Game over? Not quite. The film’s US studio, Warner Bros., has made an ambitious play to release the film simultaneously in cinemas and on the studio’s new streaming platform, HBO Max. In a country such as Australia, where HBO Max does not exist, it will remain only in cinemas.
But the move has sent tectonic shockwaves across an already skittish film distribution business. At stake? The revenue stream of cinema owners and, through the slice of the box office pie they lay claim to, the balance sheet of studios.
In order to clinch the deal, Warner Bros. has had to agree to taking a smaller percentage of box office takings because cinema owners felt the move would discourage ticket sales in favour of in-home viewing. But an unanticipated side effect lies in the contractual fine print deals studios strike with A-list actors, directors and other key creatives, for “points” in the film: that is, future pay cheques calculated off box office takings.
Warner Bros. has already had to hammer out a last-minute deal with the super-agencies WME and CAA, which represent the star and director of Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins, worth about $US10 million ($13 million) apiece. That cash amounts to a make-good for lost earnings based on the smaller-than-expected box office resulting from Warner Bros.’ planned double-play.
Now, complicating the economics of an already brittle business model, Warner Bros. has ambitiously decided to push its entire 2021 film slate into the same dual-release strategy.
That includes a new (fourth) film in The Matrix franchise (starring Keanu Reeves), another action blockbuster Godzilla vs Kong, the films Reminiscence (Hugh Jackman) and The Little Things (Denzel Washington), The Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, and Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, Into The Heights. So, how long will it be before everyone wants their $US10 million pay cheque?
In fact, two things are in play that are driving the strategy. Less visible to consumers is a major push for US streaming newbie HBO Max itself, the launch of which has been – on its own terms – solid. Compared to rivals Peacock and Disney, however, its numbers are coming up short. Some context: Peacock has a free-to-view tier, and Disney has the Star Wars and Marvel franchises.
But the other key factor is that cinemas themselves will likely evolve in the wake of COVID-19, at least temporarily, from an all-in, community experience to something more tailored.
If they cannot deliver revenue off mass audience, they will need to pump up revenue with other services, such as smaller cinemas, bigger chairs, greater separation between patrons (if not physical barriers), and more VIP touches, such as in-seat food and beverage services.
In the short term, however, Wonder Woman is going to need all her superpowers to win the fight at the box office. With a $US200 million budget and, in keeping with common Hollywood practice, a marketing budget worth roughly that again, on those numbers the film needs to make about US$400 million to break even.
In the US, the extent to which a 31-day window on HBO Max – at no extra charge for subscribers to the service – eats into the film’s traditional box office potential has not yet been measured. Internationally, Wonder Woman 1984 has opened to just $US38 million in eight countries, just half of that from China alone.
“We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions, including this new initiative,” WarnerMedia CEO Ann Sarnoff said.
“No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do,” Sarnoff added. “We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theatres in the US will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.”
Sarnoff described the new strategy as a “unique one-year plan” designed to both support exhibitors and make films available to an audience who would, in the short term, be sceptical of returning to the social environment of a public cinema.
“We see it as a win-win for film lovers and exhibitors, and we’re extremely grateful to our filmmaking partners for working with us on this innovative response to these circumstances,” she said.
Wonder Woman 1984 is in cinemas now.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.