By JAKE COYLE
AP Film Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Despite premiering simultaneously by streaming service, “Wonder Woman 1984” managed the best box office debut of the pandemic, opening with $16.7 million over the Christmas weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday.
That’s only a faint glimmer of typical business during the holiday season, when cinemas are usually packed and box-office receipts are among the best of the year. Last year, “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” exceeded $32 million on Christmas Day alone. According to data firm Comscore, 35% of North American theaters are currently open.
But Warner Bros. nevertheless celebrated the performance of “Wonder Woman 1984,” which landed in 2,150 theaters and bettered the approximately $10 million launch of Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” in North America. (Universal Pictures’ “The Croods: A New Age” opened similarly in late November.) “Wonder Woman 1984” grossed an additional $19.4 million in international markets where it began playing a week earlier. The Patty Jenkins-directed sequel, starring Gal Gadot, has made $85 million globally to date.
“This is a very weak theatrical opening,” said David Gross, who runs the movie consultancy FranchiseRe. “With more than half of North American theaters closed and the pandemic surging, the majority of moviegoers and fans have little choice but to watch the film on television. Early foreign openings have been weak as well.”
Warner Bros. has come under criticism throughout Hollywood on its plans to divert “Wonder Woman 1984” and all of its 2021 titles to HBO Max through a hybrid release plan intended to boost subscribers. “Tenet” director Christopher Nolan called the strategy “a mess.” Earlier this month, AT&T chief executive John Stankey said the service has 12.6 million activated users, up from 8.6 million on Sept. 30.
In 2017, “Wonder Woman” opened with more than $100 million in ticket sales from 4,100 theaters, setting a record for biggest opening by a female filmmaker. It ultimately grossed $822 million worldwide. The sequel, made for about $200 million, had been expected to approach $1 billion in box office before the pandemic but is on course to make about $180 million, according to Gross’s projections.
But WarnerMedia is counting on “Wonder Woman 1984” to matter more to HBO Max, which wobbled in its initial rollout. Reports circulated over the weekend of some users having technical difficulties streaming “Wonder Woman 1984,” particularly when playing the film through Roku. HBO Max went live on Roku in mid-December after months of negotiations.
Warner Bros. nevertheless seized on the returns for “Wonder Woman 1984” as the best as could be expected, given the circumstances. The studio on Sunday announced that it would fast-track a third “Wonder Woman” film, with Jenkins and Gadot returning.
“Wonder Woman 1984 broke records and exceeded our expectations across all of our key viewing and subscriber metrics in its first 24 hours on the service, and the interest and momentum we’re seeing indicates this will likely continue well beyond the weekend,” said Andy Forssell, executive vice president and general manager for WarnerMedia’s direct-to-consumer operations. “During these very difficult times, it was nice to give families the option of enjoying this uplifting film at home, where theater viewing wasn’t an option.”
“Wonder Woman 1984” wasn’t the only big movie that detoured into homes over Christmas. The Walt Disney Co. steered the latest Pixar release, “Soul,” to Disney+. It opened theatrically in some international markets, most notably in China where it earned $5.5 million.
Streaming numbers weren’t provided for “Soul” or “Wonder Woman 1984.” WarnerMedia said nearly half of HBO Max’s subscribers watched “Wonder Woman 1984” on its first day on the streaming platform, though it didn’t say how long constituted a watch.
Universal Pictures also released “News of the World,” a Western starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass, only in theaters. The Comcast-owned studio has pursued a different approach during the pandemic, cutting deals with exhibitors to radically shorten the exclusive theatrical window to as little as 17 days, before then moving movies to premium video-on-demand. “News of the World” grossed an estimated $2.4 million domestically
Emerald Fennell’s acclaimed “Promising Young Woman,” starring Carey Mulligan, debuted in 1,300 theaters, making $680,000 for Focus Features.