AT&T SHAPE 2018: Visions of New Content Creation and Delivery Innovations

Erik Keith – Principal Analyst

Summary Bullets:

  • AT&T SHAPE 2018 preceded AT&T’s federal court win and subsequent closing of its acquisition of Time Warner by just over a week, highlighting AT&T’s confidence that it had the firm legal standing/precedent to move forward.
  • The focus of AT&T SHAPE 2018 was dramatically different from the 2017 version; for 2018, AT&T and partner vendors highlighted how new content will be both created and delivered to its customers.

AT&T’s SHAPE event took place once again in Burbank, California, during the first weekend in June. In some respects, SHAPE 2018 built upon the foundation set at last year’s SHAPE event. As in 2017, the SHAPE 2018 showcased the content and creative assets AT&T would take ownership of (i.e., Warner Brothers Studios) by utilizing the WB campus again, perhaps to reiterate the magnitude, breadth, and depth of the WB assets, both physically and virtually, and the vital role AT&T sees them playing under the AT&T umbrella. AT&T’s own description of SHAPE was of “an immersive event that explores the convergence of technology and entertainment.”

The SHAPE 2018 event grew 40% in terms of attendance numbers, up to 14,000 from last year’s 10,000-attendee benchmark. This was very likely the result of better marketing, both within the greater Los Angeles area – the heart of the U.S. film/TV/entertainment industry – and via social media. The larger crowd was also undoubtedly driven by the celebrity factor – as outlined below – as well as the underlying premise of the event, i.e., to provide inspiration for new content creators (writers, directors, filmmakers, etc.).

The SHAPE sessions took on several formats: 1) presentations by industry luminaries, visionaries, or innovators, including AT&T partners (Intel); 2) three-person panels focusing on key issues or technologies; and 3) one-to-one Q&A sessions with media/entertainment players. Two key Q&A sessions included social media star Khadi Don interviewing actress/writer/director/producer Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure) and AT&T’s CEO John Donovan speaking with Sean Combs (known by his various stage names: Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy, et al).

The common theme uniting the celebrity interview sessions was that their success was achieved by hard work and believing in themselves against very tall odds. The session with John Donovan and Sean Combs was also memorable for the shared childhood experience between AT&T’s CEO and the rapper/businessman. Each had paper routes as boys which opened their minds to the possibility of making it big – Donovan in the business world, Combs in the music world (which served as a foundation for further success in the fashion, drinks, and broader entertainment sectors).

Arguably the most entertaining and engaging session was the AT&T Film awards, hosted by AT&T’s David Christopher and writer/director/producer Ava DuVernay (A Wrinkle in Time). Descriptions of the finalists and films can be viewed here. The audience was treated to screenings of each of the finalist films – all were less than 10 minutes – across five categories (‘Emerging,’ ‘Underrepresented Filmmaker,’ ‘Shot on Mobile,’ ‘360 Cinematic Video,’ and ‘CGI/Animated’). AT&T awarded $60,000 in prize money (actually $85,000, thanks to a three-way tie for the $20,000 Grand prize for emerging filmmakers).


Director Ava DuVernay and AT&T’s David Christopher with the 2018 AT&T Film Awards Winners (photo courtesy of AT&T). 

The other sessions highlighted AT&T’s commitment to both content creation and development, including new technologies for (enhanced) content delivery such as augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR) as well as 5G wireless, which will expand AT&T’s potential audience reach even further, especially as it targets the growing and evolving mobile-only customer base. As a complement to these sessions, SHAPE featured demonstrations of these technologies – many provided by AT&T partner vendors – and other innovations in the Warner Brothers’ town square, the set of many movies and TV shows (Back to the Future, Gilmore Girls, etc.). Samsung showcased a VR experience, while Ericsson highlighted the coming advantages of 5G networking technology in delivering AR and VR. Twenty-five (25) total partners exhibited at SHAPE (including Amdocs, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Razer, and RED), demonstrating their wares that enabled the following technologies:

  • Visual effects studio
  • Full-body and facial motion capture
  • Drone and filming tech
  • Virtual and augmented reality
  • 5G

Now that the Time Warner acquisition has been completed, AT&T must demonstrate that the company can leverage its new content creation and development assets to the hilt. Aside from the challenge of being a truly diversified company, now composed of four business lines (communications, media, international, and advertising and analytics), AT&T faces a competitive landscape that will see further consolidation. The next big entertainment merger is pending, as Fox chooses between Comcast and Disney (which just upped the ante with a more cash-intensive, $71.3 billion bid, driving speculation that Comcast will bid up to $80 billion).

In the brave new world where pay-TV network operators/distributors own high-value content assets (Comcast/NBCUniversal, AT&T/Time Warner), the newest version of AT&T will need to show progress on this front – the sooner, the better. While AT&T has asserted that strategic and financial synergies of $2.5 billion will be realized by the end of year three after close the Time Warner acquisition (2021), AT&T will be better served by demonstrating tangible, substantial gains by SHAPE 2019. To this end, the concept of ‘high risk = high reward,’ exemplified and touted by John Donovan and Sean Combs, applies to the newly diversified AT&T. What was once known simply as ‘the phone company’ must prove that its massive investments in the video distribution (DIRECTV) and content creation market (Time Warner) were worth the gamble.

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