Movie theaters in the U.S. have lost another 2020 tentpole to streaming. WarnerMedia has chosen to release the upcoming "Wonder Woman 1984" on HBO Max and in theaters this Christmas, Dec. 25. The dual release will occur for all territories with HBO Max and offer the sequel to the comic book hit free of charge for subscribers.
The decision comes after multiple delays for the film and closures of movie theaters across the globe. After a postponement in 2019, the film moved on the calendar to June 2020. However, once COVID-19 led to theater closures, the movie was pushed to August, then October, before finally settling into the Christmas Day slot.
"It's time," says Gal Gadot, star of "Wonder Woman 1984" in a tweet. "We've all waited a long time for this one to come. I can't tell you how excited I am for all of you to see this movie. It wasn't an easy decision and we never thought we'd have to hold onto the release for such a long time but [COVID-19] rocked all of our worlds. We feel the movie has never been so relevant and we that it'll bring some joy, hope and love to your hearts. 'Wonder Woman 1984' is a special one for me and I can only hope it'll be special to you too. We've put our hearts and souls into it."
What Does This Mean for Movie Theaters?
WarnerMedia looks to be keeping its theater partners in mind with the decision. The dual release in theaters and on HBO Max gives fans an option for how they would like to see the film. AMC was also in discussions with Warner Bros throughout the planning process and signaled approval for the release plan in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.
"For many months, AMC has been in active and deep dialogue with Warner Brothers to figure out how best this cinematic blockbuster could be seen at AMC Theatres in these unprecedented times," says Adam Aron, chief executive officer and president, AMC Entertainment. "Given that atypical circumstances call for atypical economic relationships between studios and theatres, and atypical windows and releasing strategies, AMC is fully onboard for Warner Brothers' announcement today."
While the decision is still relatively novel, WarnerMedia is actually following suit with other top releases in 2020. Early in the year, Universal announced that "Trolls World Tour" would be released for SVOD, thereby breaking a theatrical release tradition for studio tentpoles. The decision saw some initial backlash, but as the reality of our 'new normal' became clearer, theater chains became more open to the idea.
Major U.S. chains, Cinemark and AMC, signed deals with Universal to shrink the theatrical exclusivity window from 90 days to just 17. With WarnerMedia's "Wonder Woman" move, that deal looks to be the first of many for a movie industry in flux due to COVID-19.
What Does This Mean for Streaming?
"Wonder Woman 1984's" HBO Max release is a play to expand WarnerMedia's presence in streaming. The media empire follows the blueprint set out by Disney, when it released "Mulan" on Disney+. While that film was released as an additional purchase for subscribers, it was still the first time a significant tentpole debuted on a proprietary streaming service.
HBO Max is WarnerMedia's very own streaming service, which provides boasting more than 10,000 hours of content. With "Wonder Woman 1984" in tow, WarnerMedia is optimistic about growing its subscriber fanbase even more by offering more exclusive content. Given the success of the first "Wonder Woman," the company is hopeful for significant subscriber gains with its sequel.
"While we will pay attention to theatrical revenues, our expectations are clearly adjusted due to COVID-19," says Jason Kilar, chief executive officer, WarnerMedia, in a company memo. "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."
"Wonder Woman 1984" isn't just the only D.C. exclusive heading to HBO Max in the coming years, either. This year WarnerMedia announced that a director's cut of "Justice League" would be released in 2021. The recut film will include new content from the film's original director Zach Snyder. Collectively, the D.C. exclusives point to a robust content collection for HBO Max even as the streaming space gets crowded with the likes of Disney+, Apple TV+ and Netflix.
What Does This Mean for Licensing?
The unique release plans for "Wonder Woman 1984" could also prove somewhat valuable for Warner Bros. licensing partners. Despite numerous film delays, licensed products for "Wonder Woman 1984" were still launched earlier this year. Warner Bros. Consumer Products announced a slate of partners in August that included Swarovski, Mattel and Reebok.
Those existing products could see a bump in sales over the holidays as more people watch the film for the first time. WarnerMedia can leverage e-commerce platforms to serve more embedded marketing for "Wonder Woman" products on HBO Max as well. Universal did something similar with "Trolls World Tour" when it debuted in April. The film leveraged its title as the highest-grossing SVOD release ever to help partners in the toys, consumables and fashion sectors.
A Needed Measure and A Sign of the Future
The "Wonder Woman 1984" dual release is another sign of the future of movie debuts. As the world adjusts to the challenges of COVID-19, cinema's future is looking more streaming focused by the day.
Theaters will always have a place in how movies are seen, but streaming them at home earlier will be a requirement for future releases. Consumer demand to watch new releases at home won't go away post-COVID and everyone in the cinema ecosystem is now adjusting to that future reality.