The capacity for shock hasn’t been exhausted. Even in a year when the unexpected has become normal, Warner Bros. made a radical move: Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman 1984” will stick to its domestic theatrical release date of December 25, but it comes with a kicker — a kick directly in the teeth of exhibitors.
Desperate theater owners were already resigned to the idea that a Christmas date was unlikely, or braced themselves for home availability within a month on either Warners’ HBO Max or Premium VOD. But day-and-date in theaters and on HBO Max?! It’s unprecedented, and tells everyone that at least two of the three dominant studios do not prioritize the theatrical release.
Of course, this decision directly related to our current and extraordinary circumstances. It’s still devastating for theaters, and looks like we are on the path to making home availability, not theaters, the driving force. Films will either have no theatrical play, or play day-and-date — and if there is theatrical exclusivity, that is the studio’s decision.
This comes two days after Universal announced a deal with Cinemark, the third biggest domestic chain. That studio, which unlike Disney and Warners has no elevated streaming outlet under the same roof, established the option to place all releases available on PVOD no later than 31 days after release; 17, if it opened under $50 million. That solidified its earlier deal with AMC, which placed 17 days as the minimum but suggested that top films would see a less-aggressive push toward early PVOD.
PVOD is huge competition, but Universal offered the theater chains some unspecified revenue participation. That’s not the case with “Wonder Woman 1984”: Theaters can play the film if they choose. Audiences may choose the superior cinema experience. Customers also can choose to pay $14.99 a month for HBO Max and watch it as many times as you want, with as many people as they like, and with access to a wide array of other content.
Warners likely was set to take a loss on the $200 million production, or at least face a much smaller profit than hoped. Like Disney, which also placed Pixar’s “Soul” on Disney+ at no extra cost for December 25, Warners says this is the future. Its press release described the decision as “historic.” That’s not a word used for exceptions made in tough times.
Furthermore, the studio said it plans to releasing the film in theaters in international territories starting December 16, where HBO Max or similar is not yet an option. The earlier date decreases the chances of piracy from U.S. viewers sharing illegal downloads.
Director Patty Jenkins confirmed the news in a tweet, celebrating that at least there was a chance to see it in theaters, while acknowledging the safety of staying home. But will theaters actually play it? Sources suggest that although theater executives received a heads up about the announcement, film buyers and other staff had to learn via social media. For all, any advance notice was a fait accompli.
Perhaps Warners would sweeten the pot by charging rock-bottom film rental, but there’s no presumption that theaters will play the film. Agreeing is tacit acceptance, and industry history shows there is no such thing as a one-off agreement. A theater that says ‘Oh, OK’ to “Wonder Woman” will have a much tougher time saying “Hell, no” to “No Time to Die,” “Black Widow,” or any other future blockbuster that wants to follow this model. It wouldn’t be a surprise if many, or most, theaters say “No,” and leave off the “thank you” in favor of stronger words.
Here’s the letter that exhibitors received today from Jason Kilar, CEO of Warner Media:
Today we announced that Wonder Woman 1984, the eagerly anticipated tentpole film by Patty Jenkins — with Gal Gadot and Chris Pine reprising their roles as Diana Prince and Steve Trevor — is going to be released worldwide in theaters on December 25th. In the United States, we will also be making this remarkable movie available on HBO Max at no extra cost the same day that Wonder Woman 1984 premieres in theaters, for the first month of the film’s release.
For a movie of this scale, this is unprecedented. Given that, we wanted to share some context.
There are many things that factor into a decision like this:
• The pandemic.
• Our belief in the theatrical experience and, to that end, the importance of exhibitors.
• Our mission to be strong and supportive partners to Patty, Gal, producer Chuck Rovner and the entire Wonder Woman 1984 team.
• And finally, the fans, which is where important decisions like this should always start and should always end.
We are, of course, in an extraordinary moment. This entails a patchwork of regulations, geographic considerations and, most importantly, fan preferences. With that in mind, we see an opportunity to do something firmly focused on the fans: give them the power to choose between going to their local cinema or opening on HBO Max. Super-fans will likely choose both. This incredible movie will be available both ways on the exact same day. If you are fortunate to live in a place where theaters are open, we believe we are offering a great option given the Cinema Safe protocols our partners have put in place. With this, exhibitors are offering a movie-going experience with social distancing, masks, cleaning and ventilation protocols. On the other hand, if you and your family prefer to stay in and make your own popcorn this holiday, we want to share the experience of Wonder Woman 1984 with you the exact same day on HBO Max. It’s your decision to make.
We are committed to the theatrical experience and we believe giving exhibitors a movie of this nature is important right now. We believe in theaters because hundreds of millions of fans around the world value going to the movies. And for as long as fans seek out the theatrical experience, we will be there to serve them with great movies in partnership with exhibitors. Collectively, the fans get to decide these things, as they should.
Getting back to Wonder Woman 1984, we believe this decision will bring several benefits. The first and most important benefit is to the fans in the form of unprecedented choice from day one. The second benefit is to the exhibitors, providing an eagerly anticipated movie at a much-needed time while they take precautions in their operations. Finally, we believe that our creative partners and ourselves will benefit from this decision, in the form of fan response both theatrically and via HBO Max in the U.S.
I find it fascinating that we will be measuring the performance of this movie in an entirely new way. To use a line from The Wizard of Oz, we’re not in Kansas anymore. While we will pay attention to theatrical revenues, our expectations are clearly adjusted due to COVID-19. 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. To provide a comparable, a little over four million fans in the U.S. enjoyed the first Wonder Woman movie on its opening day in 2017. Is it possible for that to happen again this Christmas with Wonder Woman 1984 between theaters and HBO Max? We are so excited to find out, doing everything in our power to provide the power of choice to fans.
Many of us could use an uplifting story this holiday season. We think we have that and more in WW84. We believe audiences are going to love every minute of this great movie this holiday season and we are looking forward to sharing it in this unprecedented way.