‘Barbenheimer’ Is a Box Office Party – but a Strike-Induced Hangover Might Be Coming

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Hollywood labor’s efforts to put financial pressure on studios are bearing fruit as uncertainty grows over the fall movie slate

After "Barbenheimer," what's next for theaters?
After "Barbenheimer," what's next for theaters? (Image: Christopher T. Smith/TheWrap)

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The whole reason unions hold strikes is to exert financial pressure on companies to agree to a fair deal. By joining the Writers Guild on the picket lines, the actors of SAG-AFTRA are doing just that as their withdrawal from film sets and promotional events is making studios reevaluate their plans for the fall box office season.

That could mean bad things in a few months for theaters, which are currently reveling in historic grosses from the one-two combo of Warner Bros.’ “Barbie” and Universal’s “Oppenheimer.”

This time last year, the box office was beginning a slide into a months-long slump, as a dearth of titles coming out of the pandemic left theaters without a major late-summer title to continue the momentum of early-summer hits like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

But thanks largely to “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” overall grosses for this past weekend have skyrocketed to $217 million, more than double the $99 million that was posted in the final weekend of July 2022. Domestic grosses for the summer have now crossed $3 billion, 6.7% ahead of last year.

The list of upcoming films from August through mid-October likely won’t yield a hit as huge as “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer,” but they are expected to provide a higher level of sustained audience turnout to theaters.

But Sony’s move of “Kraven the Hunter” from October to next year may be a sign of dark times ahead if studios choose to delay films that they feel need the presence of their cast to promote in press junkets, film premieres and other marketing opportunities.

Not all of Sony’s release slate moves announced this past Friday were tied to the strike. Studio insiders said Sony moved the upcoming sequel of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” from this Christmas to Easter 2024 because of the opportunity to take advantage of that open spring release slot. Universal used Easter to great success with “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” this year and it has historically been a popular launch point for family-friendly titles.

But “Kraven” has been delayed nearly a year because Sony feels it needs its lead star, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, to promote it. Hooking marketing on a star bears risks, but so does going without one.

What makes it particularly hard to determine whether other films will join “Kraven” in moving to 2024 is that the strike is creating a situation that has never been seen in the modern film industry. Large slate changes by one studio have usually triggered moves by the others, especially during the pandemic, but those moves were influenced by a virus that equally affected all the theaters that studios were looking to screen their films on.

The actors’ strike isn’t affecting the upcoming film slate quite as evenly. Just as the marketing campaigns for “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” were vastly different from each other, every film requires a bespoke approach to how they are sold to moviegoers. Some of those films, like “Kraven,” require a marketing campaign that is built much more around actors than others.

There are outliers that might have a hook that would allow studios to work their campaigns around the absence of actors. Universal and Blumhouse’s “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” for example, can be sold to fans of the horror video game series through marketing that puts the focus on Freddy Fazbear and his fellow killer animatronics.

Paramount and Apple’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” may not have Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert De Niro to promote it, but it will have director Martin Scorsese, who has already been promoting the film for months since its acclaimed world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Because of that, it is unlikely that “Killers” will see a move.

Speaking of Cannes, that brings us to another factor studios are weighing when deciding to move dates: sunk costs. Some films on the fall slate have already had millions in promotion spent on them that would be wasted if they get pushed back, creating an “in for a penny, in for a pound” scenario.

Those costs are a reason why Imax CEO Rich Gelfond told analysts during an earnings call this past week that he didn’t expect films getting Imax support — specifically Warner Bros.’ “Dune: Part Two” — to get moved.

“There are trailers out, there’s lots of materials out. They had a big presentation, a lot of the conferences,” said Gelfond. “So it’s kind of out of the gate. So if they move it back, they’ve got to duplicate those expenses at some time in the future.”

Some films have so much already invested that studios might do a smaller pivot in releasing. Sony’s “Gran Turismo” is an example, having the cast show up at the Cannes Film Festival and Monaco Grand Prix back in May to promote it. Without actors to promote the film in the run-up to release, Sony pushed the film’s wide launch to Aug. 25, with sneak preview screenings over the two prior weekends to build word of mouth.

For Sony, any already-spent sums for “Kraven,” which was roughly two months out from release and had Imax support, did not outweigh the importance of having Taylor-Johnson and his castmates promote it. Considering how Sony’s last Marvel antihero film “Morbius” did, with $167 million grossed against a $75 million budget, it’s easy to see why the studio feels “Kraven” needs all its marketing resources available.

But this weighing of costs and risks is something every distribution and marketing executive is calculating right now for dozens of films with various break-even points at the box office. Losing only “Kraven” won’t be a momentum-killer for the market, or for theaters, but losing others, including and especially “Dune: Part Two,” would leave exhibitors fighting through weeks of low grosses until the next big tentpole comes along.

And as film executives figure out how to make these tough decisions, the CEOs they report to show no sign of returning to the negotiating table through the AMPTP to get a deal with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA worked out.

Labor insiders have told TheWrap they don’t expect the strike to end anytime soon, as studios are expected to cut costs by invoking force majeure clauses to terminate production deals with writer-producers who are no longer deemed profitable.

That may give studios an incentive to let the picket lines continue for a bit longer, but that’s no comfort for theater owners who were optimistic that the days of pandemic anxiety were behind them and now find themselves beset with strike anxiety.

Ask any writer or actor on the picket lines about that, though, and they will all offer the same suggestion as to how to make all this uncertainty go away: agree to a union deal that pays creatives what they’re worth.