With “Wonder Woman 1984,” Hollywood is trying a new marketing technique: honesty

The golden rule.
The golden rule.
Image: WarnerMedia
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WarnerMedia announced yesterday the superhero movie Wonder Woman 1984 will be released on its streaming service, HBO Max, as well as in theaters on Dec. 25. The company took an unconventional step to announce the big news: It had its CEO blog about it.

Jason Kilar, the former head of Hulu who became CEO of WarnerMedia in May, took to the publishing platform Medium to explain to fans why the company decided to make the film available to HBO Max subscribers at no additional cost. (A subscription to the service runs $15 per month.)

“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,” Kilar wrote.

Wonder Woman 1984 will now become the most significant Hollywood movie in history to debut on a streaming service. The sequel to 2017’s hit Wonder Woman, the film likely would have generated around $1 billion in box-office revenue in an ideal, non-pandemic setting. The coronavirus, of course, has forced all studios to adjust. For the most part, they have postponed all potential blockbusters until 2021, when they believe the industry will be on a path back to normalcy.

But the release of a movie as big as Wonder Woman 1984 online at the same time as in theaters is historic. Kilar recognizes we’re in uncharted territory and that WarnerMedia wouldn’t make any money if it tried releasing the film exclusively in theaters now as cases surge around the world (perhaps a decision also informed by the disappointing box-office results of Tenet, which came out in September). Rather, the move is transparently to drive new sign-ups to HBO Max:

To use a line from The Wizard of Oz, we’re not in Kansas anymore. While we will pay attention to theatrical revenues, our expectations are clearly adjusted due to COVID-19. In parallel, we will be paying close attention to the numbers of families and fans diving into HBO Max, as we certainly anticipate that a portion of fans will choose to enjoy Wonder Woman 1984 that way on opening day and beyond. To provide a comparable, a little over four million fans in the U.S. enjoyed the first Wonder Woman movie on its opening day in 2017. Is it possible for that to happen again this Christmas with Wonder Woman 1984 between theaters and HBO Max? We are so excited to find out, doing everything in our power to provide the power of choice to fans.

The CEO’s comments underscore WarnerMedia’s new strategy: HBO Max is its endgame. It’s where the company believes much of its future value resides. If it waited until a vaccine in 2021 to release the movie in theaters, it would probably profit hundreds of millions of dollars more. But it’s willing to give up some of that money because it believes putting the movie on its streaming service now will provide a significant boost to the platform.

Kilar’s blog lifts the veil on what can be a mystifying strategic process to outside observers. During the pandemic, figuring out why certain movies still get released exclusively in theaters, while others are put on streaming or on-demand, even as others are postponed, isn’t always easy. But, here, Kilar makes it simple. He doesn’t want to wait for theaters to come back. He wants to give HBO Max a lift right now, and if anyone is strong enough to do that, it’s Wonder Woman.