Following months of delays and all-encompassing uncertainty, Warner Bros have announced recently that their newest addition to the beleaguered DC Cinematic Universe, Wonder Woman 1984, would finally see the light of day this Christmas. Interestingly however, in contravention to widely acknowledged norm, it will be simultaneously released in US cinemas (where it is safe to do so) as well as on HBO Max, where it will be available to stream from the comfort of your home. This immediately invites a question: what does this mean for the future of theatrical experience?
Not too long ago, a different Warner production, Christopher Nolan-directed juggernaut Tenet was facing a similar predicament. Massive delays and increasing global instability brought about by the raging pandemic must have led to a series of rather interesting top-level conversations between studio executives, producers, distributors and the filmmaker himself, as nobody seemed to have a clue how to roll out a massively expensive blockbuster with an expectation to make a profit. It was projected at the time Tenet would have to bring in in excess of 1 billion dollars to be seen as profitable. Naturally, because US cinemas were shut at the time, some must have insisted for the film to be released on VOD platforms, either exclusively or in conjunction with a theatrical run in other global markets which weren’t as badly hit by the pandemic at the time.
As we all know, this didn’t happen and many people think the decision to push on with a sole theatrical run (with European markets releasing first and the US following some weeks later) was heavily influenced by Christopher Nolan’s personal views. He is well known in the industry as a religious traditionalist when it comes to film production, as he remains one of the last champions of shooting on film, using IMAX cameras and refraining from using CGI special effects whenever possible. Therefore, the stubborn insistence to release Tenet in cinemas (with a set of strange caveats, such as excluding drive-in theaters) and hoping the film would invigorate the public to venture out to see it despite a public health emergency running roughshod over the Western world can be likely attributed to Nolan’s own influence. As of now, the box office take for Tenet stands at 353 million dollars, worldwide. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the film’s release strategy was botched at best and most likely fundamentally wrong.
The decision to release Wonder Woman 1984 theatrically and on a streaming service at the same time might be an attempt to draw conclusions from that costly Tenet debacle. On paper, it looks like the most logical strategy currently available, as it tries to find some kind of balance in the new landscape shaped decisively by the pandemic. It goes without saying that cinemas worldwide are suffering and they surely could use any help they can get, but even in the relatively unaffected markets there isn’t anything new for them to show. In fact, just a few short hours ago, Cineworld UK (who had been able to stay open throughout most of the summer and autumn until the most recent national lockdown) announced they might have to close some of their venues to avoid insolvency; after all, indie darlings and classic re-releases don’t bring the same crowds as The Avengers. Although the Wonder Woman 1984 announcement only pertains to the US for the time being (and HBO Max is not available elsewhere), it is likely the film will be made available in other markets as well, contingent on local restrictions. And if it makes enough money to break even, it might potentially lead to a paradigm shift in the industry further down the line.
On the other hand, the recent release of Mulan as a Disney+ exclusive (available for an additional rental fee on top of a monthly subscription) suggests that moving blockbuster releases entirely onto streaming platforms might not be the way to go either. Although it was initially hailed as a success, it might not have been enough to turn enough of a profit in the short-to-medium term. Naturally, Disney saw a massive surge in new subscription to the service (an increase in their steady monthly revenue). In addition, some of the overhead costs traditionally accompanying a theatrical release could be scrapped or severely reduced, but it might not have been enough to call Mulan release an out-and-out success.
It must be remembered that Hollywood producers see these big productions predominantly as investments. They are called ‘tentpoles’ for a reason. It would seem that no longer than a week ago I ranted from a sedentary position about the way the landscape is shifting already in response to the rise of streaming giants and their appetite to attract bankable auteurs by way of giving them complete control. This way, big studios have consolidated control over theatrically-run blockbusters, while streaming platforms have successfully fenced off the more artistically-audacious and risky projects normally financed through independent channels.
Now the ground is shifting again because the release of Wonder Woman 1984 can potentially undermine this new status quo. If successful, this release strategy might encourage others to follow, which will most definitely bring some more uncertainty to the table and upset the still fresh balance of power. Pandemic notwithstanding, theaters have already been running an extremely tight profit margin and what might happen as a result is a worldwide wave of cinema closures because a portion of what could have been their revenue will be funneled through streaming platforms instead. It is likely that once the COVID crisis is sorted out, things might get back to relative normality, but the culture will have been irreversibly changed by then. Cinemas will be more scarce and people will have grown accustomed to the possibility of watching their favourite escapist entertainment from the comfort of their own home.
If, on the other hand, the hybrid release of Wonder Woman 1984 does not work out and the film fails to make money, then a different kind of catastrophe will loom over the film industry. This is because major studios are already sitting on billions of dollars invested in completed projects that they will not be able to market. If they can’t capitalize on them, there won’t be enough money in the pot to maintain liquidity and to finance future projects. Outside investors will likely stay away due to high associated risk and studios will either crumble or reinvent themselves. And cinemas will follow because there won’t be anything for them to show.
Whichever way you look at it, the world might not be the same this time next year. Admittedly, Hollywood only constitutes a part of what the film industry is globally, but its influence on it is undeniable. It is quite clear that something needs to be done at this point and holding one’s breath is not a good long-term strategy for survival under water. Therefore, I sincerely hope that Wonder Woman 1984 makes enough money from its experimental release to (1) keep cinemas afloat, (2) reinvigorate confidence in major studios to keep the wheels turning, (3) force others to follow suit and release No Time To Die or Dune under similar circumstances (even if it means that some exhibitors will have to restructure their business model) and (4) to make sure Christopher Nolan is unable to say ‘I told you so’. If the man’s ego gets any bigger, it might honestly collapse under its own gravity and become a supermassive black hole. And nobody wants that.