Amid an extraordinary shortage of new movies for theaters to show, all eyes are on Warner Bros.’ planned Christmas Day release of “Wonder Woman 1984.” But with two months to go — eons during a pandemic that’s already forced three changes in the film’s release date — studio chief Ann Sarnoff suggested theaters can’t count on “Wonder Woman” to be their superhero-tentpole under the tree.
During an interview Wednesday at Variety’s Power of Women summit, Sarnoff, WarnerMedia’s head of studios and networks, was asked whether she thinks the December 25 release date will stick. “I hope so,” she said. “It really is about how the U.S. continues to open and whether there are any other surges. We’ve got a little bit of time to figure that out.”
“Wonder Woman,” like countless other movies, has seen its planned release date shifted several times amid the pandemic. With Disney forgoing U.S. theatrical releases for “Mulan” and “Soul,” “No Time to Die” shifting to next April, and “Dune” moving to a year from now, “Wonder Woman” stands as a beacon of hope for exhibitors counting on a major movie (anything!) to drive people to theaters. In fact, as IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann reported last week, the question of Warner Bros.’ Christmas Day release is paramount for theater owners.
Before giving a final answer, Warner Bros. has a lot to consider. Brueggemann reported that opening theaters in Los Angeles and New York for the holidays would be critical.
Sarnoff said it’s “good news” that New York theaters (outside of the city) were allowed to reopen last week, while theaters in some Southern California remain open. By the time this pre-recorded interview aired, however, COVID spikes were on the rise.
In Los Angeles County, which is responsible for 30 percent of the state’s theatrical gross, theaters remain closed. Last week, In the neighboring Riverside County, theaters were ordered closed once again amidst a rise in cases that mirrored a surge across the U.S. and Europe. The Associated Press reported that the U.S. came very close to setting record daily infection rates over the weekend.
Unlike “Tenet,” which Warner Bros. released at the end of August and served as the pandemic’s theatrical canary in the coal mine, Sarnoff said domestic grosses will be much more important for “Wonder Woman.”
WarnerMedia executives were “very pleased” with the performance of “Tenet” — $52.5 million domestic and $289.1 million overseas. Sarnoff said she expected the Christopher Nolan film to overindex abroad, both due to trends established with prior projects and the fact that theaters were more widely open abroad at summer’s end.
“Wonder Woman” “will skew more domestic,” she said. “Unlike Christopher Nolan, we’ll have more domestic demand, relatively speaking, probably about 50-50. So we have to be more conscious of the total demand in the US as we think about ‘Wonder Woman.'”
“Tenet” offered the best domestic returns of any film released after mid-March, followed by two other August releases, “The New Mutants” ($23.17 million domestic) and “Unhinged” ($20.45 million).
If the theatrical outlook fails to improve, the studio has other options. It could move “Wonder Woman” again, just like it did with “Dune.” Or, it could go the digital route, mirroring the studio’s PVOD release of “Scoob!” in May before it premiered on HBO Max.
While Sarnoff didn’t explicitly say audiences should expect movies once destined for theaters to be released on HBO Max, she detailed how she has been tasked with breaking “silos” in the company since she was hired in summer 2019. Now, with Sarnoff overseeing Warner Bros., HBO Max, and TV networks like TBS, it’s clear that WarnerMedia is consolidating and restructuring in a way similar to Disney. If the future is streaming, then theatrical releases are one platform to consider among several.
“It’s really about just understanding where consumer tastes are going to go, post the pandemic,” said Sarnoff. “I think we see what they are in the pandemic — but coming out the other side, how people are going to want to consume media? Are they going to be all pent up to go back out and go to theaters? It really is a multi-media approach that we’re in, whether it’s … television series depicted in a kind of gaming kind of format, or feature films transitioning to television spinoffs, we really want to be in all of those media so we can super-serve our fans.”