The last great question mark for the theatrical release calendar of 2020 was Wonder Woman 1984, and whether or not Warner Brothers would move back its release again. The COVID situation in the US has reached a new critical mass, with 250,000 dead and new cases and hospitalizations rising across the country. WW84 is slated to open on Christmas day, and there is nothing to indicate the situation will be better by then. In fact, with many Americans hellbent on gathering on Thanksgiving, it will probably be worse. All this is to say, it was clear Warner Brothers was going to have to make a decision about WW84 soon, and they have done so—Wonder Woman 1984 will still premiere on Christmas day, opening in theaters where possible and dropping simultaneously on HBO Max in the US.
This is, by far, the biggest movie to come to streaming yet. WW84 was a sure-fire billion-dollar earner, no doubt it would have been one of the biggest movies—if not THE biggest movie—of 2020, if this was a normal year. But it’s not a normal year, so instead it is now the biggest film to drop on streaming. Newly minted WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar explained the decision in a Medium post, which is very 21st century of him, and included some details about the drop. For instance, there will be no super-sized pricing for WW84. All you need to do is subscribe to HBO or HBO Max and you can watch the movie come Christmas day. (They just struck a deal with Amazon this week, so if you get HBO through Amazon or Amazon Fire, you can now get HBO Max. If you use Roku, you’re still SOL.) And while Kilar writes about the important of giving fans all the options and empowering them to the make their own choices, it is VERY clear what Warners really wants to know is if day-and-date drops like this are viable for nine-figure blockbusters. Kilar specifically mentions measuring opening day attendance of Wonder Woman against its day-and-date release this year, to see if a combined theatrical/streaming audience can compare to theatrical exclusivity. Depending on how this goes, it could be devastating for the future of movie theaters, as these giant blockbusters have long been held as the last bastion of theater-going.
As soon as “Wonder Woman” started trending on Twitter, so did “Black Widow”, putting pressure on Marvel should the worst case scenario come to pass and theaters still are not operating at normal capacity come next summer. Black Widow is currently slated for May 7, 2021; it could be the first big post-pandemic movie. Or it could be yet another mid-pandemic adjustment, no one knows. But if WW84’s experiment pays off, perhaps Disney and Marvel will become more flexible and offer Black Widow in the same day-and-date style. The two movies are not entirely comparable, though, because of the relative situations of their studios. For one thing, Marvel has WandaVision coming to Disney+ in January, to tide over content-starved Marvel fans. For another, Disney+ is doing WAY better than HBO Max, racking up subscribers despite scant original offerings on the platform. Disney+ has already topped 73 million subscribers in its first year, destroying the initial projections of reaching 60-90 million by 2024.
HBO Max, on the other hand, is floundering. They tout over 36 million subscribers, but that’s for HBO and HBO Max combined. The actual number of HBO Max subscribers is 8.6 million, with less than half coming from direct, over-the-top subscriptions (the rest are “activations” of HBO Max through existing HBO cable subscriptions, but even this number means that 70% of eligible HBO subscribers are not accessing HBO Max). To date, people have not been in a hurry to sign up for HBO Max. Wonder Woman 1984 should be a huge incentive to drive new subscriptions—and activations—especially since Amazon users can now access the platform (meanwhile, Roku looks sadly through the window like a Dickensian urchin in the rain). Basically, Warner Brothers needs to drop a movie like WW84 on HBO Max far more than Disney needs to drop Black Widow on Disney+. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible—at this point, it’s clear ANYTHING is possible—but Disney-Marvel is not in the same position and will not make their decision, should they need to make one, based on the same logic.
I’ve mentioned before that WarnerMedia has been reorganizing—most recently there was a mass exodus among the marketing executives—and it is largely to better streamline the studio with the streaming service, which the new Warner overlords at AT&T see as all-important (in contrast, they don’t “get” the theatrical business). WW84’s new release strategy, should it pan out, may be a sign of a new distribution paradigm, with as much importance given to streaming releases as theatrical. Or maybe even greater importance, should it turn out the lure of streaming blockbusters at home outweighs the draw to theaters. Theaters won’t die completely, there will always be some component of theatrical release in the film industry, for nostalgia if nothing else. But it has been clear for months now that things are changing in the film industry, and Wonder Woman 1984 might represent the biggest change yet.