Even Wonder Woman won’t save cinemas this year

Business

Wonder Woman 1984 is set to make its British big-screen premiere this week, and for cinema owners it marks the last chance to salvage something from a terrible year.

While there is no hope that the Hollywood blockbuster sequel will emulate the £25m UK box-office take of the first Wonder Woman film, cinema owners are desperate for new fare to entice Covid-cautious movie fans back to the big screen.

Last weekend, the first since cinemas in England were allowed to reopen after the second lockdown, Will Ferrell’s Christmas comedy Elf topped the box office, 17 years after it was released. It made just £48,000 in ticket sales across the UK and Ireland.

Wonder Woman 1984 is the only bona fide blockbuster to stick with a premiere this year, as studios opt to shift seat-filling hits such as Jurassic World: Dominion and the James Bond film No Time to Die to 2021 or beyond to avoid a pandemic box-office flop.

“This is the first big tent-pole release in a long time, and we do hope its broad popularity will bring some of those movie fans concerned about whether cinemas are safe back to the big screen and see that they are,” said Preston Benson, founder of Really Local Group, which has opened its first cinema in Catford, south London. “It is really important that we are getting an opportunity to premiere it.”

Tim Richards, chief executive of the UK’s third-largest chain, Vue, has said it is only “marginally” worthwhile from an economic perspective to reopen around 50 of its cinemas across England. Cineworld, the UK’s biggest chain, has kept the doors to its 127 theatres in the UK and Ireland shut since October, when the Bond premiere was officially moved to April 2021.

Financially, this year is a write-off for cinema owners, with analysts at Omdia estimating that the UK box office take will be just £360m – 29% of 2019’s £1.25bn and the lowest since 1992. By the end of the year, Omdia expects British cinemagoers to have attended between 40 million and 44 million times: the lowest total since records began in 1928, and well below the nadir of 53.8 million in 1984.

“Cinema owners have reopened the best-performing sites they can, to make what they can, to try and recoup something in the middle of the pandemic,” said David Hancock at Omdia. “No one begrudges them that.”

Except that, in the US, the premiere of Wonder Woman 1984 has sparked fury from the film industry. Warner Bros is releasing the film – and its entire slate of 21 films next year, from Dune to The Suicide Squad – on its HBO Max streaming platform at the same time as they debut in cinemas.

The move has outraged theatre owners, who rely on months of big-screen exclusivity to make their business models work, and figures such as the British director Christopher Nolan have criticised the studio for putting out the releases on “the worst streaming service”. AMC Entertainment, owner of the Odeon cinema chain, warned last week that moves like Warner’s were harming its business, which was burning through cash at a rate that was “not sustainable”.

Warner Bros’ parent company, AT&T, is desperately trying to play catch-up in the streaming wars by pumping exclusive content on to HBO Max, which has about 12.6 million registered users and is a minnow compared with rivals such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon’s Prime Video.

“Warner Bros’ move isn’t about cinema – it is about trying to boost subscribers to HBO Max, which isn’t a successful streaming platform in the US yet,” said Benson. “We wish them well, but a movie like Wonder Woman is meant for the big screen and is not meant to be streamed.”