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2020's Big Plot Twist: How 'Wonder Woman 1984' Came to Upend Hollywood's Future

As the long-delayed DC Comics sequel finally debuts  —  on HBO Max and in theaters  —  it serves as the litmus test for an unprecedented release strategy. Top studio brass weigh in on whether the “movie" business will ever be the same.

Less than three weeks before WarnerMedia would announce a radical and sweeping new release strategy — one that would alienate much of Hollywood with remarkable speed — its top executives shared a lunch on the Burbank studio lot that few knew would prove so momentous. At the time, the agenda seemed significant but contained: what to do about the studio’s long-delayed tentpole, Wonder Woman 1984.

It had been almost a full year since Warners had launched its marketing campaign for the superhero sequel, with Gal Gadot striding across the stage at a comic convention in São Paulo, Brazil, in front of dozens of Wonder Woman impersonators; the movie was already on its fifth publicly announced release date thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that had shuttered many of the world’s theaters.

The company’s new CEO, Jason Kilar, was at the lunch, as were Entertainment chair Ann Sarnoff, Picture Group chairman Toby Emmerich, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, star Gal Gadot and producer Charles Roven. The mood was one of shared frustration.

"When we saw the [COVID-19] spike happening in the fall, and the reality of the unpredictability of the virus, it was hard to plan at all," says Sarnoff. "We had already started marketing the movie, and pushing it out much further was not a great option for any of us."

At the same time that the film studio was battling the uncertainty of the pandemic, WarnerMedia’s 6-month-old streaming service, HBO Max, was struggling to lure new subscribers, a problem Kilar was charged with solving. These anxieties within the entertainment divisions were playing out as parent company AT&T was seeking to justify its $85 billion 2018 acquisition of WarnerMedia, which has added to its heavy debt burden and done little to boost AT&T’s stock price, even amid layoffs of more than 1,000 this year.

Over lunch, the Warners brass shared what they were hearing from epidemiologists employed by the studio — that the pandemic would get worse before it got better — and a planned Christmas theatrical release was seeming like a dim prospect, at least in the U.S. "We started to get into this other hypothetical," says Roven. "And the hypothetical turned into a reality."

Gal Gadot

Miguel Schincariol/Getty Images

Gal Gadot fronts a line of Wonder Woman impersonators at Brazil’s December 2019 CCXP comic convention for the first major marketing of 'Wonder Woman 1984.'

The reality was a new, hybrid release strategy that will see Wonder Woman 1984 premiere in theaters where they’re open and on HBO Max in the U.S. on Christmas Day, a bold swing that, unbeknownst to that movie’s filmmakers, prefaced an even bolder one. On Dec. 3, in a move that blindsided its business partners and sparked threats of lawsuits, the studio announced that it would apply this hybrid release plan to all 17 films on its 2021 slate, including event movies like The Suicide Squad and Dune. "When we really discussed it with medical experts and looked at it diligently, it became more apparent that there will continue to be a real impact on the business through the entire year," says Emmerich. "So we made the plan to have a reliable, yearlong strategy."

Though Warners’ shift was the most shocking to the Hollywood community, every movie studio made decisions in 2020 that would have seemed unthinkable in a pre-COVID environment, from Universal striking premium VOD deals with theater owners to shrink the once-sacrosanct theatrical window to Disney plunking big-budget films like Mulan and Soul on its streaming service to Sony and Paramount selling would-be theatrical hits like Happiest Season and Coming 2 America to streamers.

DUNE -Timothée Chalamet

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Legendary’s 'Dune' starring Timothée Chalamet is among the films set to be released day-and-date on HBO Max.

The century-old industry, already reeling from the pace of change wrought by the entrance of deep-pocketed tech companies, has been "confronted with a reality it’s been choosing to wish away," as one veteran executive puts it. Collectively, the major entertainment companies have laid off several thousand employees this year in cost-cutting, as company leaders look to offset the $160 billion Ampere Analysis estimates the global entertainment sector will lose over the next five years due to the pandemic.

"Looking around the media landscape, you can see that a few studios are all trying to do a version of the same thing in terms of reorganizing the distribution ecosystem in order to be able to monetize our movies," says Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman Donna Langley. "That enables us to continue to be able to greenlight movies and do what we are doing and have a varied portfolio approach. This will evolve beyond COVID, I have no doubt. We are innovating, thinking of our future and protecting our filmmakers."

