, she was a relatively unknown figure in Hollywood.

She previously served as president of BBC Studios Americas, after tenures at companies including Nickelodeon, the Women’s National Basketball Assn. and Dow Jones. It was a big leap to guide the Burbank studio known for its caped DC superheros, “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Bachelor” and the “Harry Potter” movies.

Her profile has increased significantly. Last month she was promoted to a broader role as head of studios and networks, giving her oversight of not only the studio but also TV units including HBO, TNT and TBS. Until last month, veteran programmer Bob Greenblatt ran the TV networks — but Sarnoff took over that domain.

WarnerMedia is headquartered in New York, but its new Chief Executive Jason Kilar (who stepped into the top job in May) lives in California, and thus, the company is gravitating more toward the center of production and technology. HBO’s new headquarters will be in Culver City.

Among other challenges, the media giant must find a path forward for its new streaming service HBO Max after the Netflix competitor launched to disappointing results.

AT&T told investors last fall that at least 10 million subscribers would have HBO Max when it launched in May to take on Netflix. While 26 million HBO subscribers have access to HBO Max, the service had notched only 4.1 million subscribers by the end of June.

“The thing that’s harder to get when you are launching a service, is a really good service,” Sarnoff said. “That’s the part I feel incredibly optimistic about, because it is a really good service. The challenge is just getting it in front of more eyeballs.”

The company has also suffered from corporate upheaval. Sarnoff’s rise came amid a massive shakeup in which two respected programming executives, Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly, were shown the door. The surprise move came just three months after former Hulu chief Kilar took over as CEO of the AT&T-owned company. In August, it slashed 600 workers, mostly from the Warner Bros. studio.

Despite head winds, Warner Bros. has been forging ahead to return to producing and promoting films and TV shows. Its recent virtual event, DC FanDome, attracted 22 million viewers, thanks in part to the release of Zack Snyder’s trailer for his director’s cut of “Justice League.” The so-called Snyder cut of the 2017 superhero flop is coming to HBO Max sometime next year.

“I love Zack’s passion for what he’s doing and the fans’ passion for the Snyder cut,” Sarnoff said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun when you see what he’s doing with the movie.”