Face it, stans: This was inevitable. After having its release date bumped no fewer than three times, Wonder Woman 1984 is going to debut in US theaters and on HBO Max on December 25. That means you may not get the big popcorn-filled summer-weekend blockbuster opening you would’ve liked—and that Diana Prince probably deserved—but you will be able to see director Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her 2017 hit Wonder Woman, and you will, if you so choose, be able to watch it from the comfort of your couch.
It’s probably for the best. As much as any film fan worth their salt wants to plop their butt in a stadium seat with an overpriced soda to watch a superhero movie, Covid-19 is still tearing through the country, and the one villain Wonder Woman can’t lasso is ’rona. The US is averaging more than 150,000 new cases per day, and as winter sets in, there’s a chance that number gets worse. Half of the country’s theaters are closed, and cinema chains have been frustrated with studios delaying their major releases this year. (A spokesperson for the National Association of Theatre Owners declined to comment for this story.) While fans are being asked to wait for other films that had been primed for a 2020 release, like Dune or the James Bond flick No Time to Die, getting to see the year’s Last Film Standing on any platform is a bit of a respite.
Warner Bros. has called its move to release Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters and on its streaming platform at the same time “historic.” It could also prove to be a bellwether. Even before the pandemic, the streaming wars were heating up. Every content-producing company with a back catalog—and even some without (ahem, Apple TV+)—was launching its own service, walling off its own garden of movies and television shows. Now, with theater attendance plummeting as Americans quarantine, services like Disney+, Peacock, and HBO Max allow their corporate owners to test whether going straight to consumers with major movie releases the same day they hit the big screen is a viable option.
Whether this strange experiment’s results are what Warner Bros. will want to see is another story. Wonder Woman 1984 was originally projected to be a billion-dollar blockbuster. It’s unlikely the release will have that kind of performance now, but it could significantly impact HBO Max’s subscriber numbers at a time—the holiday season—when folks are home and looking to be entertained. When Disney released the live-action remake of Mulan on Disney+ this past summer, downloads of the app reportedly increased 68 percent. HBO Max could see a similar spike, especially since the new Wonder Woman will be available to all Max subscribers automatically. (Disney charged $30 for Mulan on top of the regular monthly membership fee.) WarnerMedia also just made a deal to get HBO Max on Amazon Fire TV devices, opening up a whole new market of potential customers. (If they could do the same with Roku, which represents about half of the connected TV market, they’d be swimming, but that stalemate continues apace.)
Look, broadly speaking, this isn’t an ideal situation for anyone. Sitting in air conditioning in the middle of July to watch a movie at the multiplex is fun, and the prolonged theater closures brought on by Covid-19 are not good for the movie business at large. But according to Ann Sarnoff, head of the WarnerMedia group that oversees Warner Bros., it was the best way for the studio to keep its business “moving forward” while also appeasing fans and navigating a pandemic. Sure, Warner could have pushed the film into 2021 like most of the other big 2020 releases, but at a certain point, something’s gotta give. The problems brought on by the coronavirus may not end next year; studios should be taking a chance on alternative release strategies. If Wonder Woman can’t rope moviegoers into a new way of life, maybe no one can.
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