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Wonder Woman 1984’s streaming release strategy seems bad for everyone

For weeks, Wonder Woman 1984 has been the last remaining blockbuster on the 2020 calendar. The obstinate holdouts No Time to Die, Black Widow, and Death on the Nile long ago fled for the warmer climes of 2021, while Wonder Woman 1984 has conspicuously clung to its already much-delayed Dec. 25 release date, prompting speculation about what Warner Bros. might do with the film.

Now we know: Wonder Woman 1984 will be released both theatrically and to WarnerMedia’s streaming service, HBO Max, where it will be available for a month. It’s a radical move, surpassing other studios’ more modest attempts to shorten theatrical windows, and has the potential to upend the entire industry. It’s also a terrible decision for everyone involved.

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar has been surprisingly candid about the studio’s motivations: “While we will pay attention to theatrical revenues, our expectations are clearly adjusted due to COVID-19,” he wrote in an announcement to fans. “In parallel, we will be paying close attention to the numbers of families and fans diving into HBO Max.” He further wondered if “it is possible” for Wonder Woman 1984 to be seen by four million fans on opening day, as 2017’s Wonder Woman was, “between theaters and HBO Max.”

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Experts have already poked holes in that way of thinking. “[T]his is the definition of short-term pain for long-term gain,” wrote Bloomberg‘s Lucas Shaw in his newsletter earlier this week, speculating that the company might pursue a hybrid release model. But, he added, “the only way this works for WarnerMedia is if the company not only convinces millions of people to sign up for HBO Max because of Wonder Woman 1984, but keeps them around … Otherwise, it’s a financial disaster.”

The move is a “kick directly in the teeth” of movie theaters, too, Indiewire writes. While a delay would have given cash-strapped exhibitors the possibility of seeing quite a bit of money from a tentpole like Wonder Woman 1984 next year, assuming movie-going eventually becomes safer, releasing it while theaters remain closed in the country’s largest markets of Los Angeles and New York is a cruel blow. Though some theater-owners have nevertheless celebrated the studio’s move, CNN has a more sober outlook: “[P]utting Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max, even for just one month, is a blow to exhibitors, which are desperate for … exclusive films they can play in their theaters.”

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Surely fans are the ones who ultimately win here? The hybrid model means we’ll get to see Wonder Woman 1984 sooner, and without a premium price tag to boot. But for those who love movies, the seismic shift in the industry is ominous. One day there won’t be a pandemic, but we’ll still have to live with the consequences of this year’s slippery slope. That could mean a future where theaters are obsolete or secondary as studios increasingly take distribution into their own hands.

“There’s no question that the world is changing,” Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at comScore, told Wired in 2016, when these discussions were still largely theoretical. “At the end of the day, the consumer will decide if they’re willing to pay. But it won’t be the same experience as seeing the movie in a theater … That’s a singular experience.”