At Christmas, you can see Wonder Woman 1984 in cinemas – if the theaters are open where you live – or you can watch it at home on HBO Max.
This is a remarkable thing. This is the first time you’ve ever been able to decide exactly when and where you want to watch a big, potential blockbuster Hollywood movie on opening day.
Plans to distribute a superhero movie are not the most important news at the moment – after all, we are fighting a pandemic that killed 250,000 Americans. But it’s also worth noting that this modestly pro-consumer move ̵
And the move tells you a lot about the state of both the cinema business (there are many problems) and the current business, which is in a desperate race for scale.
Quick background: Hollywood movie studios and big movie theater chains have been fighting for years over “windows”: the time between the release of a movie in theaters and the time when you can watch it at home. Most studios try to shrink this window. They want you to be able to rent a great movie at home weeks, not months after its theatrical debut. For obvious reasons, theaters want to keep this gap as large as possible.
And because theaters make up a large portion of the revenue a film can generate, they have more or less managed to hold the line. Sometimes you can see an independent film at home at the same time as it debuts in theaters, but for big movies and big studios this has never happened.
Even attempts to experiment with alternative models – in 2011 Universal studios offered to rent you Tower robbery, a horrible movie about Eddie Murphy / Ben Stiller, for $ 60 while it was still in theaters – they didn’t go anywhere.
Enter the pandemic that closed cinemas and forced studios to try different strategies. Most studios have moved most of the big films they planned to debut this year Dune or the latest Fast and furious sequel, until 2021. Then they experimented a bit with everything else: Universal allowed people to hire Trolls 2 and other movies at home. Other studios took movies that were to hit theaters and folded them into their streaming services: Hamilton debuted at Disney +, Witches went to HBO Max. Disney also tried a hybrid option, allowing Disney + subscribers to watch Mulan at home – if they paid an additional $ 30.
But so far no one has allowed you to choose whether you want to watch a real blockbuster in a theater with other people or at home with friends and family. (The first A strange woman released in 2017, the film grossed over $ 800 million worldwide, meaning that WarnerMedia, the AT&T unit that owns the Warner Bros. studio. and HBO Max, expects the sequel to be a giant hit.)
The fact that this is happening now reveals several things:
- Movie theaters have completely lost the lever they once had. In the past, WarnerMedia would never have tried this because major theater chains would make credible threats, including refusing to show the film in their theaters. (That’s why, by the way, you can see Netflix The Irishman in cinemas last year only in small chains and independent theaters. Big chains, like AMC, just refused to show the film because they were angry and threatened by Netflix in general.) But big chains can no longer threaten movie studios.
This is because they are either not open, period, or because people do not want to watch movies in theaters, even when they can. WarnerMedia tried to bring Tenet, a potential blockbuster, for theaters earlier this year, and the American audience with signs of a pandemic simply refused to go. And while movie theaters expect to reopen in 2021, they will do so in a very weakened state. They have spent this year bleeding money and trying to avoid bankruptcy. There is a good chance that many theater chains will have to close many of their seats in the near future; there is also a good chance that some of them will find themselves with new owners after applying for Chapter 11.
An indicator of how weak theaters are: Earlier this year, Universal struck a deal with AMC, the world’s largest theater chain, to shorten – but not eliminate – the window from theater to home. This pact was considered astonishing and required Universal to give AMC a reduction in rental home sales.
But a PR spokesman for WarnerMedia says the company is not changing its existing theater deals in any way. Wonder Woman 1984. Theaters that show it can get the box office revenue reduction they always get, and nothing more. This is: WarnerMedia bets that the big chains will show the film on their terms, which they hate. And that they will not be able to do anything to get revenge.
- The big media is desperate to catch up with Netflix. WarnerMedia executives are well aware that they allow people to watch Wonder Woman 1984 at home means a lot of people will watch Wonder Woman 1984 at home, which means they will sell far fewer tickets. Significance: It will cost WarnerMedia a lot of money.
But the company clearly thinks it’s worth giving the audience a reason to subscribe to HBO Max. The streaming service – a combination of old HBO plus a bunch of new stuff – started slowly when it launched this spring, and hopes a new, family-friendly superhero movie will be a reason for people to subscribe over the holidays.
And WarnerMedia needs a lot of people to do that: Its owner, AT&T, has promised Wall Street that it will become one of the dominant streaming services, along with Netflix and Disney. In the end, he will be rewarded or punished based on this performance, not on the short-term performance of his studio. So cutting off some movie revenue now – and upsetting cinemas along the way – will be worth it for WarnerMedia if it can turn HBO Max into a real competitor to Netflix. And if you can not, the money you lose Wonder Woman 1984 it won’t matter much anyway.