In case you missed the news late last week, Warner Bros. has announced that Wonder Woman 1984—its biggest film of the year—is finally locked in for a December 25 release after months of will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth. Interestingly—and completely in line with the studio’s inability to take a firm stance on anything this year—the movie is being released both in commercial cinemas and on HBO Max on the same day.
If you didn’t know any better, you might think this is a good move. It makes the comic-book blockbuster free-to-stream for anyone who subscribes to Warner’s premium over-the-top service; and on the surface, it seems like a more charitable release than was given to Tenet, which was foisted on commercial cinemas at a time when most of them were closed.
There’s just one problem: WarnerMedia simply hasn’t done the work required to make HBO Max a viable release platform for any first-run movie, much less one with this much potential. I covered most of the reasons why in my last rant about the service: The esoteric and labyrinthine signup process, the confusing nomenclature, the fact that on the eve of 2021 a major studio’s premier streaming platform is still living in 2015 by failing to offer 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos audio.
The thing is, conditions are actually much worse on the ground than I made them look in that column. According to Variety, as of late September, HBO Max only had a reported 9 million subscribers, give or take, as compared with 73 million subscribers for Disney+. That’s pitiful, but this is devastating: According to the story, 70 percent of HBO subscribers—who have access to HBO Max as part of their pay subscription—haven’t even bothered to claim their free HBO Max accounts.
Mind you, I’m sure Warner believes WW84 will give HBO Max a huge boost, and its cat-petting executives are
probably counting dollar signs as they fall asleep, in anticipation of a huge influx of new subscriptions. But if you can’t get 70 percent of HBO subscribers to take an HBO Max login—for free—then how do you expect to con people into paying $15 for a service that’s only available in HD? And heaven help those poor souls who decide to sign up for a 7-day free trial right before the launch of the new Wonder Woman movie, only to discover how difficult it is to access the service. (Remember, it’s still not available on Roku, by far the most popular streaming platform in the world.)
Simply put, if you thought Warner Bros. set Tenet up to fail in the U.S. by overhyping it and then releasing it in the midst of a pandemic, imagine how much worse things are going to be for WW84. On the day Tenet hit cinemas, we in the Colonies saw approximately 47,000 confirmed new SARS-CoV-2 infections. IHME’s conservative model currently predicts we’ll see between ~365,000 and ~543,000 new infections on Christmas Day alone, if current trends continue.
The best-case scenario here is that people will be ten times less likely to go see WW84 in cinemas. But guess what the entertainment headlines will be the next day if that scenario plays out? “Wonder Woman 1984 Bombs at the Box Office!” Logic be damned, the takeaway for most people seeing those headlines will be that the movie just isn’t worth watching, and its fate will be all but sealed.
I would imagine Warner’s response to that will be, “But look how many new HBO Max subscriptions we picked up!” And I suppose that’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. But given that Pixar is releasing Soul the same day to the much-more-popular Disney+, I’m betting that cartoon’s viewership numbers will be the far bigger headline in the streaming news.
So, what could Warner have done differently? Any number of things. The ideal option would have been to build HBO Max from the ground up to support decent audio and video quality and not make it so damned difficult to access. Barring that, I think a much better option would have been to release the movie to high-quality digital platforms like Vudu and Kaleidescape on Christmas Day for $20 or $30 or $40—in glorious 4K HDR—and announce that it would be hitting HBO Max for free three or four weeks later. And for goodness’ sake, skip the theatrical exhibition altogether.
That would have allowed those of us who actually value reference-quality audiovisual home cinema presentations to enjoy the movie Day One, plague-free; it would have netted Warner Bros. far more in profits; and it would have also made them look like the good guys for following up with a free-to-stream option so quickly thereafter.
Instead, I don’t think I’m going far out on a limb here in predicting the studio’s half-ass-it-and-they-will-come approach to WW84‘s release is ultimately going to be the thing that keeps it from performing to its full potential.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.