Yesterday, it was officially announced that the last big studio blockbuster of 2020 would be releasing December 25th on both HBO Max (free to subscribers) and in limited theatrical markets (unclear how many screens they’ll have), the latter still seems like a bonkers move considering the U.S. is on the brink of another hospital disaster as COVID-19 cases skyrocket. A home option is great but this puts Warner Bros. in position to take another loss as it’ll be extremely tough for the pricey film to recoup costs or even turn a profit at this point.
Obviously, WarnerMedia just wants to get the movie out there in the world and stop gobbling-up prime release dates in 2021 for 2020 movies collecting dust after already bouncing both Godzilla vs Kong and Dune out of the 2020 schedule. 2021’s lineup is already going to see multiple films bumped to 2022 and taking one more piece of the board will likely save them a bit money from a marketing standpoint.
It’s easy to assume that offering up Wonder Woman 1984 for free to subscribers is meant to avoid the bungled streaming release of Disney’s Mulan that had access only to Disney+ subscribers but they had to spend an extra $29.99 on top of their sub fees and only wait until December to get the film for free. Mulan had been hailed as a “success” early on by folks trying to do imaginary math, putting the cart before the horse, only later to be revealed as a bit of disaster for the studio and Disney took a massive loss then pivoted to allow larger access to purchase it digitally, a sign the Disney+ only access wasn’t terribly profitable.
Streaming doesn’t have a box office tally and the only real gauge will be how many subscribers HBO Max was able to keep and add in the weeks after Wonder Woman 1984 is added to the service. I don’t really imagine WarnerMedia is going share the drop-off numbers.
The problem is that HBO Max is mostly a U.S. based streaming service and there is a good chance that in countries where WarnerMedia has made deals with foreign media companies to distribute their content. To me, it feels like the company believes that offering the free for free will lead to a mass drive in new domestic subscriptions, sure, but that number could look inflated (streaming data is sketchy as it is) as we’ll likely won’t know how many people dropped their new subscriptions in the following months.
While adding more access in the United States is great they’re still limited on how many subscribers they could likely add by not being a bigger international player along with not really being able to compete with Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+ on the scale.
In my own case, I’m located in Canada and HBO Max isn’t here because WarnerMedia has had a longstanding deal with Bell Media’s Crave to distribute their HBO content along with the new HBO Max stuff as well. This means that people like myself with Crave might be getting Wonder Woman 1984 with zero dollars going to HBO Max directly, it’s not just Canada as these sort of foreign content deals have kept the streaming service out of multiple countries.
I wouldn’t be shocked if they eventually announce a third PVOD option because I don’t really see how they’re going to earn any money at the box office in late December and throughout early 2021. It’s worth reminding people that Warner Bros. only earned a poultry $56.3 million domestically from the release of their Christopher Nolan blockbuster Tenet and theaters are expected to be in rougher shape over the winter, not just domestically but globally. December and throughout January it doesn’t seem likely that the U.S., Canada, UK, Europe, and other markets will be in the kind of shape due to rising COVID-19 cases to even give the studio the international box office that Tenet saw months back which wasn’t great to begin with.
I’m not sure how many more box office hits Warner Bros. can take before something drastic happens concerning employees as WarnerMedia/AT&T is tinkering with their distribution of massive films (WW84’s budget is said to be in the $200 million range) leading to limited/zero profit on films that should be earning $600 million to a billion dollars is only going to lead to more damage to the studio side and could only get worse in 2021. They’ve already cut a bunch of jobs from the marketing department.
We don’t really know how consumers are going to ultimately react to Wonder Woman 1984 being added to the service outside of loyal fans of the franchise who likely already have HBO Max subscriptions, as do most die-hard DC Comics fans. It’s a single film and hardly comparable to something like an exclusive original ongoing series like The Mandalorian.
I also think it’ll be difficult for them to keep Wonder Woman 1984 from digital and PVOD given that access to HBO Max is limited internationally. I’m not even going to get into the obvious issue of having a pristine HD copy of a massive studio film hitting torrenting sites on the same day as it’s drop date, although, being free on HBO Max might cut down on domestic downloading but not on the international side.
This just feels like a short-term win for fans but at the expense of Warner Bros. ability to actually make money from the film and could add to the harm to the studio if 2021 doesn’t improve in a big bad way.