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Can ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ save Christmas? And HBO Max?

Fast Company logo Fast Company 11/19/2020 Nicole LaPorte

Six months into HBO Max’s wobbly launch, the streaming service is finally getting the shot in the arm that it needs in order to catch up to rivals: a splashy tentpole movie that the world has been salivating to see. 

On Wednesday, November 18, WarnerMedia announced that Wonder Woman 1984, the follow-up to the 2017 blockbuster starring Gal Gadot as the femme fatale slash caped crusader, will be available for one month on HBO Max on Christmas Day, the same day that it is being released in U.S. theaters. It will be released in international markets where HBO Max is not available on December 16. 

The move isn’t an all-out push for HBO Max, seeing as there’s that caveat of the theatrical release, although how many theaters will be open a month from now, amid the surging number of COVID-19 cases, remains to be seen. But it’s the biggest sign yet that WarnerMedia is intent on changing the narrative that HBO Max is lagging painfully behind its peers—though, at this point, it clearly is—and deeply invested in pivoting harder into streaming. Since launching last May, HBO Max has amassed just 8.6 million activations—combined, HBO and HBO Max have 38 million subscribers. (Note that AT&T reported that HBO properties had 34.6 million subscribers at the end of 2019.) Compare that to Disney Plus, which launched a year ago and now has 73 million subscribers. AppleTV Plus, meanwhile, has a reported 34 million. 

But with a movie like WW84, HBO Max has a chance to play a dramatic game of catchup. Other theatrical films that have been pushed onto streaming services due to COVID-19 this year have, for the most part, been mid- to low-budget films like Hamilton (Disney Plus) and Borat 2 (Amazon Prime Video). There was Disney’s Mulan, which the company moved to Disney Plus on Labor Day weekend, but that came with a price—literally. The film cost Disney Plus subscribers an additional $30 for those who wanted to see it in its first month of release, an experiment that did not fare well for Disney.

WW84 is the first Hollywood blockbuster that will be available to all subscribers, for free—or at least for HBO Max’s $15-a-month fee—a strategy that should serve HBO Max well, at least in terms of people giving it a try.  

The Wonder Woman sequel is one of the most-awaited films of the year, all the more so because of all the calendar hopscotching it has endured due to the pandemic. Originally scheduled for release in June as a would-be summer blockbuster, the film was pushed first to August, then October, and then to Christmas Day. As other studios have gotten cold feet, pushing their own crown-jewel movies into next year (Black Widow, No Time to Die, etc.) in an attempt to outrun COVID-19, WW84 has been virtually the last woman standing on the 2020 calendar. Its fate has prompted a flurry of industry reporting as to what WarnerMedia would do, particularly as COVID-19 cases and deaths began spiking globally in recent weeks, in some cases shutting down key markets such as the United Kingdom and France. Would the company push the film to next summer? Go all out on HBO Max? Split the difference with both a theatrical and streaming debut?

WarnerMedia already had data from its first test case, Tenet, which became the COVID-19 theatrical release guinea pig when the company released it in theaters (those that were open) in early September. It has grossed $350 million worldwide, but just $56 million in the United States, confirming that audiences are still hard to come by IRL. 

Behind the scenes, sources say Warner has been strenuously weighing its options for WW84, painstakingly crunching numbers and studying forecasts for weeks now in order to make a decision. It’s one that has come down very close to the wire—December 16 is one month away—and could be complicated by the fact that Warner has just laid off its key marketing executives. “The process has brought to light what it means to deal with a phone company,” says one source. (WarnerMedia is owned by AT&T.) “Being agile and quick and making immediate decisions and changing with the environment is just not the way Warner operates.” On the other hand, this person adds, the company has left no stone unturned and no opinion unsolicited in order to be as comprehensive as possible. 

Warner’s move adheres to a few key tenets, for lack of a better word, that have emerged during the pandemic era.

One, that there is still no way for major tentpole movies to recoup their exorbitant production and marketing budgets on a streaming service. The economics are still not there. Subscription fees simply don’t add up to box-office dollars, particularly in overseas markets, and particularly for billion-dollar franchise films like Wonder Woman 1984 and all of its downstream merchandising and theme park revenue opportunities. (The first Wonder Woman grossed $828 million globally.)

Not having any theatrical release therefore was highly unlikely. 

Two, buzzy movies drive streaming subscriptions in a meaningful way. Disney learned this with Hamilton, and though numbers haven’t been officially released, Amazon Prime Video presumably saw a bump with Borat 2, which created a virtual water-cooler moment when it was released last month. There’s also the brand halo effect, which AppleTV Plus experienced when it released the Tom Hanks movie Greyhound last summer. 

HBO Max desperately needs all of the above.

The platform has confused would-be customers: Not everyone understands the difference between HBO Max, HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO. In addition, it’s lacked must-see programming. With the possible exception of the Anna Kendrick film Love Life, there have been no buzzy originals to rally audiences. Partly this is due to the pandemic, which caused production delays and meant that at launch HBO Max had just six new original titles, as opposed to the planned 31. Among the projects scuttled included a vaunted reunion of the Friends cast. Finally, the service has failed to define exactly what it is, beyond an accumulation of all the video assets owned by AT&T after it acquired Time Warner, which was also a roll-up of a movie studio and cable networks. There’s prestige fare from HBO (Succession, The Wire), Warner Bros. content from Crazy Rich Asians to Scooby Doo, and material from the vaults of such networks as Cartoon Network, TBS, and TNT.  

With WW84, the service has a chance to make all that moot. People will simply want to see the movie, and, once in the HBO Max gate, the company hopes they’ll figure out the rest. The platform certainly has enough high-quality library material to keep people around. Yet it also allows WarnerMedia to have it both ways and still scoop up box-office receipts where markets are open, including China and Japan. As WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said in a statement: “We believe in theaters because hundreds of millions of fans around the world value going to the movies. “And for as long as fans seek out the theatrical experience, we will be there to serve them with great movies in partnership with exhibitors.”


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