Yesterday I saw my first TV ad – at least in quite a few months – for Wonder Woman 1984, the next instalment of the blockbuster DC Extended Universe film series. The TV ad tells me that the film is opening in UK cinemas on 16 December.
Now this is a film who’s release date has been pushed back quite a few times due to the pandemic. It’s a several hundred million dollar investment on the part of Warners and their production partners, and in normal times would have been expected to recoup at least $1 billion in box office revenue.
In the US, Warners has shocked much of Hollywood recently with its plans for their entire slate of 2021 films. This started with Wonder Woman 1984, which they announced last month would debut in US theatres and on their streaming service HBO Max at the same time on Christmas Day – “day and date” in the parlance. It would then stay on the streaming service for 30 days, where it would be included at no additional cost, before reverting to becoming exclusive to theatres. No doubt the film would then filter through the usual PPV, rental, DVD and SVOD windows – eventually returning to HBO Max.
Warners has now said that all their 2021 releases in the US will follow this same pattern, debuting both on HBO Max and in cinemas at the same time. This has caused something of an uproar in the movie world. It’ll drive HBO Max subscriptions certainly, but directors like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve, theatre owners like AMC and profit participants including co-production financiers like Legendary are all unhappy. None of this is the focus of this piece however.
I’m thinking about what happens outside the US?
HBO Max is US-exclusive at the moment, and while parent company AT&T has plans to expand the brand globally, the UK is likely to be quite late to the party, with Sky having an output deal with HBO until 2024 effectively meaning that most premium HBO (and HBO Max?) shows end up on Sky.
In any event, while there’s no HBO Max in Europe yet, the film has a release date in the UK. It actually opens 9 days earlier here.
But there’s a bit of a problem.
I live in London, and we’re currently in Tier 2 with respect to the government’s Covid-19 legislation. Cinemas are still allowed to open, subject to certain rules, but locally, the big cinema is a Cineworld site, and they’re completely closed for the foreseeable future. (And worryingly, Odeon’s owners AMC are financially challenged.)
There is an Everyman a bit further away, and that is still open! But with Wonder Woman 1984 coming out on 16th December, that coincides with the day the Government update which Tier local areas will be in. There’s significant concern that London may go into Tier 3 which has much more stringent rules, including the closure of cinemas. So potentially London cinemas will only be showing WW84 for a couple of days before forced to close. And it’s not as though there aren’t significant parts of the rest of the country also in Tier 3 at the moment.
(Update: It’s now confirmed that London goes into Tier 3 on the 16th December, meaning no London cinemas will be able to open with Wonder Woman 1984. In the scheme of things, not important compared with peoples’ lives.)
Whatever the rules, I’m not about to go to a cinema just before Christmas anyway, since it would present significant risk at a time when I’m hoping to see my elderly parents.
At the moment, there has not been announced any other way to see Wonder Woman 1984 in the UK. A Variety story published recently suggests that a deal with Sky is on the cards. But the story suggests that it’s may be a Premium Video On Demand offering – meaning £15 or more to stream. Good value if you’re a family – less so if you’re watching on your own. Sky could, of course, bundle it with their Sky Cinema offering, although I’m sure that they’d be paying for the privilege. Either way, a home release in the UK has not – at time of writing – been confirmed.
I suspect that Warners are hoping to maximise box office revenue before they announce a home release schedule. Tenet did OK “internationally” (as ex-US revenues are considered), including in the UK. And in the US, there is the upside of these films’ releases benefiting their HBO Max offering – in turn bumping up owner AT&T’s share price. Announcing early a UK PVOD release might reduce those box office revenues.
That all said, with a significant number of cinemas shut due to either Government restrictions or because they have furloughed or laid off all their staff to save costs, it all becomes moot.
I assume that there is a phase 2 release plan ready and waiting to go to announce a PVOD release.
It’s unclear to me why Warners would limit themselves to one platform unless Sky (and owners Comcast) are handing them a bucket load of cash and supporting that phase 2 release strategy.
