'Wonder Woman 1984' flopped at the China box office ahead of its HBO Max debut. A surge in piracy could be next.

Travis Clark
wonder woman 1984 diana prince 8
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in "Wonder Woman 1984." Clay Enos/DC Comics/Warner Bros.
  • "Wonder Woman 1984" flopped at the international box office over the weekend with just $37.5 million, $18 million of which came from China.

  • Box-office experts cautioned that it may be too early to draw conclusions from the movie's China performance in regards to Hollywood's future in the region.

  • But with the movie debuting on HBO Max on Friday, the poor box office could have preceded a surge in piracy.

  • "If there's a larger implication here, it's that any worries over this film becoming one of the most pirated pieces of content in history are now significantly higher," said Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Box Office Pro.

  • But the Exhibitor Relations senior media analyst Jeff Bock thinks that WarnerMedia still made the right move with its Max distribution strategy, especially if "Wonder Woman 1984" is a sign of future struggles at the global box office. 

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After months of delays, "Wonder Woman 1984" finally hit theaters over the weekend in 32 international markets. But the movie floundered at the box office.

The Warner Bros. sequel earned just $38.5 million internationally over the weekend ahead of its debut in the US on Friday, when it will play in theaters and stream on HBO Max simultaneously.

Warner Bros. declined to comment for this story.

In China, where the theatrical market is on an upswing, the movie made only $18.8 million. That's half of the $37 million opening weekend for the first "Wonder Woman" movie in 2017. 

"We'll get a better idea how domestic audiences respond to 'Wonder Woman 1984' this weekend, but if international grosses are any indication - and they usually are - the North American box office will be challenging," said Jeff Bock, the Exhibitor Relations senior media analyst.

Many theaters in the US are currently closed due to the pandemic. The Regal and Cineworld chains closed all locations in the US and UK, for instance.

READ MORE: Hollywood is raging over Warner Bros.' HBO Max plan. But one producer whose movie was impacted gave us the counter argument.

The coronavirus pandemic is an obvious factor in the movie's disappointing international launch and it's not the first Hollywood movie to crash and burn in China this year ("Mulan," which was expected to be a major hit there, grossed a total of just $40 million).

But local films in China have seen blockbuster grosses and the Chinese box office passed North America this year as the biggest in the world. The Chinese movie "Eight Hundred" is the highest-grossing movie worldwide this year with $461 million, nearly all of which came from China. "My People, My Homeland" and "The Legend of Deification," both Chinese films, opened in the region with more than $150 million each in October. 

Shawn Robbins, the Box Office Pro chief analyst, cautioned that it was a tepid weekend in China at the box office overall. "The Rescue," a local release, also disappointed with $36 million. And marketing for "Wonder Woman 1984" had been scaled back during the pandemic, he said.

"It wasn't a normal tentpole release even for a market that's ahead of the pandemic recovery curve," Robbins said.

Bock said that while China "isn't Hollywood's safety net," it's important to see how a movie like April's "Fast and Furious 9," which is part of a franchise with huge global appeal, plays in the market.

Piracy could surge

With "Wonder Woman 1984" debuting on HBO Max on Friday, the chances for international piracy are heightened. This could be the case for any Warner Bros. movie next year, which will all stream on HBO Max the same day they hit theaters in the US (they'll be playing in international theaters as intended where Max isn't available). 

"If there's a larger implication here, it's that any worries over this film becoming one of the most pirated pieces of content in history are now significantly higher," Robbins said. "A pristine, high-definition copy of the movie will be available in everyone's queues within days."

READ MORE: HBO Max's chief breaks down the seismic decision to stream all 2021 Warner Bros. movies as they hit theaters and responds to speculation about 2022 and beyond

In a report released on Friday, the piracy analytics company Muso suggested that making a movie "widely available legally at an affordable price," such as what Universal did with "Trolls: World Tour" early in the pandemic, could reduce piracy.

But HBO Max isn't yet available outside the US and won't be expanding until late 2021.

Muso's CEO Andy Chatterley told The Hollywood Reporter in a piece published on Friday: "If a film is made available in the US on HBO Max, a high-quality pirate copy is going to be available on every pirate service in the world that same day."

He added that it's "inevitable" for piracy rates to surge next year as Warner Bros. releases its entire theatrical film slate on Max.

Despite piracy concerns, Bock said that the disappointing performance of "Wonder Woman 1984" could be an indication that Warner Bros. made the right move with its Max distribution plan. 

"It's going to be problematic to release blockbuster content on a global scale, especially early on in 2021 and possibly over the entire year" as the pandemic continues, Bock said.

"If that does turn out to be the case, then it will look like a star-in-the-making move," he added. 

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