Movie theaters need a superhero to save them, but Wonder Woman might not cut it.

Warner Bros. announced Wednesday that Wonder Woman 1984 will debut in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously on Christmas Day, marking another major milestone in the COVID-19 era of cinema. If anything can lure moviegoers back to multiplexes in droves — something Nolan's Tenet, which grossed less than $60 million domestically, couldn't pull off — it would be a superhero movie. But given the undoubtably safer option to watch it at home, and with virus cases surging nationwide, the prospect that fans will flock en masse to WW84 on the big screen is unlikely, to say the least.

"It's going to be a ramshackle theatrical release that won't really do theaters any favors," says Jeff Bock, a senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "With potential superspreading events popping up throughout the remainder of 2020, how many of these theaters will even be open on Dec. 25?"

Still, anything new in theaters, particularly a marquee title like Wonder Woman, can only help business at this point, and Warner Bros. seems to want to throw exhibitors whatever bones it can. In a statement, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar affirmed the company's commitment to the theatrical experience: "We believe giving exhibitors a movie of this nature is important right now," he wrote. "We believe in theaters because hundreds of millions of fans around the world value going to the movies."

Wonder Woman 1984
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Why drop the film on HBO Max, then? "We see an opportunity to do something firmly focused on the fans: give them the power to choose between going to their local cinema or opening on HBO Max," the statement continues.

It's not difficult to see an ulterior motive here. HBO Max reported 8.6 million total subscribers in late October, five months after its May launch — respectable, but feeble compared to the more than 50 million who signed up for Disney+ in its first five months. The lure of WW84 will surely attract many new customers at a moment when WarnerMedia is shifting its primary focus to streaming. Given the current landscape — and "the unequivocal rise to power of streaming in the face of this pandemic," as Bock puts it — the studio is, of course, simply making the best choice for its bottom line. (Also notable: Christmas will feature an event face-off like usual, only now via streaming, with Pixar's Soul set to make a splashy bow on Disney+.)

"Warner Bros. was simply out of options, and in desperate need of a product to compete with Disney+ and Netflix and Amazon," Bock says. "And it doesn't get any bigger than Wonder Woman 1984. You're talking about a superhero blockbuster beaming straight to your TV set. I don't know that we can predict what they're going to do in the future with their films, but this was the right move for right now."

In other words, this is not the ultimate victory of streaming over theaters many have predicted the pandemic will bring. Event movies are still too expensive to produce and market for subscriptions alone to cover their costs (and how many "new subscribers" will cancel HBO Max after watching WW84 before their seven-day free trial is up?). Warner Bros. has also agreed to pull WW84 from HBO Max after a month of release, to give theaters at least a limited window of exclusivity, although it's doubtful whether that will make much of a difference. (In the month after that, the film will be available on PVOD.) Until a substantial chunk of audiences feel safe enough to return to multiplexes, this may signal a new path forward for some titles in limbo.

In the interim, even with any boost WW84 might provide, movie theaters are going to continue struggling. The promising results coming out of COVID vaccine trials are surely giving exhibitors some hope, but experts still predict the return to normalcy will be slow and halting. The only true saving grace for cinemas would come in the form of the subsidies that theater owners have been begging Congress to grant for months. If the theatrical experience as we know it is to continue, its heroes will be wearing suits, not capes.

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