Warner Media blinks: the plan for Wonder Woman 1984

With the new Wonder Woman 1984 premiering in theaters and on HBO Max on the same day next month, the studio is finally releasing “day-and-date,” and there is nothing the theater chains can do to stop it.

By Jeffrey Cole

Patty Jenkins was looking forward to 2020 being a spectacular year. Three years earlier, she directed the huge hit Wonder Woman, earning Warner Bros. $820 million. It was also the highest grossing film ever directed by a woman, established a new franchise (building on DC Comics), and made Gal Godot a bankable superstar.

The sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, was originally scheduled for release in November 2019 at the beginning of the Christmas season. The studio expected it to earn even more than the original, crossing the billion dollar threshold. In what can only now be seen as a case of very bad luck, the film was pushed to June 2020 in order to anchor Warner’s summer releases. The new date hit the COVID pandemic straight on.

Within two weeks of when COVID hit America in March, the movie business came to a complete halt in both the production and exhibition of films.

There were a small number of films that had already been released but had not finished their runs in theaters. Universal’s Invisible Man, for example, moved to streaming for a cost of $20. It was independent of any channel or subscription and could be rented for 48 hours.

There were a number of films that had not been released but were seen as small or mid-level films unlikely to command massive box office. Some were sold to streamers. Apple TV+ picked up Tom Hanks’ Greyhound while Disney+ got Artemis Fowl and Hamilton. Those films were included at no additional cost in the monthly subscription costs for the two services. Both Disney+ and Apple TV+ were new entrants into streaming with a small catalog of original content. Buying films intended for the theater gave them high-profile content to fuel viewing during the pandemic–thereby attracting millions of subscribers.

A few of the mid-level films, most notably Trolls World Tour, were part of a new category called “PVOD” (Premiere or Premium Video on Demand). These were films that had never appeared in theaters and were available for streaming directly to the consumer at a cost for the individual film, not part of a subscription. Pay-Per-View (PPV) had been used over the years for major professional fights (with great success) but had rarely been used for films.

And then there were the films conceived, budgeted, and cast to be blockbusters earning a billion dollars or more. These billion-dollar films were the specialty of Disney, which produced 7 1/2 of the 9 films in 2019 that earned at least a billion dollars. (The half was a co-production with Sony — Spider Man: Far From Home.) These blockbusters were films such as Avengers: End Game, Lion King, Frozen 2, Toy Story 4, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and the only non-Disney Film, Joker.

What does this mean for Patty Jenkins’ super-sequel?

Wonder Woman 1984 was going to be a billion-dollar movie in 2020, along with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Disney’s Black Widow and Mulan, as well as the final James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, MGM’s No Time to Die.

The studios didn’t want to sell them to a streaming format where they could not earn the anticipated billion dollars. In March, they decided to hold the films until the theaters opened again so the films could become the financial blockbusters they were intended to be.

Like it or not, Patty Jenkins is taking one for the Warner Team. It will be fascinating to see what this does to the Wonder Woman franchise. Will fans eagerly go back to the big screen to see a third Wonder Woman film in a few years? Or will they only value it as a franchise to be watched on the smaller screen without buying a ticket?

Surely COVID would be over by the end of the summer and it would be safe to release these tentpoles in August? The consequences were inconceivable if that didn’t happen.

Sadly, summer came and the Coronavirus only gained strength. The inconceivable became reality. November and December became the new “August” — far enough in the future to safely plan an opening in thousands of theaters. As the pandemic worsened, December of 2020 and then, May of 2021 each also became the new “August.”

With last week’s announcement of two successful vaccines, May, 2021 might just barely see the return of the movie theater business. Or maybe July. Or the Fall.

All of these films cost $200 million or more (in some cases much more) to make and will need marketing budgets of as much as $85 million when released. Studios have to pay interest on the costs of their dormant properties and there are questions of keeping the film fresh and the audience interested. Theater owners want the big films in the theater as soon as possible to draw crowds back to the movie-going experience. Studios are torn between getting their product out and waiting for the end of COVID.

As much as Patty Jenkins wanted a splashy release on thousands of big screens, Warner blinked and decided it could wait no longer. A 2021 release would be three years after Wonder Woman 1984 was made and four years after the original.

Warner Media will release Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day into the theaters and also on its streaming platform, HBO Max, at no additional cost. This is the first pure case of “Day and Date,” releasing a film to video the same day as theaters. It’s a move the theater owners have fiercely resisted with every tool and threat they could muster.

There is almost no scenario where the film can make much of a profit and certainly not the billion dollars that was planned. Warner, seeing no good outcome by continuing to hold it back, has sacrificed Wonder Woman 1984 to get it out of theatrical purgatory as well as to build subscriptions for HBO Max.

Like it or not, Patty Jenkins is taking one for the Warner Team. It will be fascinating to see what this does to the Wonder Woman franchise. Will fans eagerly go back to the big screen to see a third Wonder Woman film in a few years? Or will they only value it as a franchise to be watched on the smaller screen without buying a ticket?

What will the future look like?

As difficult as COVID has been for the studios, cinema owners, and movie fans, it has enabled a period of great experimentation to learn what fans value and how much they will pay for different experiences. The studios are acting on the old saying that “no good crisis should go to waste.”

Their opponents in experimentation, the exhibitors, have been neutralized during COVID (and are on the verge of bankruptcy), possessing no leverage on their past threats to punish studios over day-and-date or narrowing the exhibition window. The theaters are unable to stop the experiments.

There are so many new and essential questions about movies which will be learned in this period:

  1. Can a film earn a billion dollars without a theatrical release?
  2. What will people pay for a PVOD release?
  3. Can a studio build a franchise on PVOD without a theatrical run?
  4. Are there some films that will only work for original run in the theaters and are diminished on streaming?
  5. Has the line between theaters and television blurred so much that audiences no longer make much of a distinction?
  6. How will secondary revenue streams (earning after a theatrical run) change with PVOD and originals on streaming?
  7. If there cannot be billion dollar movies, can there still be $200 million budgets?
  8. If a film is released to theaters and video on the same day, what factors (price, convenience, food, audiences) will determine where fans want to watch?

Without COVID, it would have taken years filled with threats, boycotts, and strikes to determine the answers to these questions. The major players are using COVID as an opportunity to re-arrange the landscape of how movies are made and released.

It’s as if the entire film business has become a board game (Risk?) with the strongest players able to take control of the process and neutralize the weaker ones. Everything is up for grabs.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

November 24, 2020