Case 10 – Wonder Woman 1984: A Post-Pandemic Release Strategy

Friday March 13th: Hollywood’s last stand before pulling most major releases from the schedule.

One of the last movies released was a mid-range Blumhouse film, The Hunt. It made a few bucks, shuffled quickly onto premium Video On Demand and despite its pedigree, wasn’t very good.

Friday November 13th, Universal released a Blumhouse movie: ‘Freaky‘. The film has made $3 and-a-half million, enough to eclipse last weekend’s top winner (another Universal release, third week in a row.) ‘Let Him Go‘ starring Superman’s parents [Kevin Costner & Diane Lane].

A far cry from The Invisible Man, but Universal’s new releases are the first steps on the box office’s painful road to recovery.

Studios would be prudent to embrace lower expectations, accept that record-breaking theater receipts will not arrive for some time.

Coronavirus has effectively derailed forty years of box-office progress. Unadjusted we are living gross-wise in the 1970’s and 80’s. Studios like Universal and Warner Brothers, who will release Wonder Woman 1984 this Christmas should expect performances more in line with its year’s namesake (WW’84) and 1978’s Superman: The Movie, than the likes of their famous friends Batman, Joker and maybe even Harley Quinn.

With the pandemic infecting over 140,000 Americans a day nobody is anxious to get back to the theater. The last major release: TENET came in under expectations while posting decent overseas numbers. Even with programs like ‘Cinema Safe‘, and no COVID cases people are smart enough not to go out and take an unnecessary risk. There are a few die hards in non overrun areas (I went to see TENET, with one active case in the region) that can risk going while the rest stay home safe. What Hollywood accountants should do is brush up on Box Office history.

To ensure Wonder Woman’s success, Warner Brothers should turn away from Batman to Superman.

Wonder Woman (1984), The Dark Knight (2008), Superman (1978)

As far as 2020 goes, Wonder Woman 1984 is the last major movie of the year scheduled. Set for release on December 25th, it is a legitimate four-quadrant film lying in wait; a release theaters desperately need. This sequel has been sitting on the shelf while valuable merchandising and publicity lines fade. Can it reproduce any sort of the success the first hit had? No, but it can still provide a reasonable stream of revenue. Maybe it can get an awards push for extra dollars given the light competition, but Hollywood must figure out a way for industry’s sake to make that work.

Superman: The Movie was released in 508 theaters in December of 1978. Set within the same DC myth as Wonder Woman and Batman, I’m not sure if this release is on WB shareholders minds, but back then it became the highest grossing and most profitable release Warner Brothers had. In its first week it made $12 million. A then record equivalent to about $48 million today. [That is $6 million more than Harley Quinn made in February. “Disappointing” numbers Hollywood would be clamoring for now.]

Superman came out at a time when movies built up and rolled out releases CAREFULLY in limited expansion. The same way Academy Award films do now but with a less competitive marketplace and a longer time in theaters. [It was only in 2010 Disney decided to move the theatrical window to 3 months with Alice In Wonderland] Tenet‘s two month performance had an unheard of five-week number one reign (not done since AVATAR). Where is the optimism for that? Wonder Woman has the benefit of being the only major 2020 planned release remaining, and given WB’s distribution pipeline, Diana Prince could save the day. An old-fashioned carefully planned and limited rollout with a high priced premium VOD return. A well timed HBO Max release could possibly stride through Hollywood’s No Man’s Land of releases. At the very least it will let most of us hide safely in the trenches while theaters get their shot.

Considering Christmas is the busiest movie going day and week of the year we could expect with reduced capacity and maximum market share for WW’84 it could make around $48 million in a week. With a good multiplier brought on by a lack of competition and a record number of screens I believe we can optimistically expect a $130 million domestic total, (65% of the film’s budget), or at least enough international gross alone to cover budget and marketing expenses at $330 million before shares. With that Wonder Woman 1984, can be the Superman of today, for movie theaters and movie goers if marked to suit the time.

That projection is close to what Tenet has made internationally but Wonder Woman is likely to do better all around with a more crowd pleasing film, opening in a bigger international market than even the original Wonder Woman did in 2017. Despite the pandemic WW’84 still would have most screens (estimated 5-10 per theatre average) to itself. I will be optimistic and say we are halfway through this pandemic even though COVID cases and infection rates are still rising, but Hollywood cannot delay its releases forever. Eventually they will bleed too much money. Despite Disney’s streaming success they cannot swing a $706 million loss. The pandemic has pushed some Hollywood releases online to HBO Max, Netflix and Apple, yet the overall impression remains in an unmanageable and unimaginative holding pattern. Waiting for a ‘return to normal’ isn’t realistic given how this pandemic has panned out. To quote the Joker:

There’s no going back. You’ve changed things… Forever!

COVID-19 has indeed changed things. I rewatched the sublime Dark Knight over the summer and it holds up. With its dark, heightened realism, the film ends on an optimistic note. This is Hollywood after all. We need that optimism, but we also need to understand times have changed. An energetic record breaking event like Batman or more recently Joker that shocks the masses into movie going is not guaranteed. The next possible exception being AVATAR 2 in 2022. It may be years before new records (at least in North America) are broken at the box office.

I’ll give Warner Brothers this: they remain steadfast in their commitment to the theatrical model. The director of The Dark Knight and WB delivered a blockbuster attempt earlier this year despite COVID-19. TENET made $350 million worldwide, $300 million of which was made overseas. Wonder Woman 1984 has the same Producer (Charles Roven), Composer (Hans Zimmer) and Costume Designer (Lindy Hemming) as The Dark Knight and might get the theatrical ball rolling again. But expectations have to be managed. With a simultaneous HBO Max release WW’84 could still be capable of grossing around $100 million domestic. Remember when that was a blockbuster figure and not a bullet point (besides flops like A Wrinkle in Time and Evan Almighty?) That $100 million is nowhere close to the $400 mill the original made. But it’s still a significant revenue stream. Hollywood has got to find a way to make that work. Evidenced by Tenet‘s international release, Wonder Woman, with a wider demographic, a hopefully improved health climate, and perhaps a potentially better film, could match the original’s international total for a healthy $500 million worldwide. $500 million? That’s not nothing.

In short: The record breaking numbers of recent DC figures (Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn) might be out of reach, but the box-office lessons and moviegoing methods their movies imparted do not have to leave with them.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Pajokka says:

    Waiting the release…


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