If there was ever an industry that needed saving this holiday season, it would be exhibition. And if there was anyone up for the job, who else but Wonder Woman? But Warner Bros.’ plan for a global theatrical roll-out of sequel “Wonder Woman 1984” ahead of a U.S. launch on HBO Max is a mixed blessing for cinema operators in Europe, where national lockdowns have tempered enthusiasm for a tentpole release amid the pandemic.
“Releasing ‘Wonder Woman’ in December is sheer madness; it’s insanity,” said one exhibition boss who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The executive deemed the studio’s international release plan, which begins Dec. 16 in countries including the U.K., France, Holland and Iceland, and continues through to Jan. 28 in Italy, the “worst commercial decision in a long time.”
European exhibitors are increasingly anxious about national lockdowns that have shuttered cinema chains in countries including the U.K., France and Germany in the last month. The U.K. lockdown ends Wednesday (Dec. 2), at which point a tier system will see London and Liverpool cinemas allowed to reopen, while cities such as Manchester remain shuttered. In France, cinemas can reopen from Dec. 15, albeit with a 9pm curfew. Italian cinemas will stay shuttered until early January, as will Germany’s movie theaters (opening Jan. 10 at the earliest).
While the most severe lockdown restrictions in these countries are set to lift in time for the release of “Wonder Woman 1984,” many businesses are questioning whether there’s enough to sustain their screens after the DC superhero has come and gone — especially given the next blockbuster release will technically be “No Time to Die” in April. Is it worth the cost of pulling staff off furlough programs and jumpstarting operations for one movie, only to potentially shut back down?
“We were hoping that other studios would come in around Warner Bros. to release other movies, which hasn’t happened, so it’s made the decision more difficult on whether to open or not,” says Tim Richards, head of European cinema giant Vue, which operates screens in the U.K. and Ireland, Poland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Taiwan.
The chain, whose 91 U.K. cinemas have been closed for one month following Boris Johnson’s circuit breaker lockdown, has opted to open 30 locations from Dec. 11. AMC Theatres-owned Odeon will also partially reopen some sites. But Cineworld, the country’s biggest operator, looks unlikely to reopen for December. In a shock move, the Mooky Greidinger-run business shut all operations in the U.S. and U.K. in early October following the delay of “No Time to Die.” In its Nov. 22 liquidity statement, the company said its base case scenario “assumes a reopening of cinemas no later than May 2021.”
The dire U.K. situation is also leaving exhibitors vulnerable to the harsh market realities of pandemic times.
Warner Bros. and exhibitors have agreed an unprecedented month-long theatrical window for the film, followed by a premium video-on-demand (PVOD) release, as revealed by Variety. It’s believed late-stage PVOD discussions are underway with Sky, which would launch “Wonder Woman 1984” in January.
A deal like the Sky Cinema agreement — which isn’t yet a done deal but close to getting over the line, Variety understands — makes sense given that HBO Max isn’t currently available outside the U.S. but it means that Warner Bros. will have to draw up arrangements with a number of different VOD providers around Europe.
Naturally, there are also questions about how well “Wonder Woman 1984” is expected to perform globally. The first “Wonder Woman” (2017) film was the highest grossing live-action film by a female director and the highest grossing superhero origin film of all time. It pulled in $822 million worldwide, of which half was from outside the U.S.
“It performed especially well in Brazil, U.K., Hong Kong, Mexico and Australia,” says David Hancock, senior cinema manager for London-based media consultancy Omdia. “Normally, it would be expected to repeat the same sort of numbers, but with some countries suffering a second wave of the pandemic, this won’t happen,” says Hancock.
On top of headaches in the U.K., cinemas in the film’s strongest markets, like Brazil and Mexico, are only partially open, explains Hancock.
Dimitrios Mitsinikos, co-founder and CEO of London’s Gower Street Analytics, is more optimistic of “Wonder Woman’s” chances in its current December and January slots. The analyst expects the majority of the film’s international box office to come from the Asia Pacific region, where the first instalment grossed approximately 55% of its international box office.
That share could even grow, predicts Mitsinikos. China is operating at close to pre-pandemic levels in terms of cinema readiness (95%) and the rest of the APAC region is on largely solid footing (90%).
Chinese theaters, operating without interruption since late July, are now beginning to welcome a string of smaller U.S. movies for the busy pre-Christmas season. “Wonder Woman 1984” has the potential to be bigger than “Tenet” or “Mulan” in China. It will open head to head with the hotly anticipated local action tentpole “The Rescue” on Dec. 18, making for one of the biggest non-holiday sessions of the year.
To overtake “Tenet” and become the biggest Hollywood film of the year in China would take a $65 million total. Its predecessor grossed $90 million.
Overall, Mitsinikos expects the film to “sail past $200 million” in APAC. “A result of around $250 million to $300 million is feasible and it would be welcomed by Warner Bros. and the entire theatrical industry,” he adds.
Internationally, Gower Street says Warner Bros. is looking at $375 million to $425 million, which is close to where the previous film was, with China leading the pack. “I believe it’s a good decision from Warner Bros. not to move the film to a later date, as we’re expecting the end of Q1 and Q2 to be a pretty busy period, and many films will find it hard to reach their expected pre-COVID targets.”
Certainly, there are plenty of exhibitors for whom the holiday release couldn’t come soon enough. PVR Cinemas, India’s largest exhibitor, will screen the movie in 85% of its 835 screens. Meanwhile, Rajender Singh Jyala, chief programming officer for INOX, India’s second largest multiplex chain, predicts the box office performance of “Wonder Woman 1984” in India “is going to change the course of the Indian film industry and lead the revival of the sector.” The country’s cinemas began reopening mid-October and most will be open in time for “Tenet’s” release on Friday (Dec. 4).
“With the kind of hype about the movie, and the anticipated success, we are going to release the movie across all markets and assign maximum screens to it,” says Singh Jyala.
In Spain, Camilo Tarrazón Rodón, president of the reputable Catalan Exhibitors Union, says waiting around for a new date ultimately serves no purpose. “The COVID situation is not yet under control in Spain…but waiting or doing nothing doesn’t guarantee anything better.”
December is traditionally a strong month in Spain, and with local titles like “El verano que vivimos” and “Mama o papa,” along with “Croods 2” and, soon, “Wonder Woman 1984,” “there is enough good product to jumpstart theaters,” says Tarrazón Rodón.
France, of course, presents a more reserved case. Exhibitors welcome the reopening of theaters on Dec. 15 following a 90-day shutdown, but are concerned by the 9pm curfew that will stay in place until at least Jan. 20.
In practical terms, it means the latest screening of the day will have to be scheduled early enough to end at 9pm. For a movie like “Wonder Woman 1984,” which is 151 minutes long, a final screening can start no later than 6:30 pm. “It’s very early for an evening screening,” says Jocelyn Bouyssy, managing director of CGR Cinemas, France’s second biggest multiplex chain.
But the alternative — an alternative French exhibitors have been trying to survive for months on end — is no better, so the chain will simply have to adapt and boost the number of showtimes during the day. “We’ve lacked American movies since the start of this pandemic and we’re very grateful that Warner Bros. has been playing ball,” says Bouyssy. “We will make the best of it.”
Patrick Frater, Elsa Keslassy and Jamie Lang contributed to this report.