While studios look to the future, however, the present is dire: The 2020 domestic box office will struggle to hit $2.3 billion, down nearly 80 percent from 2019 and at the lowest level in at least 40 years (and that’s without adjusting for inflation). "The long-term future of theatrical movies depends exclusively on people’s desire to share stories together," filmmaker Christopher Nolan said in a statement to THR. "The medium-term future depends on productive cooperation between exhibition and studios."

What is certain is that when moviegoers finally feel safe to return to theaters in large numbers, they will be doing it in a dramatically changed industry. "There have been many premature obituaries for the movie business,” says USC cinema professor and editor of The Movie Business Book Jason Squire. "This is the most serious. There will be theater chain bankruptcies. This is the worst threat to moviegoing since the business began."

The seeds of Warners’ historic announcement were planted almost a decade ago, when Kilar, then CEO of Hulu, released a manifesto of sorts that excoriated the very broadcast television giants who’d hired him to run their flashy new streaming venture for their antiquated business models. "History has shown that incumbents tend to fight trends that challenge established ways and, in the process, lose focus on what matters most: customers," he wrote, prompting media observers to question whether he was trying to get fired. (He would, in fact, depart two years later amid a fraying relationship with Hulu’s owners, then 21st Century Fox, Disney and NBCUniversal.) Echoes of that message appeared more recently in Kilar’s December memo explaining that he wanted to "provide choice" to movie fans by releasing all 2021 Warner Bros. titles in theaters and on HBO Max.


Christopher Nolan Rips HBO Max as "Worst Streaming Service," Denounces Warner Bros.' Plan

A product obsessive who cut his teeth as a top lieutenant of Jeff Bezos during Amazon’s startup days, Kilar was a surprising choice to lead WarnerMedia, home of such media crown jewels as HBO, CNN and Warner Bros. At Hulu — where he was known for dishing out tech-bro catchphrases like "sweat every pixel" — he earned a reputation as a magnetic but exacting leader, one who would stay up late into the evening scrolling through Twitter for feedback from customers. But he didn’t live and breathe the actual programming the same way, says a former Hulu executive who recalls that Kilar "never got very involved — at least not in a way that was helpful — when it came to content."

It’s a trait Kilar — who sold failed video startup Vessel to Verizon in 2016 — seems to have retained in the seven years since he last worked closely with Hollywood creatives. “He’s a fantastic product guy,” says a top agency source. “The tougher part for him is the politics, the personal relationships, building consensus. He’s truly getting an organization to follow him over the ledge. You have to do the things as a leader to get people to understand what’s in it for them, the 'why,' and get broad-based buy-in. It has yet to be demonstrated that he has those leadership skills."

But Kilar’s comfort in the role of industry disrupter also makes him in some sense an ideal person to push Warner Bros., the studio that made Casablanca and the Dark Knight trilogy, through the biggest strategic shift of its nearly 98-year history. AT&T CEO John Stankey had his eye on Kilar, who had been on the telecom giant’s technology advisory council, for a while before convincing him to take over as WarnerMedia’s chief. By 2020, the company needed someone to turn HBO Max into its single most important initiative, one that would stand up against offerings from competitors like Disney+ and motivate AT&T customers to stay in the telecom giant’s ecosystem. "Jason wasn’t brought in to make friends," says LightShed Partners media analyst Rich Greenfield. "His job is to build the company for the future."

Kilar may not have been looking to make friends, but the expletives coming from agents’ phones since the slate announcement suggest he has just made many powerful enemies. "This is sad and immature and from someone who doesn’t really have the history, knowledge or experience of how entertainment works," says the top agency source. "Warner Bros. is now a Shakespearean tragedy."

"We have no problem going where others have not gone before," Kilar told The New York Times’ Kara Swisher on her Dec. 10 podcast. "This is not for the faint of heart, and the good news is we’re crazy enough or unusual enough to feel good about what we’re doing even if we’re the first one that’s putting our foot out."

Rarely has one studio move so quickly incensed the entire industry community. Within days of the announcement, Nolan, Warner Bros.’ premiere director, issued a blistering statement to THR, saying that "some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service." Other Warners filmmakers, including Jenkins and Denis Villeneuve, publicly expressed their frustration with the studio; the Directors Guild sent a letter to Sarnoff calling the move "unacceptable" and demanding a meeting; CAA president Richard Lovett sent a letter to Kilar calling the deal a violation of "trust and boundary"; and Endeavor executive chairman Patrick Whitesell sent a note to WME agents calling the move "a blatant attempt to self-deal."

Emmerich says he is cognizant of the anger, and the studio’s need to make its case to talent. "We’re not saying this is our strategy going forward; this is our strategy for 2021," he says. "We’re going to learn a lot as we go along, as the business rebounds and evolves in a post- COVID world."


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