Long Range Box Office Forecast: The Implications of Wonder Woman 1984‘s Day-and-Date Christmas Release

Photo Credits: Matthew Jensen & Warner Bros. ("Wonder Woman 1984")

After weeks of seeming inevitable, we now know the distribution fate of Wonder Woman 1984 is that of a hybrid December 25 release.

Industry news outlets and blogs are awash with speculation surrounding what Warner Bros.’ strategy of a simultaneous streaming release alongside the film’s theatrical debut means for movies and movie theaters. It’s the latest development in a year filled with speculation, uncertainty, unease, and then more speculation.

The bad news, quite obviously, is this means the highly anticipated sequel — previously touted in our own internal forecasts and those of other industry watchers as a candidate to earn $1 billion-plus at the global box office, and potentially become the highest grossing film of the year — won’t play anywhere near as large of a role in theatrical recovery as it could have.

It’s a shame for cinema lovers, particularly given what director Patty Jenkins accomplished as the first film became the highest-grossing female-directed movie in history — earning $412.6 million domestically and nearly $822 million globally.

After multiple delays of the sequel, though, the studio and its parent company ran out of time and faced the reality of needing to generate revenue in the short term. (There are other speculative factors relating to their parent company’s fledgling streaming services needs, but that’s a conversation for another day and another arena.)

The good news, however, is that the studio didn’t pull the film from theatrical. By avoiding the step Disney took over the summer to release Mulan exclusively on its own streaming service with a premium charge, Warner Bros. has at least shown its continuing commitment to support theaters in some capacity as the industry careens toward what health experts expect to be the worst period of this pandemic during the holidays and into early 2021.

As a result of the studio’s strategy, exhibitors able and choosing to remain open during this time have another lifeline thrown their way to help keep the lights on until brighter days come — hopefully in springtime and early summer of the approaching new year.

News of multiple vaccines and their strong efficacies have lifted spirits for cinema owners in ways that can’t be overstated, though distribution and months of waiting out this health and economic crisis must be endured before the fruits of those developments will be felt in a tangible way.

The Box Office Hole Left by Wonder Woman 1984

Projecting what Wonder Woman 1984 can generate at the domestic — or global — box office is arguably the most difficult prognostication to make of any film since… well, since the last time a major studio attempted to release a tentpole film. It almost seems like ages have passed, but that was the same studio with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet nearly three months ago. Domestic results were far below even cautious hopes thanks to a myriad of problems both inside and outside the greater movie ecosystem, although its respectable overseas performance helped make up for that soft landing to some extent.

Given Tenet‘s performance is still challenging to qualify due to the circumstances on its shoulders, modeling for Wonder Woman 1984‘s forthcoming and unprecedented release pattern is going to depend on a litany of factors — not the least of which include fluid developments of regional curfews, lockdowns, and/or temporary theater closures that may pop up over the next five weeks as the country — and the world, in some cases — continues to face daily records of new COVID-19 cases.

What can be said with reasonable certainty, albeit a fair amount of excessive caution, is that a box office performance similar to Tenet‘s is possible… but not guaranteed. In fact, it wouldn’t be shocking if Nolan’s film ends up the higher box office performer on either a domestic or global level. Remember, it was exclusive to theaters — and has been for nearly three months now.

While many consumers are expressively ready for a return to theaters when a vaccine is available, there is no guarantee fans will skip the cautious option just a few weeks from now and rush out for opening weekend like would be expected for a film of this type under normal circumstances. This is, yet again, completely foreign territory.

Could the film exceed our initial domestic box office expectations (in the chart below)? Absolutely. Could it miss them? That’s possible too. We’re in the wild west on this one. Comparison-based models mean nothing at the moment. There was no at-home option for Tenet, there was no domestic in-theater option for Mulan, and now there are both for Wonder Woman 1984.

The Glass Half Full?

That latter fact is a particular sticking point for anyone concerned about the precedent this move may or may not set. However, another upside to all of this is that although not everyone agrees, high profile voices of the exhibition industry, such as the Independent Cinema Alliance and AMC’s Adam Aron, have come out in support of Warner’s move to stick with cinemas (in some capacity).

It’s a very different tone than was heard before and after AMC’s landmark deal with Universal was reached over the summer, but one that suggests some understanding and groundwork for fair compromises. That’s partly because the financial situation has become increasingly dire, partly because Warner has already made a bold commitment to support cinemas once before with Tenet, and partly because cooler heads are emerging in the evolution of theatrical windows during a pandemic that increasingly requires one-off, risk-taking strategies to keep all parties in the equation afloat until something resembling normal times return. Then, and only then, can long-term evolutions be reasonably addressed.

While various observers less favorable to moviegoing, or aware of the importance of the theatrical business than others, may be quick to launch an “I told you so” victory lap, the reality is that no one foresaw a pandemic bringing this and many other industries to their knees so suddenly. How can anyone possibly see into a crystal ball and know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a vacuum of competition and choices will erase a century-long business model and cultural pillar from the face of the earth?

The answer is simple: no one can, just as no one can predict exactly which path a recovery to moviegoing will take. We can reasonably guess, we can follow the sentiment of moviegoers already eager to return, and we can do the math. Distribution of a vaccine seems almost assured as a requirement for many audiences at this point, as does a consistent slate of widely appealing films. Streaming isn’t going away either, but the two forms of entertainment can coexist and thrive together.

