The move marks a strange coda to an odd year. Director Patty Jenkins’s sequel to her 2017 smash has been postponed multiple times throughout the pandemic, most recently landing on Christmas Day from October after “Tenet” sputtered in U.S. theaters. Most industry experts expected “Wonder Woman 1984” to move again, to 2021, following the path of “No Time to Die,” “Black Widow,” “F9” and other major 2020 releases.
Some had acknowledged the possibility that the film could move entirely to a digital platform in 2020, either as a paid rental or a free title on the company’s streaming service.
But few expected it to move to digital and stay theatrical.
Warner Bros. says it saw a hybrid approach as the best option. “As we navigate these unprecedented times, we’ve had to be innovative in keeping our businesses moving forward,” studio chief Ann Sarnoff said in a statement.
“Working with our partners in the exhibition community, we will provide that option to consumers in the U.S. where theaters are open. We realize that a lot of consumers can’t go back to the movies due to the pandemic, so we also want to give them the option to see ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ via our HBO Max platform.”
The film will be available on HBO Max for at least a month.
It is unclear how many U.S. theaters the film will open in. A movie of this scale would typically open on more than 4,000 screens. But with coronavirus cases skyrocketing around the country, even 1,000 screens could be a long shot.
The move by AT&T-owned Warner Bros. takes a page out of the playbook of independent-film distributors, who have long released movies “day-and-date” — in theaters and on home platforms simultaneously. But it is a first for a studio, which typically refrains from the practice for fear of cannibalizing box office proceeds. The release will thus test the theory held by some Hollywood insiders that many consumers wish to go to theaters even if they have the option of watching a movie at home (albeit a test conducted under pandemic-stressed conditions).
Some studios in recent months have moved their films entirely to digital in the hope of, if not recouping their investment, at least retaining and attracting customers. Disney recently opted to put the much-anticipated release “Soul” on Disney Plus this Christmas. Such a decision also relieves what is likely to be a bottleneck when theaters open more fully in 2021.
The announcement follows a deal several days ago between WarnerMedia and Amazon for HBO Max to be carried on Amazon Fire TV, breaking a stalemate that dates to the service’s launch six months ago. It could also put pressure on HBO Max and Roku to make a deal; the latter is the only major streaming platform not to carry the service.
As an economic proposition, WB’s move remains a long shot. “Wonder Woman 1984” cost $200 million to produce and, with a theatrical release, will take tens of millions of dollars more to market. That is unlikely to be recouped with a scattershot theatrical release and some new HBO Max subscribers.
Still, the release could provide a boost for the nascent streaming service, which has struggled to attract customers willing to pay $15 monthly for its offerings. In an earnings call last month, WarnerMedia said about 9 million HBO subscribers in the United States have “activated” their HBO Max subscriptions, a number that sits well below the 74 million global users of Disney Plus or the 195 million worldwide customers of Netflix.
And those involved with the film say that, in a topsy-turvy year, finances were only part of the calculation.
“At some point you have to choose to share any love and joy you have to give, over everything else,” Jenkins posted to Twitter on Wednesday, suggesting that while this may not be as lucrative as waiting for theaters to reopen, it was still the best decision. “We truly hope that our film brings a little bit of joy and reprieve to you this holiday season.”