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Why ‘The Batman’ heading to theaters is important to Warner Bros

By Brian Lowry and Frank Pallotta, CNN

After a year of simultaneously releasing movies on HBO Max and in theaters, Warner Bros. returns to exclusive theatrical releases bearing a rather sizable gift: “The Batman.”

The movie, which is set to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, has wider implications for the studio behind it, kicking off what could be a blockbuster year as AT&T plans to spin off WarnerMedia and new management, Discovery, prepares to take over.

Based on the DC Comics franchise, this latest version of the Dark Knight, which hits theaters Friday, stars Robert Pattinson, capturing the character during an early point in his crimefighting career.

Delayed by the pandemic, “The Batman” will lead a renewed onslaught of DC titles from Warner Bros. — which like CNN is a unit of WarnerMedia — including “Black Adam,” “The Flash” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” the sequel to “Aquaman,” which grossed more than $1.1 billion worldwide following its 2018 release.

“The return of this immensely popular character to the big screen couldn’t come at a more perfect time,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, told CNN Business. “Batman is the kind of pop culture icon that attracts serious attention from fans and a high degree of curiosity from casual viewers any time the character is rebooted.”

“The Batman” and Warner Bros. swing into theaters

The buzz around “The Batman,” not to mention the brand loyalty attached to films starring the character, could push it past the $1 billion milestone at the global box office. Billion-dollar earners became an endangered species during the pandemic. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” from DC rival Marvel, was the only US film to crack that threshold during the global health crisis.

The anticipated success of “The Batman” also carries with it a symbolic embrace of the theatrical model, and somewhat of a return to normalcy, after WarnerMedia went all in on promoting its streaming service last year.

Warner Bros. made the decision to stream all of its 2021 movies on HBO Max on the same day they hit theaters. It was a momentous choice that shook the foundations of the theatrical marketplace and Hollywood itself. The move made HBO Max an attractive service to new subscribers, and ruffled feathers of some of the studio’s biggest creators.

Yet Warner Bros.’ decision to go with a hybrid approach also appeared to be detrimental to the box-office results for its movies.

The studio’s 2021 slate produced two best-picture nominees in “Dune” and “King Richard,” but those films’ box-office grosses were limited, although the sci-fi epic fared considerably better. Another buzzy film from the studio, “The Matrix Resurrections,” was even more disappointing, opening to less than $11 million in North America and grossing just $156 million worldwide.

Streaming data is generally not disclosed, so it is unclear how these movies performed on HBO Max, which has notably exceeded expectations with its subscription efforts, surpassing 73 million globally, based on the company’s recent earnings results.

Even so, it appears to be inarguable that giving viewers access to these titles at home blunted their theatrical performance, and only reinforced theater owners’ concerns about streaming undermining their business.

Warner Bros. announced last year that it would return to exclusive theatrical releases in 2022.

“A return to form”

Now, with the Discovery deal receiving regulatory approval and expected to close in April, Warner Bros. has a chance to flex its muscles — and potentially impress new management with the strength of its intellectual property and operations.

Apart from “The Batman,” Warner Bros.’ wide pipeline of films heading directly to theaters is great news for an industry still trying to rebound from the pandemic.

Warner Bros. houses numerous popular brands and films that are potential hits at the ticket booth. For example, in 2019, it was the No. 2 studio in box-office revenue, notching about $1.6 billion domestically, a nearly 14% market share, according to Comscore.

The only studio that earned more that year was Disney, which had a record-setting 2019 and a 33% market share.

For WarnerMedia, “it’s a return to form in recognition of the tremendous value unhindered box-office earnings have from a business perspective,” Robbins said. “As well as the communal significance which going to the movies still has throughout global culture.”

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