Wonder Woman 1984’s release could determine the future of cinema

With movie studios determined to shift film releases to their own streaming platforms, the blockbuster’s December launch will show if cinema remains a viable distribution channel.

I seem to have been watching trailers for Wonder Woman 1984 for about half my lifetime. The funked-up version of ‘Blue Monday’. The golden Lasso of Truth. Chris Pine mistaking a trashcan for a work of art. I don’t think I remember seeing a trailer so many times, so long ago, and still not having seen the movie.

As the father of a young daughter who likes to beat the shit out of me and pretty much every other animate and inanimate object, the return of Wonder Woman was something to genuinely look forward to in the Ritson household. My daughter was going to watch her hero again. I was going to see Gal Gadot in her metal uniform thing again. It was an event. June could not come quickly enough.

But then the pandemic hit and Shitfest 2020 played across every cinema screen on the planet. For nine long, lunatic months.

And even Wonder Woman was floored by it. The release date moved from June to August and then to October. And then to 16 December. That last release date is going to happen. Audiences will finally be able to see Wonder Woman 1984 on the big screen. And within a month the movie will also start appearing on the small screen through a premium video-on-demand deal, with Sky already signed.

Dune, Matrix 4 and Godzilla vs Kong will all air on HBO Max on the same day as they premier in cinemas. Zero buffer. Cinematic apocalypse. Boom!

That 30-day buffer between the big and small screens is a very brief one. The average gap between a major release in UK theatres and small screen availability is usually more than triple that period. For Wonder Woman’s first cinematic outing, the movie played on the big screen for a whopping 30 weeks, not 30 days. But it is a sign of the Covid-19 times and the dramatic impact the pandemic has had on the cinema industry that 30 days is all she is getting.

Exhibitors in the UK have been keen to emphasise that this truncated big-screen exclusivity is an exception for extraordinary times. “What we’re doing on the basis of trying to help out the studios and our partners is to look at an emergency Covid window, which is just the maximum amount of flexibility to get movies onto screens,” one British source told Variety last month. “Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t setting up a precedent for the future, but acknowledging that we’re finding ways of working together.”

That sounds reassuring, but the reality appears to be that the cinema industry is now in significant trouble. This week, Warner Bros announced that 17 blockbusters – its entire 2021 slate – would arrive on the big and small screen simultaneously. Dune, Matrix 4 and Godzilla vs Kong will all air on HBO Max on the same day as they premier in cinemas. Zero buffer. Cinematic apocalypse. Boom!

When pressed on whether this was a one-time move or a permanent change in distribution, Toby Emmerich, the chairman of Warner Bros Pictures Group, was equivocal. “We have to see what happens. We’re not predicting much of anything beyond next year.”

Think not what will but won’t change

Are we witnessing the end of cinema going as we know it thanks to Covid-19? And is this merely the first of many predicted changes that the ‘new normal’ of a post-Covid consumer world is set to usher in?

I doubt it. Too much has been written by too many people predicting all the things that Covid will kill/change/destroy forever. As I keep trying to remind everyone, we are still in the crisis stage of the pandemic. Consumer behaviour is obviously different in 2020 not because “consumer decision making has changed, FOREVER” but because unprecedented external constraints have been placed upon all of us.

I used to fly, on average, four times a week. Since April I have not set foot on a single plane. That’s not because my brain has been rewired or consumer culture has changed but because I live on an island where we – very handily – stopped all flights in or out for most of 2020.

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The bigger, tougher, question is what happens when the vaccines kick in and the virus eventually disappears. What then will have changed in the world of consumer behaviour? And – to paraphrase Jeff Bezos – the more interesting question: what will not?

Scott Galloway has an amazing chart. Actually he has many. But the one I like at the moment shows online retail sales in America increasing as much in eight Covid-impacted weeks as the 10 pre-Covid years that preceded them. It’s an astonishing insight. But we must temper the astonishment with the knowledge that during those eight weeks lots of people literally did not leave their home. And if they did, they got the fuck back to it faster than you can say “the guy on the subway is coughing suspiciously”.

The big question for online sales, and the 400,000 other line charts currently going up or going down because of Covid-19, is what happens when normality returns. As surely it one day will.

My bet remains that – for the most part – consumers snap back to their earlier pre-Covid rituals with remarkable ease. Obviously, change is always happening and the trajectories of adjustment that we were already on probably resume. Perhaps some will be catalysed by the pandemic. We were already working from home more, now it’s a lot more. But it won’t be as much as it was back in July 2020 ever again.

That will disappoint a lot of marketers who throw around cataclysmic predictions of change, revolution and death with the gay abandon of a drunken Soviet poet. But it also (probably) stops them from turning out to be true. Consumers are indolent creatures of habit. Slaves to ‘System 1’ thinking. Cognitive misers. They will also disappoint the radical marketers who massively overthink and overstate the impact and effects of change.

