"Our hope is that by putting P.V.O.D. into the marketplace, we are improving the economics for the studio and as a result of that there will be more films that will get released theatrically," said Peter Levinsohn, vice chairman and chief distribution officer for Universal. "The whole goal here is to have more efficiencies in our marketing, keep the films more profitable and stop the films from being sold off" to subscription services like Netflix or Amazon.
Warner Bros. chose to defend the tried-and-true theatrical model, hoping that Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" would draw people back to theaters this summer after the first wave of the virus passed and 68 percent of American theaters were able to reopen. But with theaters still closed in the two largest markets, New York and Los Angeles, the film only grossed $56 million in its entire U.S. run. That was a far cry from Mr. Nolan's previous theatrical achievements, like "Interstellar," which earned $188 million domestically, and a stark warning to other distributors that the traditional way of releasing films was not going to work in 2020.
Today, the theatrical climate is more grim. Half of the theaters in the United States are closed and virus cases are rising around the country. Regal Cinemas, the second-largest chain in the U.S., has closed all of its theaters, citing a lack of films and audience. If there is not a federal grant program available to theaters soon, John Fithian, chief executive of the theaters' national trade association, said he expects 70 percent of them will either close permanently or file for bankruptcy by early next year.
Big-budget spectacles have kept audiences flocking to movie theaters even through waves of home entertainment competition, from VCRs to streaming. That's benefited both theater chains and studios, and it's why few expect movies of the size of "Wonder Woman 1984" to be going directly to streaming post-pandemic.
A move away from theaters would affect what kinds of films are made. In short, if there is less box office money to be collected -- because of a reduction in the number of movie theaters or a permanent shift in consumer behavior -- studios would be forced to make fewer big-budget films. For those who believe Hollywood has become too reliant on lumbering superhero movies, that may actually be welcome news. The thousands of people each of those films employ would undoubtedly have a different perspective.
But others are not sure the change will be so drastic, pointing to the power of the theatrical experience.
Charles Roven, a producer for "Wonder Woman 1984," said in an interview that he was confident that its release was not a sign of a new long-term strategy. "There is no question they want to make HBO Max successful and they should," he said of Warner Bros. "But to say that this particular thing is what's going to happen in the future, that would be taking a leap."
Disney chose to bypass U.S. theaters altogether and release the $200 million "Mulan" on Disney+ in September, charging subscribers $30 on top of their monthly fee to watch the live-action adaptation of the animated film. Sales were hurt by an outcry over a filming location in China, but Bob Chapek, Disney's chief executive, told analysts earlier this month that he saw "enough very positive results before that controversy started to know that we've got something here in terms of the premier access strategy." Disney is planning to send several more big-budget movies to Disney+.