Say goodbye to new movies for the rest of the year. That’s the rumbling in Hollywood as the actors union digs in with the writers guild in their protracted strikes against networks and studios. With negotiations stalled, and the walkout by the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists bringing an abrupt halt to nearly everything and anything currently shooting, insiders predict it will also prompt distribution heads to immediately search for distant points on the calendar to reschedule films that are already largely finished.
That’s because largely doesn’t mean “completely.” In the final months before a release, reshoots and rerecording of dialogue are typically finalized, and without actors to fulfill those obligations, a film can be close to the finish line without being able to cross over.
Marketers also recognize it’s difficult to release a new film during the Hollywood strikes without having talent available to promote through interviews, guest spots on talk shows and podcasts, public appearances, red carpets, and screenings. All of that has been restricted by the strike. Especially hard-hit would be awards-season hopefuls set to debut this fall, since the more complicated or cerebral a film is, the more reliant it is on the drumbeat of publicity to attract an audience. If a movie debuts, and few of its creators can talk about it, does it actually come out? In many cases, the strike answers that question with a resounding no.
Numerous industry sources across professions predict to Vanity Fair that new films will make a mad scramble out of 2023, and there will be ongoing content anemia through next year if the strike continues through the fall.
“It’s either, in three weeks we’ll wake up and be like, ‘Oh, we’re close…’ Or it’s going to last three months. And if it’s three months, it’s a new ball game,” said one studio manager, who is not involved in contract talks but works closely on the release of new films. “What’s really scary is if [the strikes last] five months, you’re going to have theaters permanently closed the following year. Not all of them, but a chunk of them.”
In the case of a much longer strike, the problem is not just the inability to finish or promote movies, but also “a lot fewer movies being made,” the exec said. “Remember, we have two and a half months of nothing being written. So, you’re just going to have these huge holes in the schedule that the theaters can’t possibly deal with.”
The executive emphasizes that the latter is the worst-case scenario: “I really don’t believe the strike’s going to go until December. I think that’s a huge problem for the industry as we know it. That is where irreparable damage will happen.”
The exodus from 2023 is already happening. One of the first victims was Challengers, the Zendaya love-triangle drama set in the world of professional tennis, which canceled a late-August appearance at the Venice Film Festival and uprooted its release from September 15 of this year to April 26 of next.
Challengers costars The Crown’s Josh O’Connor and West Side Story’s Mike Faist. A provocative trailer for the film hinting at a threesome between the three stars had already gotten pulses rising, but now the movie will have to start its campaign all over again in the spring. Citing the SAG-AFTRA standoff as the reason for the postponement, an Amazon MGM Studios rep said, “We look forward to celebrating the film when we can do so with our ensemble cast, director Luca Guadagnino, and the filmmaking team at a later date.”
Sony has moved Kraven the Hunter, a live-action Spider-Man spin-off that stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the merciless title character, from October 6, 2023, to Labor Day weekend of next year, August 30, 2024. The R-rated revenge saga, which costars Ariana DeBose and Russell Crowe, is suffused with blood and violence, and with only a single trailer released so far, its promotional campaign can still be packed up and moved by more than a year. Sony also indefinitely postponed the animated sequel Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, from March 24 of next year, with no new release date named. While its initial debut was still far away, completion of the movie is in question with no actors available to voice the characters. “The studio is considering several dates depending on how long the strike lasts,” Sony said in a statement.
Other movies that are considered vulnerable to moves: Dune: Part Two, which is currently set for release November 3, and has a vast A-list cast that includes Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Florence Pugh, Austin Butler, and Rebecca Ferguson, all of whom would presumably be unable to promote the follow-up if constrained by the strike. Right now, there has been no official comment from Warner Bros. or Legendary about its status.
The counterargument for Dune staying put during the Hollywood strikes is that it already has built-in interest as the second half of a story that many have already seen, and as the competition on the release schedule thins, it might be beneficial to be one of the few remaining options for moviegoers. As one movie marketer put it: All throughout Hollywood, conference rooms are full of presentations right now featuring contingency plans and guesswork. But there’s little solid wisdom about whether to abandon 2023 or stay.
Often, it’s a case of choosing the lesser of two bad choices, several sources said. Stay in 2023 and deal with the drawback of less media promotion, or move ahead several months and face potentially unknown new hurdles, in addition to forfeiting any millions already spent on advertising the old date.
The risks are sometimes clearer than the rewards. Preemptively moving a film to 2024 could backfire, the marketer said, if the strike ends in several weeks and your tentpole is now staked to a more competitive weekend. If you do pick up and go, the marketer continued, the teams tasked with promoting the film are trying to “peek around corners” and anticipate the similar moves of rival studios to avoid congestion.
The superhero team-up The Marvels, a sequel to Captain Marvel starring Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris from WandaVision, and Iman Vellani from Ms. Marvel, is another tentpole considered as a likely date-changer. Currently set for November 10, it was already bumped earlier this year from a late-July spot on the calendar. But the first movie came out in February 2019, and the second month of the year could be a successful alternative for the sequel if the need arises. Certainly, the promo power of the three leads doing press together has undeniable value. (A source close to The Marvels said talk of a date shift is still just speculation.)
The Barbenheimer phenomenon notwithstanding, a clash of big-budget epics is something most studios prefer to avoid, if possible, by keeping their distance from competitors targeting the same crowd of moviegoers.