It’s also unclear when this would happen, and it’s worth noting that going significantly beyond Christmas Day runs the risk of piracy. Once the film reaches the homes of millions of HBO Max users, piracy becomes inevitable.
US release schedules do affect the rest of the world – it’s why most blockbusters are released near-enough simultaneously, even though it’s challenging to ship the talent out to multiple markets to attend premieres and do other promotional work.
The complication of pre-existing rights deals is set to continue. Disney+ launched in the UK months after it launched in other markets, and even then, they still released The Mandalorian on a weekly schedule. That was because they had to wait for deals with Sky to expire in the UK.
In yesterday’s Disney Investor Day presentation, as well announcing so much new Star Wars and Marvel programming that it made Dick Wolfs’ Law & Order franchise look like it hasn’t been really trying with programme volumes, they also announced the rollout of Star, their international version of Hulu.
The Star brand comes from India where it has a vast footprint, and it has slowly spread beyond Indian shores. But Hulu is a uniquely US-thing with catch-up programming available from most of the big US networks as well as original programming like The Handmaid’s Tale and strands like FX on Hulu home to shows like Devs.
But it’s notable that during the Disney Investor Day, they did not include the UK in their European launch plans for Star. The slide showing the expansion of the brand had certain territories missing.
It seems likely that pre-existing deals is the reason for this. For example, of the two properties above, Channel 4 has the UK rights to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, while the BBC is still in an output deal with FX, hence the appearance of shows like Devs and Mrs America, as well as co-production work on series like the Steven Knight Dickens’ series.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to keep existing relationships with broadcasters and launch your new platform – Sky still has a Sky Disney film strand despite Disney+ having launched – but it does become a little harder if new programming actually launches on a local channel like Sky Atlantic or BBC Two before it can revert to becoming a library catalogue show on your platform. (Although it should be noted that “windowing” is still very much a thing on most of these platforms, with HBO Max, for example, having the Harry Potter films only available for certain periods of time, then being made available elsewhere before returning to the platform again).
That said, I think Disney probably launch Star in the UK despite pre-existing deals. Even if FX programming was tied up with the BBC, they have lots of ABC programming that they could build out the platform with. And in much of the world, Star is going to be marketed as an upsell of the basic Disney+ offering.
Furthermore, at some point in the future, you’d imagine that the Hulu and Star brands would merge though.
Elsewhere, Comcast’s Peacock brand hasn’t left US shores yet. There was a suggestion that it could get wrapped up with Sky’s on demand offering, but what would that replace? “Sky” itself? Perhaps it becomes the new name for “Sky Go” or even “Now TV” – two brands in the UK market that must surely merge at some point?
In the US, Viacom’s streaming service CBS All Access is rebranding and relaunching as Paramount+ in 2021. While there were questions asked about the branding in the US, I’d suggest that “Paramount” has a lot more name-recognition globally than CBS. A UK viewer might only know CBS as the name of a set of free-to-air channel playing cheesy old eighties shows. But again, a global launch may be a way off, especially as some of their key programming – namely the Star Trek franchises – are either Netflix or Amazon properties globally, I would assume on a fairly long-term basis. Viacom’s overall model is still to make shows for other networks as well as grow their own platform, which is fine in principle, but does mean that gaining a global footprint could be complicated.
In an increasingly globalised world, consumers are increasingly aware of global marketing initiatives – so The Mandalorian is a Disney+ show globally, and basically consumers know that. A property being on CBS here, Netflix there, and Amazon somewhere else isn’t a cogent marketing message. Instagram and Twitter aren’t regional social media networks, they’re global. Getting the message out once and cleanly is much better that a patchwork of networks and geo-blocked YouTube trailers.
What’s noticeable is that Disney went all in. They said we’re doing this globally, and they have basically only been slowed down by existing deals needing to expire first. They could have expanded more slowly and taken the bucket loads of cash local partners would be willing to keep on paying. But they didn’t.
The other studios have been much more cautious, not wanting to quite so no to existing partners who want to carry on paying them cash for the rights to show the next Game of Thrones sequel. But it Disney+’s success to date is anything to go by, I’d suggest they might be rethinking those cautious global strategies.