But the current questions swirling around the future of cinema are a little more complex than that. Once it’s safe again, most consumers would probably return to movie theatres for their weekly fix of entertainment in 2021 or 2022. But consumer behaviour is just one of the variables in the long-term equation that will ultimately predict the future of cinema.

With cinema chains closing many of their theatres or, in many cases, closing their businesses completely, access to cinemas will simply not be what it once was. That sets up a rather difficult catch 22 for movie studios. They may want to support cinema chains, but if those chains cannot deliver the bums on seats then why go down that route at all?

Christopher Nolan was widely lauded back in August when he opted for a theatrical release for his latest blockbuster Tenet. And then even more widely criticised when the film made a fraction of its expected box office because people just did not want to come back to the cinema.

Consumers are indolent creatures of habit. Slaves to ‘System 1’ thinking. Cognitive misers. They will disappoint the radical marketers who massively overthink and overstate the impact and effects of change.

And, unlike earlier times, entertainment companies have a dog of their own in the hunt these days. In the 1970s, movies distributed through cinemas, then through TV companies. In the 80s that secondary distribution channel came via video rental. Then DVD rental in the 90s. Thanks to streaming, most entertainment companies now have the ability to make movies and distribute them digitally through their own channels.

Initially, these video-on-demand streaming services were seen as the replacement for DVD rentals – the secondary distribution network for big movie releases. But what if they could become the primary channel too?

WarnerMedia owns Warner Bros. But it also owns HBO Max. And since its launch in May HBO Max has been getting ass-kicked in the streaming wars by the likes of Disney and Netflix. Simultaneously launching Dune in cinemas and on HBO Max will hurt Warner’s friends (the theatre owners) but it will greatly help its favoured, newest child. And blood has always been thicker than water at the movies.

Cinema’s blockbuster opportunity

The Covid crisis provides a perfect, once-in-a-century opportunity to realign the movie distribution model because it has created an almost perfect storm. There aren’t that many movies being made at the moment, which means there is a long and damaging shortfall of hot new movies that will likely last through until 2022. More than enough time to make the switch.

Consumers are hunkering down at home and eager for any new, domestic content. And thanks to newly created streaming channels there is a perfect, pre-existing route to market. And with most global cinema companies in crisis mode, if there was ever a time to switch to a direct distribution model for movies – this would be it.

And, of course, therein lies the real story behind all of this. There is an eternal trend for companies to seek ‘vertical integration’. Rather than manufacture a product and then watch as wholesalers and retailers take it to market and earn more margin for less apparent risk, why not go direct and keep all that money for our own coffers?

On paper it seems to make so much sense. Why would breweries settle for the meagre profits of making beer while sacrificing the spectacular margins made by pubs and bars, who sell the stuff to consumers and don’t actually make anything? And how about the additional advantages of consumer proximity? Direct access to purchase data? Test-and-learn?

The Covid crisis provides a perfect, once-in-a-century opportunity to realign the movie distribution model because it has created an almost perfect storm.

In reality, the thorny concept of core competence quickly provides a more than worthy counterpoint to this logic. Because it turns out that the ability to ferment barley, water and yeast on a mass scale and the skills required to run a large entertainment establishment have precisely nothing to do with each other. Vertical integration usually starts out with optimistic financial projections and ends with the abject realism of strategic failure.

The tantalising thing about digital distribution is that it can ease and even eradicate some of those competence concerns and make vertical integration a surer thing. WarnerMedia does not need to run theatres, make popcorn or hire teenagers to vacuum under the seats any more if it wants a primary channel of distribution for its movies. They just need a tech stack bigger than Scotland and a back catalogue large enough to entice people to sign up. That’s great news for the movie companies and terrifying news for the theatre owners.

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When Disney CEO Bob Chapek was asked in October whether streamlining the company around digital direct direct distribution was a response to the pandemic he revealed a much bigger, bolder agenda. “I would not characterise it as a response to Covid,” Chapek told a reporter. “I would say Covid accelerated the rate at which we made this transition, but this transition was going to happen anyway. We are tilting the scale pretty dramatically toward streaming.”

All this makes 16 December a very important date for the cinema industry. If daughters and their dads still flock to cinemas to see Wonder Woman then maybe, just maybe, the shortening of theatrical exclusivity is a temporary move. But if the numbers are bad, as bad as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet were back in August, then we might be witnessing the end of an era. Distributors don’t by definition make anything. So they have to bring the consumers or their role is, very quickly, redundant.

Because make no mistake, if a company can go direct. It will go direct. And Wonder Woman 1984 might just be the moment where we find out if it is possible to do just that.