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HBO Max won't stream Tenet, even without a theatrical release date in sight

Don't expect a Hamilton-like surprise here. And you'll likely need to keep waiting for Wonder Woman 1984 until theaters reopen widely, too.

John David Washington stars in Tenet.
Warner Bros. Pictures
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The coronavirus pandemic's widespread cinema shutdowns have forced AT&T's Warner Bros. to push back the release of Tenet, Christopher Nolan's next mind-bending movie, three times already. But even without a new release date for the film, and still lacking any clarity about when US cinemas will reopen widely, Tenet won't switch to a streaming release that premieres on HBO Max, the company said Thursday.

And don't get your hopes up about streaming Wonder Woman 1984 either. 

Other Hollywood giants, including Disney and Comcast's Universal Pictures, have been switching to online debuts for some of their films that were original destined for the big screen. Disney relied on its streaming service Disney Plus to release Hamilton, a live-stage capture of the hit Broadway musical, more than a year earlier than the movie's originally planned theatrical release. And Universal's DreamWorks Animation put out its Trolls World Tour as a digital rental in April. Both online releases appeared to have strong demand. 

However, while some Warner Bros. films could debut on HBO Max instead of in theaters, it's likely to be "some content on the margin," said John Stankey, the CEO of AT&T, which owns both Warner Bros. and the streaming service HBO Max. 

"Sure, I think that could occur. Is it going to happen on a movie like Tenet or something like Wonder Woman? I'd be very surprised if that would be the case. In fact, I can assure you on Tenet, that's not going to be the case," he said Thursday on a conference call discussing the company's second-quarter earnings with analysts. 

"Theatrical still has an absolute, important role moving forward," he added. "There's just some content that is going to be more enjoyable and better to see in theaters than in the living room."

Nolan's preference for the cinema experience is central to the decision for Tenet to premiere in movie theaters, Stankey added later in an interview on CNBC. Nolan wrote an opinion article extolling the virtues of theaters for The Washington Post in March.

"Certainly, Christopher would like it to be validated," he said. "That's how he wants that piece of work that he's done to be seen by moviegoers, and that's why it's going to be something that shows up in a theater."

Now playing: Watch this: HBO Max: How to get it

Tenet was originally set to hit theaters July 17, but it was first postponed until July 31 amid a cavalcade of other blockbusters vacating their summer premieres. Soon after, it was pushed back to Aug. 12. Then Monday, it was delayed a third time, without any release date. 

"We will share a new 2020 release date imminently for Tenet," Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, said Monday. "We are not treating Tenet like a traditional global day-and-date release, and our upcoming marketing and distribution plans will reflect that." (Variety reported the news earlier.)

Like most Nolan films, such as Dunkirk and The Dark Knight trilogy, the director has built hype by releasing as few details as possible. But Tenet, starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, so far has been marketed like a tricky sci-fi thriller, along the lines of Nolan's 2010 film Inception. 

The DC comics sequel Wonder Woman 1984 is on the slate for theatrical release on Oct. 2, but it also has been delayed twice already. Originally planned to come out in June, it was rescheduled for Aug. 14 before being pushed back again until October. 

Meanwhile, the outlook for US cinemas reopening remained bleak. Also Thursday, AMC again pushed back its reopening plan until mid- to late August, largely because of the delays to the releases of expected blockbusters like Tenet, as well as Disney's Mulan, which is currently set to arrive in theaters Aug. 21.