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This was supposed to be the first “business as usual” summer movie season after COVID. Then the WGA strike came.
The Hollywood writers’ strike effects on TV were swift and obvious, like the shuttering of late-night television. The effects on the movies could play out over a far longer timetable, insidiously bleeding an already wounded industry.
Everyone agrees, with a few specific exceptions, that moviegoers returning to theaters won’t see the strike. “The movies for 2023 and 2024 have pretty much been written. In many cases, they’ve already been filmed,” AMC CEO Adam Aron noted Friday on his company’s quarterly earnings call with analysts. He was just the latest in a string of executives to reassure Wall Street of the strike’s limited impact.
But more labor unrest is on the horizon with the DGA and SAG-AFTRA contracts with studios expiring June 30 — pushing back the date when studios can return to the bargaining table with the WGA. A broader strike could crimp the cinematic pipeline, with artistic and commercial impacts that could linger over future summers.
Ripples on box office that lasted years
The summer after the 2007-2008 writer’s strike saw well-received smashes like “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Wall-E” and “Hancock.” But that gave way to two summers filled with less-inspired tentpoles.
One can’t help but wonder if the comparatively underwhelming summer 2010 slate, including “Prince of Persia,” “Sex and the City 2,” “The A-Team” and Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” was partially due to time lost earlier in the development process.
One could argue that the movie industry didn’t really recover until the 2011 season, which gave us “Fast Five,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Bridesmaids,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and the final “Harry Potter” film.
A strike that lasts longer than six months — almost twice as long as the strike that ended 15 years ago — could affect the release schedule well into 2025, insiders said.
Hollywood has had recent experience with broad production disruptions, thanks to the pandemic, which shut down filming around the world more than once for months at a time. As a result of lessons learned, studios have emphasized their preparedness, with stratagems ranging from banking material, relying on library content and shifting to offshore production.
Moreover, the artistic process of making a movie is substantially different from TV production. The longer lead time of movies is a critical factor in the diverging outcomes.
Given the vagaries of the box office and the many factors that go into a film’s success, it’s not clear how much the last strike hurt movies released in its wake. Some films arguably suffered artistically from the 2007-2008 strike, like “G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra” or “Angels and Demons.”
But they made out just fine commercially. “Quantum of Solace” earned $590 million, just shy of the $600 million earned by “Casino Royale.” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” earned a franchise-high $409 million in North America alone and $865 million globally. Films like “Dragon Ball: Evolution” and “Terminator: Salvation” bombed for reasons having little to do with strike-era production challenges.
Despite miserable reviews and a DVD-quality workprint being leaked online a month prior to release, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which might have benefited from a rewrite, still earned $350 million worldwide and spawned two sequels.
A rush to wrap up scripts
The most notable example of a film being held up was the already-troubled “Blade” at Marvel. A week before the current WGA contract expired, “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto was set to rewrite the script for the Mahershala Ali-starring actioner. Now its production timetable is on hold.
But other high-profile projects are moving ahead, having dodged the strike deadline. Warner Bros. Discovery can rest easy knowing DC Studios chief James Gunn delivered his first draft on “Superman: Legacy,” as TheWrap first reported. The superhero film is eyeing a February 2024 production start. A long-gestating “Beetlejuice” sequel goes into production next week, while a “Minecraft” adaptation shoots in August. Clint Eastwood’s “Juror #2” isn’t greenlit yet and New Line’s “Mortal Kombat 2” was prepared for the strike. The script is done and starts shooting this June.
Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog 3” will go into production later this year, and that sequel isn’t due for release until late December 2024. Legendary only has “Faces of Death” currently in production down in New Orleans and the film will wrap production in two weeks.
Even with a strike ongoing, having a writer on a movie set is seen as more of a luxury than a requirement compared to TV production. It’s easier to work within the rules to get a film produced, especially one with something resembling a workable screenplay. Moreover, once the strike has ended, not only can rewrites commence, but changes in already-shot sequences can be achieved via ADR.
“You can use suggestions or produce an idea on set without officially rewriting,” noted “Disturbia” director D.J. Caruso. “You can enhance what exists if you are not explicitly creating new material.”
The inability to do rewrites may lead to more filmmakers shooting what’s on the page, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Zack Stentz, screenwriter of “Thor,” “X-Men: First Class” and “Agent Cody Banks,” told TheWrap. One lesson learned from the last strike, he said, was that much of the development process is unnecessary — executives justifying their existence or big-name actors requesting self-serving alterations.
“For every movie that you see that feels like it was shot before the script was ready, there’s another one that had a great script three or four drafts previously that was turned into mud by executives second-guessing themselves or directors getting too auteurist,” he said.
This time could be different
Yet this time feels a little different than 15 years ago, said Brad Fuller, a producer and co-owner of Platinum Dunes. “Nobody’s calling, nobody’s making deals… No work is being done.”
The Writers Guild and the AMPTP seem far apart on key issues, not just basic economics or pay structures, ranging from the structure of writers’ rooms to the use of AI in screenwriting.
Barring an unusually long strike, though, the current theatrical pipeline should keep flowing. The problem for writers is a mismatch in time frames: They’re going without pay now, but any financial hurt for movie studios may take years to unfold.