‘Wonder Woman 1984’ was part of the biggest content drop in streaming history, debuting digitally on December 25 along with Disney’s ‘Soul’ © AP

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Wonder Woman 1984 made $16.7m in North American cinemas this weekend, the biggest US opening weekend since the coronavirus pandemic began, but the sum fell far short of typical Christmas holiday box office returns. 

The superhero sequel, starring Gal Gadot, was the first trial of an experiment by Warner Bros to debut its blockbusters online and in cinemas on the same day, as the Hollywood studio grapples with the enduring effects of the pandemic in the US. 

Warner’s Wonder Woman 1984, with a budget of around $200m, and Disney’s Soul which cost roughly $150m, both debuted digitally on December 25. The releases made Christmas Day the biggest content drop in the history of streaming and the culmination of a year of high-risk gambits for Hollywood. 

“Christmas 2020 is a watershed moment for the movie industry and the streaming wars,” said Rich Greenfield, partner at Lightshed, a research group, noting that Wonder Woman was “the biggest budget film ever [to go] straight to streaming”.

Globally, Wonder Woman 1984 made $85m in cinemas, with $16.7m in the US and Canada, according to Comscore.

With cinemas mostly empty in the US as the pandemic rages, having killed more than 300,000 Americans, movie studios have made moves that were unthinkable less than a year ago.

In the most drastic action, Warner Bros announced this month it would release all of its films next year on the HBO Max streaming platform simultaneous with cinema debuts. The news shocked the industry, inducing rage from filmmakers. 

Christopher Nolan, whose big bet on cinemas with Tenet failed to rouse US audiences, said the move “makes no economic sense”. 

“Even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. 

Cinemas have lost some $32bn this year as the pandemic battered their business, according to research group Omdia. While attendance has returned in some countries such as South Korea, the US — the biggest movie market — has failed to recover.

This has left Hollywood studios with an impossible conundrum. Saddled with expensive projects, studios face the prospect of releasing titles to largely empty cinemas, putting them online at a financial loss or delaying them in the hope that the world will return to a pre-pandemic normal next year.

Disney, the biggest movie studio, has taken a hybrid approach, putting some films such as Mulan online at an extra cost, while planning to release others, such as the upcoming Black Widow superhero spin-off, in cinemas. Sony has postponed most of its big releases to next year or 2022, while Comcast-owned Universal experimented with paid digital debuts of movies such as Trolls World Tour. 

But Warner Bros, long viewed as the most creative-friendly studio in Hollywood, has taken the most extreme approach.

The relatively meagre box office results for Wonder Woman: 1984 should validate Warner’s strategy. Releasing the film on HBO Max should also help boost subscriptions for to the streaming service. Nearly half of HBO Max subscribers watched Wonder Woman on Christmas Day, according to Warner. 

WarnerMedia, the home to HBO and Warner Bros, has among the most coveted catalogues in Hollywood. But HBO Max has struggled to gain traction. Analysts attribute its slow start to a $15 monthly price, higher than that of most of its rivals, and a distribution rift with platforms such as Amazon and Roku, which only recently have allowed users to add the app. 

AT&T bought Time Warner for $80bn in a deal that closed last year, as the telecoms company looked to thrust itself into entertainment and compete with Netflix. HBO Max is critical to that goal.

AT&T chief executive John Stankey this month defended Warner’s movie distribution strategy. 

The online and theatrical releases are meant to “allow the industry to have this transitional moment,” Mr Stankey told an investor conference. “We knew we needed to try something different”. 

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