The new Wonder Woman sequel made $16.7m in North American cinemas this weekend, the biggest US opening weekend since the pandemic began, but a paltry sum compared to typical box office returns during the Christmas holiday.
The film starring Gal Gadot had been the first of a grand experiment by Warner Bros to debut its blockbuster movies online and in cinemas on the same day, as the storied Hollywood studio grapples with the enduring pandemic in the US.
Warner’s Wonder Woman: 1984, with a budget of around $200m, and Disney’s Soul which cost roughly $150m to make, both debuted digitally on December 25. The releases made Christmas Day the biggest content drop in the history of streaming and the culmination of a year of high-risk experimentation for Hollywood.
“Christmas 2020 is a watershed moment for the movie industry and the streaming wars,” said Rich Greenfield, partner at Lightshed, a research group, noting that Wonder Woman was “the biggest budget film ever [to go] straight to streaming”.
Globally, Wonder Woman: 1984 has made $85m in cinemas, with $16.7m in the US and Canada, according to ComScore.
With cinemas mostly empty in the US as the pandemic rages on, having killed more than 300,000 Americans, the big movie studios have made moves that were unthinkable less than a year ago.
In the most drastic action taken, Warner Bros announced this month it would release all of its films next year on the HBO Max streaming platform the same day they debuted in cinemas. The news shocked the industry, inducing rage from filmmakers who make movies for Warner.
Christopher Nolan, whose big bet on cinemas with Tenet failed to rouse US audiences, said the move “makes no economic sense”.
“Even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.
Cinemas have lost some $32bn this year as the pandemic battered their business, according to research group Omdia. While attendance has returned in some countries like Korea, the US — the biggest movie market — has failed to recover.
This has left Hollywood studios with an impossible conundrum. Saddled with expensive projects, studios face releasing them to largely empty cinemas, putting them online at a financial loss or delaying them in the hope that the world will return to a pre-pandemic normal next year.
Disney, the biggest studio, has taken a hybrid approach, putting some films such as Mulan online at an extra cost, while still planning to release others, such as the upcoming Black Widow, in cinemas. Sony has postponed most of its big films to next year or 2022, while Comcast-owned Universal experimented with the paid digital release of movies such as Trolls: World Tour.
But Warner Bros, long viewed as the most creative-friendly studio in Hollywood, has taken the most extreme approach.
The relatively meagre box office results for Wonder Woman: 1984 should validate Warner’s strategy. Releasing the film on HBO Max should also help boost subscriptions for to the streaming service. Nearly half of HBO Max subscribers watched Wonder Woman on Christmas Day, according to Warner.
WarnerMedia, the home to HBO and Warner Bros, has among the most coveted catalogues in Hollywood. But HBO Max has struggled to gain traction. Analysts attribute its slow start to a $15 monthly price, higher than most rivals, and a distribution rift with platforms like Amazon and Roku, which only recently have allowed users to add the app.
AT&T bought Time Warner for $80bn in a deal that closed last year, as the telecoms company looked to thrust itself into entertainment and take on Netflix. HBO Max is critical to that goal.
AT&T chief executive John Stankey this month defended Warner’s movie distribution strategy.
The online and theatrical releases are meant to “allow the industry to have this transitional moment,” Mr Stankey told an investor conference. “We knew we needed to try something different”.