Wonder Woman 1984 may go to HBO Max shortly after cinema opening

The film, starring Gal Gadot, is currently scheduled to open in cinemas on Dec 25. PHOTO: WONDER WOMAN/FACEBOOK

LOS ANGELES (BLOOMBERG) - Wonder Woman 1984, the only big movie still scheduled to debut in cinemas this year, may appear on AT&T's HBO Max just a week or two after its release, according to people familiar with the matter, a move that could help the new streaming service add subscribers quickly and keep theatres open at the same time.

AT&T's WarnerMedia is in the final stages of deliberations over the fate of the film, which is currently scheduled to open in cinemas on Christmas Day. While the studio could delay the movie until next year, the quick-to-home-video release is another option gaining support, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.

The plans have not been set and could change, they said, adding that some cinema owners are open to the idea in this instance.

Releasing a movie such as Wonder Woman 1984 at home so soon after it appears in theatres would have been unthinkable earlier this year. The movie was expected to be one of the summer's biggest hits, a follow-up to a film that grossed US$821.8 million (S$1.1 billion) worldwide in 2017 and starred Gal Gadot as the titular character.

But the coronavirus pandemic has forced Hollywood to rewrite its playbook.

New WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar is looking to accelerate subscriber growth at HBO Max, its six-month-old competitor to Netflix and a key focus for future growth.

An online release of a big DC Comics superhero movie right after Christmas could fuel sign-ups. The service finished the third quarter with 8.6 million active users. Together, the HBO pay-TV network and HBO Max have 38 million American customers and 57 million worldwide.

While cinemas have criticised studios for releasing new movies at home so soon after they appears in theatres, they may be willing to relax their objections in this case.

More theatres risk closing for the rest of the year if Warner Bros delays Wonder Woman 1984, an unwelcome thought for chains already teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Additionally, in exchange for shortening the time between the film's theatrical and online release, Warner Bros may make a payment to theatre owners, the people said.

Unlike its competitors, Warner Bros has been steadfast in sticking with theatrical releases during the pandemic.

While most major movies have been delayed or put online faster than normal, the studio chose to debut the US$200 million (S$270-million) Tenet in theatres in September.

But with many locations closed and audiences reluctant to attend those that were open, the Christopher Nolan movie stumbled, with American cinemas contributing just US$55.1 million to its US$350.8 million globally.

Warner Bros declined to comment.

Not much has changed since Tenet came out. If anything, conditions for a theatrical run have deteriorated. The United States has seen a rise in coronavirus cases over the past few weeks, leading to further restrictions on gatherings. Cineworld Group's Regal, the No. 2 chain in the US, has closed all of its domestic locations indefinitely.

Other big chains are now open but are struggling without any big films to draw audiences. Mr Adam Aron, chief executive officer of AMC Entertainment Holdings, the largest US theatre circuit, said on a Nov 2 earnings call that the studio was still working to put the movie out as planned on Christmas Day.

However, he said nothing was guaranteed due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, and that he is focused on raising enough equity to allow the chain to survive until a vaccine is distributed.

Cinemas are not the only one who have opposed at-home releases. Many filmmakers prefer to see their work on the big screen, and actors often get paid bonuses based on a film's financial performance in theatres.

But Warner Bros' fellow studios have already solved that. Walt Disney, once the biggest opponent of online movies, has released Hamilton and Mulan for viewers at home.

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