Warner Bros. Discovery just can’t stay out of the news. After weeks of fan frustration over canceling movies like Batgirl and removing titles like Infinity Train from HBO Max, the studio announced on Wednesday that it’s delaying Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. But unlike some of the company’s other recent moves, this one is probably a good step for the future of DC movies.
According to a report from The Hollywood Reporter, one reason for these movies’ delays is the marketing budgets. WarnerMedia wants to spread out its marketing costs, narrowing its focus on the studio’s two big remaining movies for the rest of 2022, Don’t Worry Darling and Black Adam.
While not having to market Shazam! 2 during the holidays is surely a money-saving tactic, this also speaks to Warner’s desperation to find a hit. Rather than split its marketing three ways, the delay allows the studio to focus its efforts on those two movies in the hopes of making them into the kind of box office smash hits the studio has lacked for the last several years — with a few exceptions like The Batman, A Star is Born, and Joker.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Warner Bros. was the most consistent box office performer of any of the major studios, but that has been in consistent decline since 2017. And HBO Max made things even worse.
While other studios held their planned-2020 releases for years, waiting for the perfect moment, Warner weathered bad box office results for releases like Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984 to help boost the streaming service’s lineup. The company also announced all of its 2021 movie releases would come out in theaters and on HBO Max the same day, causing clashes with directors, actors, and co-production studios across Hollywood.
This new release strategy represented a complete shift for Warner, essentially selling out their movies’ potential box office returns in favor of short-term boosts to HBO Max subscribers. It was always inevitable that at least one studio would fall prey to the siren song of Netflix’s sky-high valuations, but HBO Max never managed to get anywhere close to the subscribers it needed. The streaming service topped out at around 80 million subscribers, which left it about 120 million short of the highs of Disney Plus and Netflix, two companies that have massive subscriber numbers but still haven’t found a way to make any real money off their streaming platforms.
Almost eight full months into 2022’s box office, it’s now clear just how much money WarnerMedia’s impatience may have left on the table. Movies like Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick and even Warner’s own Elvis and The Batman have proven the box office is in full recovery mode, minting new success stories every month. But Warner’s push to get films like Tenet, Dune, The Matrix Resurrections, King Richard, and The Suicide Squad out right away caused each of them to fall short of their box office potential.
With these recent woes in mind, it’s easy to see why Warner Bros. Discovery’s recent decision making is closer to a medieval bloodletting than surgical cost-cutting. The studio is in dire financial straits, and it needs real hits.
But these new delays seem to point toward Warner learning from its recent mistakes. Along with a new emphasis on theatrical releases, the company now appears to be willing to delay a movie in hopes of giving it the best possible chance to succeed.
This new, slightly more measured strategic direction is perhaps most clear with the delay of Shazam! Fury of the Gods. The film, which will now be released on March 17, 2023, was originally slated for Dec. 16 this year. If that date sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same release date as Avatar: The Way of Water, which is sure to dominate any available IMAX and theatrical space. Warner Bros. is aware of that, and willing to humbly bow its movie out of holiday competition in favor of a strategy more similar to The Batman’s successful March release. Meanwhile, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom will be released on Dec. 25, 2023.
None of this necessarily guarantees success for Shazam! or any of Warner’s other movies, but these recent delays do seem like the first big-picture move in the company’s new strategy. If the DC Universe is going to continue to feature huge blockbuster movies, WB is going to have carefully position each for the best box office results they can manage.