With just a few days left of 2020, one of the year’s most fascinating experiments in theatrical strategy in the wake of COVID-19 has just made its streaming debut.
WarnerMedia’s mic-drop reveal that the entire Warner Bros. 2021 slate would premiere on HBO Max alongside theatrical runs set up the unorthodox “Wonder Woman 1984” release as a litmus test for the viability of tentpoles in the expanded SVOD market.
But as clear a victory as this was at the box office, what “WW84” did for HBO Max isn’t as cut-and-dried.
A $16.7 million gross, bigger than any other domestic opening during the pandemic, gives Warners something to brag about. Moreover, “WW84” will supply the company with some ground-floor data to measure the next studio titles up as vaccines are distributed and the chunk of U.S. theater sites currently operating expands beyond roughly 35%.
“WW84” also made almost as much as Warners’ “Tenet” did in its Labor Day Weekend opening, an optimistic outcome given the theatrical exclusivity of “Tenet” and the fact that positive COVID cases were substantially down compared with December, which is now the deadliest month in the U.S. since the pandemic began.
Likewise, “WW84” pummeled other films releasing around Christmas, as Universal’s Tom Hanks starrer “News of the World” and Sony’s “Monster Hunter” barely cracked $2 million in their first weekends.
Shares in exhibitor groups like Cinemark, IMAX and the Marcus Corp. are up following “WW84’s” weekend performance, a sign that even in a global health crisis and with alternative viewing options, superhero fare is still an enormous asset for movie theaters. Luckily for exhibitors, that trend still has no end in sight.
All in all, Warners is ending 2020 having outgrossed its competitors since the lockdowns in March, and its film studio has already announced a third “Wonder Woman” is in the works.
But the speedy greenlight of a new “Wonder Woman” doesn’t do all that much to indicate just how valuable the first sequel was until HBO Max numbers are made available. It may have just been a quick move to demonstrate a sense of confidence to the marketplace that it’s smooth sailing ahead for the Warners ship as it prepares to release as many as 18 studio titles on the service in 2021.
The studio tried to project the same sense of confidence about the movie’s performance on HBO Max, noting that it “broke records” and reached nearly half of the app’s “retail subscribers” on its first day. That sounds impressive, but it’s not entirely clear without any hard numbers just how successful “WW84” was on the new streaming service. It’s not even clear what metric HBO Max is using to constitute what a view is: 2 minutes a la Netflix or the whole movie?
The truth is that how many people watched is less important than another metric still to be answered: How many people who already pay for HBO but haven’t downloaded the app did and will do so as a result of “WW84?” How many non-HBO subs were persuaded this weekend to subscribe to HBO Max for the first time? This is the needle that needs to move in order for HBO Max to catch up to Netflix or Disney+.
Until more data becomes available, “WW84” is less a revelation in the shadow of COVID and more an extensive calling card for subscribers and exhibitors alike to stick with Warner as a brand.