By R.T. Watson
Warner Bros. is postponing the release of its Wonder Woman sequel by more than two months, signaling that Hollywood studios fear U.S. moviegoers are hesitant to return to theaters in sufficient numbers to justify a second major movie release in the span of a month.
The studio, part of AT&T Inc., is moving "Wonder Woman 1984" to Christmas Day, scotching plans to open the film on Oct. 2. The move is the latest in a series of several Hollywood stutter steps amid the pandemic that caused mass theater closures around the world.
"Wonder Woman 1984," like many major films originally slated to debut during the busy summer movie period, has had its release date changed several times as studios wrestle with uncertainty over when and where theaters might reopen. Because governments in the U.S. and abroad have had varying degrees of success containing coronavirus infections, reopening plans around the world have been staggered and unpredictable.
The decision to delay "Wonder Woman 1984" highlights a continuing tension in Hollywood: whether to stick with plans to release high-priority movies in theaters -- even if that means waiting months -- or skip theaters and release them online. The latter approach has been an apparent success in at least one case, Universal Pictures' "Trolls World Tour," but it has also stoked tensions with theater owners, who worry it will erode their business.
"I know how important it is to bring this movie to you on a big screen when all of us can share the experience together," Patty Jenkins, director of the sequel, said in a statement addressed to fans.
Not long after Warner Bros.' announcement, Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures said it was canceling plans to release its slasher remake "Candyman" on Oct. 16. The studio said it expects to release the movie in 2021 but didn't set a date.
Warner Bros. recently took a major gamble by releasing the first high-profile film in more than five months to theaters around the world, including in the U.S. last weekend. The $200 million spy thriller "Tenet, " from director Christopher Nolan, generated modest results in the domestic market, grossing about $20 million in the U.S. and Canada through the long Labor Day holiday weekend.
During business as usual, that total would represent a mediocre opening for a film directed by a prominent director such as Mr. Nolan. But the result was widely regarded in Hollywood as encouraging, given that theaters in the U.S. have been slower to reopen than those in the rest of the world. Additionally, big coastal metropolitan markets like Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco -- cities where Mr. Nolan's films historically perform well -- are still closed.
A recent estimate by rival studio Walt Disney Co. estimated about a third of domestic theaters are still closed.
Mr. Nolan's two previous movies -- 2017's "Dunkirk" and 2014's "Interstellar" -- each grossed about $50 million during their opening weekends in the U.S. and Canada. So far, "Tenet" is faring better overseas, having grossed a total of $132.1 million through Monday, according to Warner Bros., including $30 million during its first weekend in China.
Mr. Nolan's original movies have typically generated about two-thirds of their ticket sales in overseas markets. But the first Wonder Woman film, released in 2017, made more than $400 million of its total $821.8 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Warner Bros. has held back from deploying a large part of its marketing campaign for "Tenet" until the big coastal cities begin to open, according to a person familiar with the studio's strategy. The return of the National Football League is expected to provide opportunities to market "Tenet" to a wide audience, the person also said.
To the extent the movie has been successful in the U.S., it is largely because theater owners have dedicated most of their auditoriums to it in the absence of other major films, giving moviegoers more showings to choose from and mitigating the revenue hit from government-mandated capacity restrictions.
Moviegoers eager to return to theaters but anxious to avoid crowds are behaving in novel ways, according to Tim Richards, chief executive of one of Europe's largest theater chains, Vue International. "We're seeing bookings at times that we would not have seen in a pre-Covid era," he said. "Our customers, instead of booking on a busy Friday or Saturday night, are booking a Wednesday."
With "Wonder Woman 1984" pushed back, "Tenet" is likely to face little competition in the coming weeks. There isn't another big-budget film on the calendar until Nov. 6, when Disney's Marvel spinoff "Black Widow" is scheduled to debut. The most notable releases the rest of this month include STX Entertainment's disaster flick "Greenland" and Sony Pictures Entertainment's "The Broken Hearts Gallery."
Cash-strapped chains like AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Cineworld PLC's Regal Entertainment Group suffered in the U.S. without the type of popular movie titles needed for reopening to make financial sense, even after state and local governments in many jurisdictions gave them the go-ahead.
"'Tenet' is testing the waters for the other films, and that's kind of the beginning of its legacy regardless where it ends up at the box office," said Box Office PRO chief analyst Shawn Robbins. "It's a watershed moment for the industry."