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Wonder Woman at home

Fully Charged
Bloomberg

Hey y'all, it's Austin. There's never been a better time to have a TV and an internet connection. Last week, AT&T Inc.'s Warner Bros. announced that instead of rolling out the company's new slate of big-budget tentpole movies exclusively to theaters, the Hollywood studio will also release titles like "Dune," "Space Jam: A New Legacy" and "The Matrix 4" to anyone with an HBO Max account.

The decision amounted to an unprecedented bet on the company's streaming service. Even with coronavirus lockdowns in place, AT&T is risking big box-office ticket sales in hopes that you'll sign up for HBO Max at $15 per month instead. Existing subscribers will get the movies at no extra cost.  

We're in a golden age of subscription freebies. With so many eyeballs up for grabs, technology and media giants are engaging in an increasingly unsustainable content arms race to offer more and more for seemingly less and less. The Covid-19 lockdown is only catalyzing those efforts—prodding deep-pocketed players to make ever-more radical concessions to win over stuck-at-home consumers and one-up rival platforms.

For AT&T and Warner Bros., the hope is that this shock-and-awe campaign of top-tier films, each available to stream for one month in the coming year, will make paying for HBO Max a no-brainer. It's a high-stakes decision: Upcoming releases like "Wonder Woman 1984" cost around $200 million to produce. But with U.S. theatergoers not going to theaters much anymore as coronavirus infections soar, their distribution options were limited. "Our content is extremely valuable, unless it's sitting on a shelf not being seen by anyone," said WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar.

HBO Max isn't the only subscription platform promoting A-grade content at ridiculously low prices. To bolster its $5-a-month TV+ service, Apple Inc. scooped up the Tom Hanks drama "Greyhound" for a reported $70 million, instead of the movie debuting in cinemas. Walt Disney Co. spent $75 million on a filmed production of "Hamilton" and released it on its $7-a-month Disney+ app. And, in the video game world, Microsoft Corp. recently bought ZeniMax Media Inc., the developer behind flagship franchises like Fallout and Doom, for $7.5 billion, and is expected to release future titles on its Game Pass subscription the same day they're available at retail.

For now, such investments are tantamount to an expensive marketing blitz to entice customers to these platforms. It's a good time to be a subscriber, considering the cancel-anytime commitments and negligible—or nonexistent—monthly costs. Looking at my own spending, I'm receiving Apple TV+ for free for a year after buying a new iPhone. Disney+ is included in my Verizon mobile plan. And Microsoft's Game Pass? Since last year, it's only cost me a grand total of $2.18 through a dirt-cheap discount offer.

Don't expect this era of blockbuster giveaways to last forever. At some point, customers will have to pay for the goods if they want Netflix Inc. to continue churning out more nine-figure films like "The Irishman." There are signs this is already happening. Disney+ charged a $30 premium to watch "Mulan" at home, Netflix and Hulu have raised monthly prices in recent weeks, and HBO Max is ending its 7-day free trial offer and advertising better rates for longer-term subscriptions.

The big question is whether people will keep their subscriptions after movie theaters re-open and the big content and cost giveaways fade to black. It's an especially fascinating dilemma for HBO Max, which has suggested its new streaming-first bet could be a one-off experiment until the pandemic subsides. "No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do," WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff said in a statement.

So while HBO Max will inevitably offer the splashiest free movies in 2021, its slate for 2022, more than any competitor, will likely pale by comparison. After training subscribers to expect a theater-quality film roughly every month or so, will they stick around for "Game of Thrones" and "Friends" re-runs? If they throw in a third "Space Jam" movie, count me in. Austin Carr

If you read one thing

It's going to be a huge week for IPOs. Startups Airbnb, DoorDash and more are set to go public in the coming days. One big winner will be VC giant Sequoia Capital. It's a change in fortunes from just a few months ago, when Sequoia was predicting a coronavirus-induced economic catastrophe. Bloomberg got a look at the returns of a few of the firm's funds.

And here's what you need to know in global technology news

An indie studio's fortunes depend on a $130 million bet on a dystopian video game starring Keanu Reeves.

The Trump administration's deadline for ByteDance's TikTok to sell its U.S. assets is on hold as negotiations continue.

A Chinese professor accused of stealing a computer chip for Huawei pleaded guilty to a single count of making a false statement, after U.S. federal prosecutors dismissed more serious charges of conspiracy and trade-secrets theft.

Following Salesforce's $27.7 billion acquisition of Slack, founder Stewart Butterfield expects to become a president at the enterprise company.  

Risqué social media platform OnlyFans is set to generate more than $2 billion in revenue this year. 

 

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