Could Wonder Woman 1984 Have Realistically Fit In 2021?

Beyond the existential soul-searching of a business that has faced many challenges over the decades, it’s arguable that many analyses of Wonder Woman 1984‘s new strategy easily miss the forest for the trees. While many speculated the film could be delayed again to a March or June release in 2021, those scenarios became increasingly infeasible throughout recent weeks as the remainder of major studio titles vacated 2020 and either picked out mid-2021 release dates or still remain unscheduled.

It became assumptively clear awhile ago that a traditional theatrical run for Wonder Woman 1984 this December was not going to be possible, and that thinking led to a waiting game as to what the studio would decide. The aforementioned fall and winter surge of the virus — combined with a fairly thin first-quarter release slate — have made a theoretical March release somewhat questionable given what we now know about vaccine timetables for the United States and other key global markets.

There’s an argument that March window could have worked, though — especially with the industry now seemingly looking to April as the beginning of cinema’s potential revival. The month boasts No Time to Die, Peter Rabbit: The Runaway, and A Quiet Place Part II as high-profile films aiming to release that month — just as vaccine distributions are expected to reach a wider swath of the population, barring any setbacks. On the other hand, having something of a “bridge month” between the rough winter ahead and a (hopefully) more positive spring could be useful for studios and cinema owners to begin spreading the word of a proper theatrical restart.

As for June 2021? While a six-month delay to the original Wonder Woman‘s date on the first weekend of that month (June 4) would have offered nice symmetry and a blueprint for success, the summer calendar has already filled up with other blockbuster-hopefuls formerly known as 2020 releases. May’s Black Widow was distanced well enough by a month, but Warner itself currently has Godzilla vs. Kong dated for May 21, Universal will launch F9 on May 28, and Sony will unveil Ghostbusters: Afterlife on June 11.

Frankly, even for a massively anticipated superhero sequel, that doesn’t provide a lot of breathing room for Warner. They would have had to hope Universal, Sony, and/or other studios would move in response to them, which is entirely possible given the precedence of this year and the pedigree of the DC and Wonder Woman brands. Still, it would be far from a guarantee because other studios will be eager to reap summer theatrical revenues themselves after their own year-plus delays. (Again, provided there are no further pandemic-related setbacks in the months ahead.)

The Bottom Line

Sure, it’s not great news that Wonder Woman 1984‘s potential $350 million-plus in theatrical ticket sales will no longer be realized by cinemas. There is no getting around that. But with more “we get it” responses from exhibition than may have been expected in reaction to this news, and an its-better-than-nothing theatrical component involved, there is reason to believe this to be the one-off move for an event film that the studio is touting it as.

If nothing else, perhaps the industry can now breathe a small sigh of relief that the wait on Warner’s decision is finally over. Plenty of challenges lie ahead, financial assistance remains crucial to support struggling theaters, and windows seem to be on a course for inevitable adaptation for at least the next couple of years. Even still, the constant daily panic over what studio will next need to delay a major film could be entering a pause period over the holidays. Only mid-to-low tier titles are scheduled from now until the end of 2020, and into January, February, and early March. There is no immediate need for studios to kick their cans down the road yet again.

Nothing is guaranteed, and anything can happen in this unpredictable time, but these are the positive takeaways at this stage for those needing some as we head into what’s sure to be the strangest and most trying holiday season virtually everyone will have ever faced.

Notable Release Additions and Changes This Week

  • Paramount’s Coming 2 America (removed from theatrical calendar)
  • Sony / Columbia’s Fatherhood (from April 2 to April 16, 2021)
  • Paramount’s Micronauts (now unset, previously June 4, 2021)
  • Sony / Screen Gems’ Monster Hunter (from December 30 to December 25, 2020)
  • Sony / Columbia’s Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (from January 15 to April 2, 2021)
  • Paramount’s Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse (removed from theatrical calendar, previously February 26, 2021)
  • Paramount’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday (from February 12 to February 26, 2021)

8-Week Film Forecast

Release Date Title 3-Day (FSS) Opening Forecast Range % Chg from Last Week Domestic Total Forecast Range % Chg from Last Week Estimated Location Count Distributor
11/25/2020 The Croods: A New Age $4,000,000 – $7,000,000 -31% $15,000,000 – $35,000,000   2,200 Universal
12/4/2020 All My Life $1,000,000 – $4,000,000   $5,000,000 – $15,000,000     Universal
12/4/2020 Half Brothers           Focus Features
12/11/2020 Parallel           Vertical Entertainment
12/11/2020 Wander Darkly           Lionsgate
12/25/2020 Monster Hunter $2,000,000 – $5,000,000   $10,000,000 – $20,000,000 +9%   Sony / Screen Gems
12/25/2020 News of the World $3,000,000 – $8,000,000   $15,000,000 – $30,000,000     Universal
12/25/2020 One Night in Miami…           Amazon Studios
12/25/2020 Promising Young Woman           Focus Features
12/25/2020 Wonder Woman 1984 $5,000,000 – $15,000,000 NEW $30,000,000 – $60,000,000 NEW   Warner Bros.

As always, the news cycle is constantly evolving. Market projections are subject to breaking announcements at any moment.

This column will continue to track the impact of release date changes in the weeks ahead.

For press inquiries, please contact Shawn Robbins

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Photo Credits: Matthew Jensen & Warner Bros. ("Wonder Woman 1984")