Further off on the release calendar, Warner Bros. also has the musical remake of The Color Purple, also featuring a top-tier cast of Fantasia Barrino, Halle Bailey, H.E.R. and Taraji P. Henson. Currently aiming for Christmas Day, that’s another movie that insiders believe still has recording work to complete and would also be hamstrung by the inability of its stars to contribute to its hype. The more star power involved, the more likely the movie is going to want to capitalize on it for vital promotional help.
The Color Purple has Oprah Winfrey as a producer, which might help in terms of Oscar and audience hype. She’s not only one of the most recognizable people on the planet, capable of activating millions of admirers, but she also has Academy sway, having been nominated for an Oscar for her role in the original 1985 movie. She could be a prominent spokesperson for the film, but…she’s also a member of SAG, which complicates her appearances on behalf of the movie.
Some titles, such as Killers of the Flower Moon, out in limited release on October 6 and wide on October 20, are less likely to budge. That film already made its mark at the Cannes Film Festival; it also features stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, who aren’t especially gregarious salesmen even under normal circumstances. Martin Scorsese, who is free to carry the promotional burden as the director, is a star in his own right, and has worked with both of them enough times to speak meaningfully about their work.
This is the calculus studio management is having to make. Technically, Winfrey should be clear to do as she pleases given her behind-the-scenes role, just as Scorsese is, but the question becomes murky given her primary status as a performer. Either of them could invite recrimination from striking actors and writers that might snowball into a public backlash.
There’s a third factor also weighing down movie promotion: Online influencers are also locked down by the strike. Influencers and content creators have become critical in recent years in spreading word of mouth on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, but they have been warned by SAG-AFTRA that using their platforms to promote content from struck companies could come with a lifetime ban from the guild, should they try to enter it later. Many of the influencers harbor acting dreams, which would be obliterated by such a punishment. It effectively stifles one of the few remaining avenues for studios to promote their projects, and becomes one more reason to wait out the strike.
Even after a new contract is reached with writers and actors, the effects of a prolonged movie drought could have dire implications beyond the labor resolution.
With theatrical moviegoing in general still struggling to get back on its feet after the pandemic, the absence of must-see films would be a further setback that sends audiences once again looking elsewhere for amusement. “Even a single blockbuster moving out of calendar ’23 could have a major impact on the box office bottom line and throw the full-year projected box office into reverse,” says analyst Paul Dergarabedian, who tracks theatrical earnings for Comscore.
Imax, which contributes heavily to box office bottom lines through its premium-price tickets to extra-large screens, has already begun bracing for impact. “We spent a lot of time, obviously, assessing how long the strike is going to last,” Richard Gelfond, CEO of Imax, said in a recent earnings call. “What kind of content could we play, what’s out there?”
Gelfond was bullish that most 2023 films would stay in place, but he suggested recirculating some other new releases. Tom Cruise may again save the box office, since Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning was shunted out of its Imax berth by Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer one week after its debut. Nolan’s movie, which has seen high demand for Imax seats, could also resurface if the pickings get slim. “Not only is Oppenheimer going to be a great bring-back after it runs, but Mission: Impossible’s run was truncated. I think that’s something we can bring back and do very well on documentaries,” Gelfond said.
He suggested that studios would bear significant cost if they bounced their tentpoles further away on the calendar. “From a dollars-and-cents numbers perspective, it just doesn’t make any sense to me that they would move it,” Gelfond said. “The only reason they would move it is they want to get a premiere and put it on The Tonight Show, or wherever they put the actors. With no disrespect to Timothée Chalamet.”
While he was singling out the Dune sequel in that case, “you could go through all of them and the same logic kind of applies,” Gelfond added. “Are you going to be able to make up for losing the six-week IMAX release? Are you going to be [able to make up] the cost of capital and carrying it for a year? Are you going to move it to an uncertain year when you have no idea what’s going to be put against you when they have virtually no competition right now in the marketplace? It doesn’t really make any sense.”
The writers strike has already had a suppressive effect, although it hasn’t stopped everything the way a joint actor walkout eventually did. One recent high-profile gathering hinted at the problems on the horizon.
At the gala Barbie premiere held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, just before that blockbuster’s release, Greta Gerwig was able to attend and make a speech beforehand due to her role as a director. (The Directors Guild of America had already struck a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.) Her participation in the event was a question, however, because she also cowrote the movie with her partner, filmmaker Noah Baumbach.
Ultimately, Gerwig received a waiver to attend from the Writers Guild of America, but Baumbach sat out the event. Standing onstage at the Shrine, Gerwig addressed his absence. “I am here tonight as the director of this movie, but my cowriter and cocreator, my partner in life and art, Noah Baumbach, isn’t here tonight because he is passionately supporting the fight of the WGA,” Gerwig said.
“From the first line to the last cut, this movie is his as much as anyone’s. He is a Barbie girl,” she joked. “Nothing on Barbie happened without him, and nothing in Hollywood happens without writers.” Gerwig then went on to introduce more than a dozen actors from her cast: Michael Cera, Ariana Greenblatt, Scott Evans, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Simu Liu, Dua Lipa, Ana Cruz Kayne, Hari Nef, Alexandra Shipp, Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, America Ferrera, Ryan Gosling, and Margot Robbie.
Now imagine an empty stage. An empty, street-size pink carpet. A two-story Dreamhouse with a curling slide, but no talent to pose in front of it. It would be more buzzkill than buzz.