WarnerMedia commits $100 million in coronavirus relief for production crews

Ryan Faughnder
WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey.  (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Entertainment giant WarnerMedia has committed $100 million to help production crew members whose livelihoods have been threatened by the spreading coronavirus outbreak, said the company's Chief Executive John Stankey in a Friday memo to staff.

The disclosure comes after the global COVID-19 pandemic effectively brought Hollywood to a standstill in recent weeks, as studios scrambled to comply with government "stay at home" orders meant to slow the virus' spread.

AT&T Inc-owned WarnerMedia — the parent company of the Warner Bros. movie and TV studio, HBO and Turner networks — has been forced to pause multiple productions because of public health concerns.

Burbank-based Warner Bros., for example, has hit the brakes on filming "The Batman" in Britain and an Elvis Presley biopic in Australia. Actor Tom Hanks, who is featured in the latter film, was among the first celebrities to contract the virus, as was his wife, Rita Wilson. HBO has stopped production of "Succession" and "Barry."

"We have paused many productions for the health and safety of employees, cast, crew and community," Stankey said. "We are stepping up with a commitment of more than $100 million to assist team members of those productions during this time. And as things evolve, we’ll continue to evaluate how we can best respond to the challenges we face as an industry as a result of this pandemic."

New York-based WarnerMedia is the latest entertainment giant to announce funds for production crews and other personnel now out of work because of the halt of shooting. Well more than 100,000 people across the entertainment industry are estimated to have lost work, including carpenters, electricians and drivers.

NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell on Thursday said the Comcast Corp. subsidiary has committed $150 million to help TV, film and theme park workers who have been idled by the coronavirus response. Shell also said he had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Los Gatos-based streamer Netflix made a similar commitment last week, pledging $100 million to help crew get through the work stoppage. About $15 million of the Netflix fund will go toward helping the broader television and film industry via third parties and nonprofit agencies, the company said.

The disclosure by Stankey, who is also chief operating officer of AT&T, was part of a broader letter thanking staff for their perseverance at a time when companies have had to briskly move to working remotely.

Entertainment concerns including WarnerMedia have been pilloried by challenges stemming from the epidemic, such as the closure of movie theaters. The film studio has adapted by putting its theatrical releases on video on-demand services much sooner than it would normally have done, including "Birds of Prey."

The cancellation of sporting events such as the NBA and March Madness, which are a key driver of ratings and advertising revenue for TNT and TBS, have disrupted business as well.

Brokerage Cowen & Co. this week downgraded AT&T's stock to "market perform" because of the expected damage from the pandemic, particularly to WarnerMedia. "Within its WarnerMedia business, we have reduced our estimates assuming heavy social distancing measures remain in place until June and that the economy is in a recession for the remainder of 2020," Cowen & Co. said in its report.

However, the crisis has resulted in higher TV ratings, particularly for news. Viewership for WarnerMedia's CNN, Stankey said, has increased more than 132% during total day, and 167% in prime time, since March 9 in the U.S. HBO has also experienced gains as people sequester at home. Usage of streaming service HBO Now is up over 40% from its four-week average, according to the company.

The launch of HBO Max, the company's highly anticipated new streaming service that includes content from all the WarnerMedia units, remains on track for May, Stankey said. This comes despite some speculation that the fluid coronavirus situation might disrupt the launch of HBO Max, which is meant to compete with Disney+, Netflix and NBCUniversal's Peacock.

"We’re all focused on overcoming these business challenges, but let’s not forget the important role we play for our audiences around the world," Stankey wrote. "We don’t know how long we’ll be in this situation, but I am incredibly proud of how we are adapting during our global work-from-home efforts."