Wonder Woman and her golden lasso are sure to best a collection of foes when she blasts onto the big screen on Christmas Day. However, the DC Comics superhero may not have as much success at the box office.
“Wonder Woman 1984” opened to slow sales in international markets last weekend, and — with most U.S. theaters closed — it’s certain to generate just a fraction of the $412.8 million in domestic ticket revenue that the first installment in the series brought in three years ago.
That may not be so bad for AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros., the studio behind the $200 million film. “Wonder Woman 1984” is also debuting on HBO Max on Christmas Day, and should spur sign-ups to the new streaming service. But it shows just how bleak things are for exhibitors.
Theater chains, including market leader AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., are teetering on bankruptcy after a financially devastating 2020 — with ticket sales down almost 80% as of last weekend. At the start of the year, cinema owners hoped big new family films would kick off a triumphant surge in admissions. The performance of “Wonder Woman” shows how rocky the path back to financial health will be.
“Audiences are remaining cautious until vaccines are widely available,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro. With HBO Max offering on-demand screenings to subscribers at no extra cost, “many people are likely to take advantage of that.”
“Wonder Woman 1984” is expected to generate $10 million to $15 million in domestic sales over the first weekend, Boxoffice Pro estimates, or just a sliver of the $103.3 million its predecessor brought in with its debut. Opening in 32 markets last weekend, including China and Brazil, the film generated $38 million in ticket sales. That was about half what analysts expected, especially since the movie wasn’t available for streaming.
Analysts have warned that box-office receipts are especially hard to predict in the Covid-19 era, with theaters subject to a patchwork of frequently changing restrictions. About two-thirds of U.S. theaters are closed, and those that are open must limit ticket sales to allow for social distancing. Domestic ticket sales this year amounted to $2.24 billion as of last weekend, down from $10.7 billion a year earlier, according to Comscore Inc.
Still, the DC superhero movie represents an important restart for the dormant box office. Only one major film had made a theatrical debut since the pandemic began. “Tenet,” also produced and distributed by Warner Bros., came out in September. The reception was tepid, prompting further delays of big movies and some significant changes in the way films are released.
Normally, hot new movies show exclusively on the big screen for up to 90 days before they’re marketed for rental and purchase. Warner Bros. and theater chains hashed out a new agreement for “Wonder Woman.” In exchange for allowing the film to also open the same day on HBO Max, theaters will get a bigger cut of ticket sales, which they share with studios. In the future, all movies will be probably subject to such individual negotiations, both cinema and studio executives have said.
Some other, smaller-budget movies will also make their debuts in theaters this weekend, including “News of the World,” a post-Civil War drama starring Tom Hanks, and “Promising Young Woman,” a thriller starring Carey Mulligan. Both are from Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures, which forged agreements with theaters earlier this year to make its films available online for purchase and rental as soon as 17 days after they appear in cinemas.
“Wonder Woman” will also go toe-to-toe with family fare on other streaming services. Walt Disney Co. released the animated feature “Soul” on Friday on Disney+, one of several films the company diverted to streaming because of the theatrical shutdown. The entertainment giant, like AT&T’s WarnerMedia, spent the pandemic investing in its Disney+ online brand, making it even harder to predict how popular movies will do in theaters once they fully reopen. “Soul” also is playing in theaters in some overseas markets, including China.
”We’ll have to continue waiting until next year to truly gauge how studios feel about this strategy and for how much longer they’ll deem it necessary,” Robbins said. “This film alone may not be a great barometer to go by.”