Wonder Woman 1984 (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Christmas is often one of the most popular times of year to gather the family and watch a new movie, and this holiday was no different. The biggest distinction, however, is that the season’s biggest releases — “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Soul” — battled for streaming service subscribers rather than box office dollars.
“Wonder Woman 1984,” the superhero sequel starring Gal Gadot, broke from industry tradition as the first Warner Bros. movie to debut on the company’s streaming service HBO Max — and in select movie theaters — on the same day. The movie was available to subscribers at no extra charge. Pixar’s “Soul,” featuring the vocal talents of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey and Daveed Diggs, debuted exclusively on Disney Plus in the U.S. and other countries where the streaming service is available. In China, where Disney Plus isn’t accessible, “Soul” is playing on the big screen.
Yet despite many opting to watch Gal Gadot’s latest outing as Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, from the comfort of their couches, “Wonder Woman 1984” generated surprisingly robust ticket sales — at least for pandemic times. The film collected $16.7 million from 2,100 North American theaters, half of the domestic footprint that would normally greet a blockbuster of its size. It’s a steep fall from the debut of 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” which grossed more than $100 million from 4,100 screens in its first weekend of release. But then, the DC heroine wasn’t battling a world-altering pandemic that resulted in mass theater closures. Currently, only 35% of U.S. cinemas are open at limited capacity, with those in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia closed due to the global health crisis.
Traditionally, an opening weekend tally just shy of $17 million would be catastrophic, if not downright embarrassing, for a film of “Wonder Woman 1984’s” size. Today, those box office grosses give “Wonder Woman 1984” bragging rights for the biggest opening weekend haul in the coronavirus era. Even more impressive: it outperformed Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic “Tenet,” which debuted to $9.35 million in September when 70% of theaters had reopened. “Wonder Woman 1984’s” Christmas showing gave Warner Bros. the confidence to fast-track a third entry, which is newly in the works with Gadot and director Patty Jenkins.
Overseas, “Wonder Woman 1984” made another $19.4 million from 42 countries. The movie, which touched down at the international box office last weekend, has grossed $85 million worldwide to date. The follow-up will earn far less than the original “Wonder Woman,” which ended its theatrical run with a mighty $822 million worldwide. David A. Gross, who runs movie consultancy FranchiseRe, predicts that “Wonder Woman 1984” earnings may tap out 78% below that of the first film if the sequel continues on its current trajectory. That would see box office revenues lose steam at around $180 million globally. Before “Wonder Woman 1984” was delayed numerous times because of the pandemic, it was widely expected to reach the billion-dollar mark.
“The majority of moviegoers and fans have little choice but to watch the film on television,” notes Gross, who referred to “Wonder Woman” as a “potential theatrical crown jewel” but called the sequel’s international interest “weak.”
In the U.S., a significant amount of ticket sales came from private watch parties. Over the weekend, more than 10,000 private rentals were sold, which allowed customers to rent out a screening room at AMC, Cinemark and other cinema chains. Private watch parties cost around $100 and accommodate between 10 and 20 people.
“[Private watch parties] are really sensational,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution. “It’s a real testament to exhibitors’ ingenuity and showmanship.”
Warner Bros. offered slightly more transparency on streaming numbers (though stopped short of reporting any actual figures) compared to companies like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus, which essentially conceal all tangible information on home entertainment viewership. AT&T, the parent company of Warner Bros. and WarnerMedia, said nearly half of HBO Max’s retail subscribers viewed the film on Friday alone, along with millions of wholesale subscribers who have access to HBO Max via cable, wireless or other platforms. HBO Max, which launched in May, currently has 12.6 million active users. “Wonder Woman 1984” will be available on HBO Max for one month. After 31 days, the superhero tentpole will be pulled from the streaming service and will only be accessible to see in theaters until it reaches the traditional home entertainment frame.
“‘Wonder Woman 1984’ broke records and exceeded our expectations across all of our key viewing and subscriber metrics in its first 24 hours on the service, and the interest and momentum we’re seeing indicates this will likely continue well beyond the weekend,” said Andy Forssell, WarnerMedia’s head of direct-to-consumer. “During these very difficult times, it was nice to give families the option of enjoying this uplifting film at home, where theater viewing wasn’t an option.”
In pre-pandemic times, it would have been unthinkable to unveil a new blockbuster — especially one with a $200 million production budget — simultaneously in theaters and on a streaming service. But with thousands of U.S. cinemas closed and many people still hesitant to go to the movies, traditional Hollywood studios have been wary of keeping major movies on the big screen without a calculated backup plan. Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with LightShed Partners, called this weekend a “watershed moment for the movie industry.” Warner Bros. will repeat the hybrid strategy for its entire 2021 slate, including “The Matrix 4,” “In the Heights” and “Dune.”
It’s unclear how many people watched “Soul” on Disney Plus. But at the international box office, the existential family film generated $7.6 million from 10 countries. The biggest bounty came from China, with $5.5 million in box office receipts.
Other Christmas offerings at the box office include Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World,” a Western starring Tom Hanks, and Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman,” a revenge thriller with Carey Mulligan. Those films, from Universal Pictures and Focus Features, respectively, are screening solely in theaters with plans to land on premium video-on-demand platforms in several weeks.
“News of the World” premiered in second place on box office charts. It arrived slightly below expectations, collecting $2.4 million from 1,900 theaters over the weekend. Prior to its release, Universal mitigated some of the risks of the current theatrical market by selling international rights to Netflix. The well-reviewed movie follows Hanks’ character, a Civil War veteran who travels from town to town delivering the top headlines. Along the way, he meets a young girl (portrayed by Helena Zengel) who was captured years ago by the Kiowa people, and ventures across dangerous stretches of land to return her home.
“Promising Young Woman” secured fifth place with $680,000 in its first three days of release. The movie, which played in 1,310 venues, had the strongest ticket sales in Dallas, Houston and Austin, as well as Atlanta, Orlando and Miami.
Lisa Bunnell, the president of distribution at Focus Features, said she’s encouraged by the positive reception from ticket buyers. “Promising Young Woman” earned a “B+” CinemaScore from moviegoers and has a 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“We’re thrilled critics and audiences alike have championed the film, Carey, and Emerald’s genre-defying, ferocious story,” Bunnell said. “We’ve been waiting since its electrifying premiere at Sundance last year for audiences to discover ‘Promising Young Woman’ and we’re excited they’re getting to see it in theaters.”
Ranking at No. 3, Universal and DreamWorks’ animated adventure “The Croods: A New Age” pulled in $1.7 million. After five weeks of release, the family film has made $30 million at the domestic box office and $98 million globally.
Sony’s “Monster Hunter,” a fantasy thriller with Milla Jovovich, came in fourth place with $1.12 million, bringing its total to $4.2 million.
The theatrical landscape has been unstable in recent months, to say the least. Yet box office analysts point to “Wonder Woman 1984’s” better-than-expected start as a sign that the film exhibition industry will recover in a post-pandemic world.
“The pandemic-era release of ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ was a grand experiment and a real nail-biter [that] had the whole industry on the edge of its seat,” said Paul Dergarabedia, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “Movie theaters more than held their own with what should be viewed as a stellar result and a victory for the big screen given the at home, one click away availability of the film for folks who opted to literally stay home for the holidays.”
Variety's Rebecca Rubin contributed to this post.