CES 2021 may hint at how much Wonder Woman 1984 changed the movie biz
A scaled-back media presence at CES will feature the head of Warner Bros., which plans to release all new movies this year on HBO Max and in theaters on the same day.
Joan E. SolsmanFormer Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
ExpertiseStreaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation onlineCredentials
Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
CES 2021 may give us some clues to show just how much Wonder Woman 1984 -- and the audacious plan by Warner Bros. to release all of its new movies straight to streaming on HBO Max this year -- may change the norms of Hollywood.
In years past, media companies and marketers have fueled a show-behind-the-show at CES in Las Vegas. Mobs of media folks would descend on the chic Aria Resort & Casino, CES' media epicenter, to mingle at parties and panels and to retreat to hotel suites to broker deals in private meetings. Often, media CES-goers would never even make it over to any of the big show floors.
This year, nobody is visiting any show floors. The all-digital CES is scaled back, and that goes for the media presence at CES too. Many companies that would normally throw giant CES parties, like Spotify, are essentially sitting this year out. Fewer are sending out executives for keynotes or panels.
Like CES itself, the entertainment business has been dramatically altered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Public health protocols shuttered cinemas around the globe and canceled live concerts, sports and theater for months. At the same time, the streaming wars paraded new and revamped online video services for people to watch as they were stuck at home. These two forces had danced around each other for months, as Hollywood studios flirted with different online movie releases that would have been unimaginable a year earlier.
But the two trends truly collided last month, when Warner Bros. said it would release all its new movies to stream on HBO Max on same day they hit the big screen in the US, starting with the megabudget Wonder Woman 1984 on Dec. 25.
On Wednesday, CES will put the head of Warner Bros on stage to talk about it. In a keynote titled "Entertainment Transformed," the chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, Ann Sarnoff, will be interviewed alongside marketing executives from Nike and General Motors and the CEO of LeBron James' entertainment company, SpringHill.
"Unprecedented times which call for creative solutions," Sarnoff said last month as Warner Bros. talked up its plan to release all its 2021 movies in theaters and on HBO Max at the same time. That decision has already triggered some dramatic outcomes. Woman Woman's release appears to be a big success: Its opening weekend in theaters was a rare shot in the arm for an anemic cinema industry, with $16.7 at the US box office beating projections and marking the biggest post-pandemic opening for any film. And on HBO Max, total viewing hours on the Friday that WW84 was released more than tripled compared with a typical day the month before.
But Wonder Woman's release plan also made a lot of people in Hollywood lose their minds. The most hyperoutraged faction may include some filmmakers and stars you idolize, largely circling around the HBO Max decision as an offensive, unilateral overreach that imperils the survival of cinemas.
Sarnoff's keynote appearance at CES Wednesday will be one of the most high-profile opportunities to discuss how that strategy is playing out in its first inning.
Other media highlights at CES
Streaming will be in the spotlight during other events at CES next week as well.
During a "Streaming's New Era" panel, executives from Amazon's Fire TV, Starz and (again) HBO Max's WarnerMedia will discuss how streaming platforms are faring amid the 400% increase in subscriptions since March of last year. In a panel titled "The Great Unbundling in Video," the CEO of skinny-bundle service Philo will sit next to the head of programming for ad-supported free streamer Pluto TV. And TV ratings giant Nielsen will unpack 2020's streaming trends during a presentation called "If The Stream Works, The Dream Works."
CES parties are pivoting to streaming too, in a way. MediaLink traditionally throws CES' official media party; this year, MediaLink has joined forces with radio giant iHeart for a digital stand-in for the usual late-night blowouts on the Strip. The networking event, taking place Tuesday at 3:15 p.m. PT, will take place on a platform call SpatialWeb. It lets participants mill around a sort of virtual club, their avatars functioning as live video feeds from each guests' device to approximate face-to-face interaction. It's followed at 4 p.m. PT by a talk between Ryan Seacrest and Dua Lipa, then a performance by Billie Eilish.