'Wonder Woman 1984': HBO Max Release is Bad News for Box Office

Ratings: ABC’s ‘Big Sky’ Debut Is Not So Big

Warner Bros.

Can ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ Still Lasso Big Revenues With a Simultaneous HBO Max Release?

It’s not even certain if any theaters will still be open when the DC film hits cinemas and streaming on Christmas Day

Warner Bros. on Wednesday jolted Hollywood with its decision to decision to stick to a Christmas Day debut for “Wonder Woman 1984” in pandemic-weakened U.S. theaters — but also a simultaneous premiere on WarnerMedia’s six-month-old streaming service HBO Max.

That move should take a big dent out of box office revenues for Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her 2017 superhero blockbuster, which was expected to be a $1 billion global sensation on a $200 million production budget. But WarnerMedia appears to be betting that it could still come out ahead if it sees a spike in signups for HBO Max, which reported 38 million subscribers (at $15 per month) in its Q3 earnings report last month.

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“It’s a move I’m still trying to wrap my head around,” Boxoffice analyst Shawn Robbins told TheWrap Wednesday. “It feels like this move is being done to boost subscribers for HBO Max, but that seems like a huge gamble to take on what was going to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, and there’s no telling if the subscribers they gain will stick around for the long term.”

Several theater owners who spoke to TheWrap on condition of anonymity voiced their dismay with Warner Bros.’ decision. “Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation,” one theater owner said, while Adam Aron, CEO of the nation’s largest chain, AMC Theatres, said his company was “fully onboard.” “Given that atypical circumstances call for atypical economic relationships between studios and theatres, and atypical windows and releasing strategies,” he said in a statement.

That might have been an acknowledgement that “WW84” will at least get some sort of theatrical release, unlike recent Disney tentpoles like the live-action “Mulan” and Pixar’s “Soul” that bypassed movie theaters altogether for a release on its own streaming service, Disney+.

While a change to the “WW84” release was expected for weeks as the pandemic worsened and every other big studio film got postponed to 2021, there was still hope for some degree of exclusivity in a theatrical run. In recent weeks, Universal brokered a deal with AMC Theatres and Cinemark to shorten the theatrical window on some of its films to as little as 17 days, with the chains collecting a portion of the studio’s early premium video on demand revenues. There had been speculation that Warner might follow a similar model for “Wonder Woman 1984” — until the studio decided to go day-and-date with HBO Max.

That will limit the film’s box office potential — both because of the competition from stay-at-home HBO Max subscribers but also because of the cloudy forecast for theaters next month, especially compared to next summer, when other tentpoles have already booked new opening dates.

As COVID-19 infections rapidly surge both in the U.S. and throughout the world, it is difficult to say how many theaters will still be open for “WW84” in a month’s time (the film will debut in some international markets on Dec. 16). Cinemas in multiple major European markets like the U.K. and Italy have been forced to close down again by government officials, and theaters in California that reopened in recent months shuttered again after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered most counties to return to the lowest tier of the state’s business reopening system.

That means that “WW84” will open in a theatrical  landscape that is worse than the one that faced Warner’s Christopher Nolan epic “Tenet” last August. While poor containment of the virus and a lack of confidence in the safety of theaters limited the U.S. grosses of “Tenet” to only $56 million, stronger containment efforts overseas pushed the film’s global total to $353 million.

“WW84,” being a superhero film and a sequel, will generate more interest among mainstream audiences around the world than “Tenet” did, and the lack of HBO Max in overseas markets should help buoy box office numbers in markets where moviegoing is safe. But the growing uncertainty created by the winter wave of COVID-19 could hold down global grosses to well under $300 million if overseas theaters aren’t open or audiences don’t turn out even by lower pandemic standards.

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar acknowledged the financial down sides for this release strategy. “While we will pay attention to theatrical revenues, our expectations are clearly adjusted due to COVID-19,” he wrote in a Medium post. “In parallel, we will be paying close attention to the numbers of families and fans diving into HBO Max, as we certainly anticipate that a portion of fans will choose to enjoy ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ that way on opening day and beyond.”

But what makes this release strategy particularly tough for theaters is that it comes just as news hits of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. While the pandemic will get worse before it gets better and dissemination of the vaccine will take months to roll out, AMC Theatres said in its latest earnings call that it feels confident that some semblance of normalcy for cinemas could come by summer 2021. Had “WW84” been pushed to a summer release, it may have been one of the films that helped encourage audiences to come back to theaters.

“Perhaps Warner Bros. looked at the 2021 calendar and simply concluded that it was too crowded with all the other 2020 blockbusters that have already moved to next summer,” Robbins said. “And there will be other big films like ‘F9’ and ‘Black Widow’ that will be there when theaters reopen in full next year. But it’s still an eyebrow-raising decision for what is probably the biggest film Warner has in its slate.”

Still, one theater owner in the northeast U.S., where infections have been relatively more contained than in the rest of the country, held out some degree of optimism. He noted that “WW84” will only be on HBO Max for a month but will be in theaters for longer than that. He echoed Kilar’s hope that hardcore Wonder Woman fans will want to see the film on the big screen regardless of whether they see it on HBO Max first, along with other moviegoers who have come to his theaters even during the pandemic.

“But for us that are open, I’m still happy that we’re going to get some major product,” the owner said. “We’ve been open since July at our locations and we’ve still done some pretty good numbers with Netflix films like ‘Mank,’ and I still think there’s a desire to see films in theaters and there’s trust with our customers in our safety protocols.”

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