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‘Wonder Woman 1984’ did fine in theaters, despite being available on HBO Max

The box office results were the highest for any major film released during the pandemic.

Gal Gadot in a scene from “Wonder Woman 1984.” The film overperformed in domestic theaters even though it was available simultaneously on HBO Max. (Clay Enos/Warner Bros./AP)
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When Warner Bros. announced it would be releasing “Wonder Woman 1984” simultaneously on HBO Max and in U.S. theaters on Christmas Day, the company sought to reassure skeptical theater owners that consumers would still come.

Turns out it was right.

The latest Patty Jenkins-Gal Gadot collaboration garnered $16.7 million in the United States during the Friday-Sunday Christmas holiday weekend, or nearly 2 million tickets sold. Those are the highest three-day totals for any new movie in American theaters since pandemic lockdowns began last March — a noteworthy and even surprising result given the fact that the movie was concurrently available to consumers at home, though some experts caution against reading too much into it.

Numbers for the new film, in which Gadot’s Diana Prince takes her adventures to the Cold War period, easily topped the other two major theatrical releases since the pandemic began, Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” and Universal Pictures’ “The Croods: A New Age.” Both of those titles failed to take in $10 million over Friday-Sunday periods on holiday weekends (Labor Day and Thanksgiving, respectively). The $16.7 million total also exceeds the $12-$14 million many pundits had forecast.

“Wonder Woman” serves as an early test of whether WB and parent company AT&T’s so-called “day-and-date” model — under which 17 other WB movies will arrive over the next year on the streaming service at the same time they appear in theaters — will damage out-of-home viewing.

Many in the creative community believe WB’s move is an attempt to subvert the theatrical model. But the studio has argued that the effect is additive; many people would still come to theaters while a new audience would watch on streaming.

“[W]e can support our partners in exhibition with a steady pipeline of world-class films, while also giving moviegoers who may not have access to theaters or aren’t quite ready to go back to the movies the chance to see our amazing” movies, Ann Sarnoff, the studio’s chief, said when the plan was announced. “We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors.”

Some theater owners were heartened by the first weekend’s results. Brian Schultz, who owns the Studio Movie Grill, a 10-state chain of dine-in theaters based in Dallas, said advance sales for “Wonder Woman” were strong. About 20 percent of those sales, he said, came from private rentals, in which a bubbled group of consumers take an entire theater so they don’t need to worry about social distancing.

“Wonder Woman” bested the results for “Tenet” and “The Croods” even though fewer theaters were open during this tighter lockdown period — about 40 percent compared to the mid-40s for “The Croods” and more than 55 percent for “Tenet.”

Warner Bros. did not meaningfully quantify what the HBO Max audience was for the film, saying only that “millions” of its “wholesale customers” (previous subscribers to HBO) watched along with “nearly half” of its retail subscribers (those who subscribed to HBO Max without previously having HBO). HBO Max has about 8 million wholesale subscribers and an unknown number of retail subscribers, believed to be fewer.

The box office is measured by Rentrak, a universally agreed upon measuring firm. Streaming data is often more proprietary.

WB also did not say how many people subscribed to HBO Max to watch the movie, a main reason the company put it there. AT&T risks not just financial losses but political fallout by upending the traditional theatrical-exclusivity model, and it would want to see a meaningful bump in subscribers in order to do so.

The test is important not just for WB but the industry as a whole, which may be looking for new models once the pandemic ends. Universal has said it will put many movies in large theater chains for 17 days, a shorter window than the traditional 60-75 period. Disney, for now, plans on traditional theatrical releases.

Still, experts say the experiment’s results are far from conclusive.

“There’s an interesting story here in terms of the cinematic experience still being an enticement even when people had the alternative to see a movie at home,” said Bruce Nash, a film-release expert who runs the box office website the Numbers; the site had projected $14.5 million for “Wonder Woman” this weekend. “But you don’t know — had it not been on HBO Max, could it have done $20 million? Or $25 million?”

The $16.7 million may also reflect a hardcore devotion that won’t scale up for a release during normal times, Nash said, when a movie is expected to gross $100 million or more in the U.S.

And the total may have been helped by the pandemic-era novelty factor in which consumers, accustomed to going to the movies in December, finally had a reason to leave the house. Such factors would not be in place during normal times.

Another variable that could give studios’ pause is the at-home experience can cast a shadow on a film’s reception and buzz.

Home viewers are more likely to be distracted and also may judge the movie more harshly than those who package it with a fun social excursion. Indeed, while word over the weekend was often negative among many Twitter users watching “Wonder Woman” on HBO Max, the film generated a decent “B+” CinemaScore among those who saw it in theaters.

As the results came in Sunday, Warner Bros. announced it would bring back Jenkins and Gadot for a third film, saying it would “fast-track” development of the picture. Most sequels come out within two to three years of their previous installments, but the pandemic has played havoc with the release calendar.

It was also unclear whether the new movie would be produced primarily for HBO Max, in keeping with AT&T’s commitment to the platform, or with a strong theatrical component and big budget to match. Franchises tend to get more expensive deeper into their run as actors demand higher compensation.

“WW 1984” has done well in theaters internationally, taking in nearly $70 million, suggesting WB would be incentivized to press ahead with the property as a big-budget theatrical blockbuster.

Jenkins had previously signed up to make “Rogue Squadron,” a Star Wars movie, for rival Disney. With filmmakers upset at WB over the HBO Max moves, the announcement for a third film seemed designed as much to underline a top-tier director’s commitment to Warner Bros. as it was the studio’s devotion to the franchise.