Six weeks into the writers strike, the early returns on summer studio films have been some of the best since Covid brought the exhibition business to a screeching halt. But if SAG-AFTRA members trade lines of dialogue for picket lines beginning July 1, the business might well look like pandemic redux.
The domestic box office is just getting back on its feet, nearing $4 billion for the year and coursing 30% ahead of the same January-to-early June period a year ago. Theatrical release dates have again become prized commodities worth millions of dollars in revenue and the grease for triggering movies’ downstream revenues. And theatrical has regained a spotlight stolen by streamers during the Covid shutdown.
But what happens to the lineup of summer and fall films and their release slots, film and TV production starts and carefully calibrated Emmy campaigns if there are no actors to promote their films and make new ones?
Here is the sobering reality: In a statement to Deadline, SAG-AFTRA tells us, “There’s no promotion of struck work during a strike. Promotional activities in relation to a signatory production is covered work under the Basic Agreement, and thus, is struck work during a strike.”
The Writers Guild has prevailed on other guild members to not cross picket lines during the strike that is nearing its 40th day, and that uncomfortable situation has brought to a halt films including the Jennifer Lopez-starrer Unstoppable. And just a day ago (as Deadline exclusively revealed), Netflix told cast and crew of the Robert De Niro series Zero Day to go home and stay there until fall, to avoid shutdowns. This follows the shuttering of Lionsgate’s Keanu Reeves pic Good Fortune, Marvel Studios’ Thunderbolts and a few others. How many others will preemptively pause remains to be seen.
The town is taking all this deathly seriously.
Releases coming over the next two months won’t necessarily be impacted, like Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 (July 12), Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and the Margot Robbie-Ryan Gosling film Barbie (both on July 21). Millions have already been spent in many tentpoles’ long-lead marketing. But the unavailability of movie stars of the next batch of films makes each release a risk not just stateside but also at the overseas box office, where talent is crucial for spreading buzz on a tentpole.
In several wide-ranging conversations with studio execs, we hear that even if the actors were to strike for a short-term period or even for months, studios will risk it and keep their 2023 theatrical release schedules intact. So far, release-date changes are not expected; studio marketers, already unable to trot out stars on late-night talk shows that shut down when the writers walked, will whistle past the graveyard and rely on promoting their movies via trailers and TV spots. But if grosses are curtailed on some of these films, will a Christmas tentpole like Warner Bros/DC’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom delay release?
And what about awards-bait films like Apple Original Films/Paramount’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which drew raves in its Cannes premiere but will need the star power of Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and De Niro, and the revelation that Lily Gladstone proved herself to be? The wattage on films headed to fall film festivals will also be diminished should an actors strike occur.
Popcorn pics primed to get pushed are those scheduled during Q1 2024. Those titles currenty on the calendar the include Lionsgate’s Dirty Dancing sequel, Sony’s Madame Web, Warner Bros’ mafia movie Wise Guys and Universal’s The Fall Guy among others. Movies in this corridor are apt to be doing reshoots or ADR in the near future, and an actors’ strike would cause further delays.
There is a fear among some that a prolonged WGA strike into the deep fall will upend the second half of 2024’s theatrical release schedule, particularly for bigger tentpole films. However, animated movies and low-budget horror titles should be in prime condition to release.
The most immediate place where a possible SAG-AFTRA strike will be felt is at San Diego Comic-Con, which runs July 19-23. Already, the WGA strike is preventing TV creators from heading there and sitting on panels. The prospect of a starless geek fest would gut a conference that annually attracts 135,000 attendees and which fully returned to an in-person event only last year after a two-year Covid hiatus. Many studios and networks are in a wait-and-see-mode as to how they’ll trumpet shows and movies. Some such as HBO are skipping because there aren’t any immediate fanboy series on the horizon. At the bare minimum, a filmmaker or producer can venture down to Hall H with footage in hand to show off.
A Comic-Con spokesperson tells Deadline: “With regard to the strike and its possible effects on Comic-Con, we tend to refrain from speculation or forecasting. I will say, our hope is for a speedy resolution that will prove beneficial to all parties and allow everyone to continue the work they love. Until then, we continue to diligently work on our summer event in the hopes of making it as fun, educational, and celebratory as in years past.”
Also looking bleak this summer with the WGA Strike: the Television Critics Association Press Tour. However, Deadline hears that the nominations announcement for the Primetime Emmys, set for July 12, is not in jeopardy of being moved. Meanwhile, the TV Academy has set Sept. 9 and 10 for the Creative Emmy Awards and Monday, Sept. 18 for the Primetime Emmy Awards. Whether those ceremonies are truncated or moved due to ongoing guild strikes depends on where the industry stands come the month of August.
In the meantime, many studios are already taking precautions in case of a SAG-AFTRA strike, i.e., the junkets for such movies as Barbie and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem have moved up to this month, and the premiere for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 is in Rome on June 19. Many studios have already recorded press materials with talent that can be used to tubthump summer releases on social. The notion that the July 21 face-off between Barbie and Oppenheimer would move due to a SAG strike is out of the question as millions of marketing dollars have already been committed, and it would be even costlier to delay them. At worst, per sources, premieres during the month of July could be canceled.
Currently, the junket for Oppenheimer is set for early July complete with Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and Robert Downey Jr among others. Even if a strike sidelines the cast, many point to the fact that director Christopher Nolan, with the DGA having already hammered out a contract with the AMPTP, remains a key selling point.
One possibility that has some studio marketing execs at ease is that there could be a grace period for SAG-AFTRA members during July, allowing actors to possibly work and promote projects, should talks go smoothly. Despite the union’s vote this week to authorize a strike, it’s not necessarily a 100% work stoppage the day after the contract expires June 30 like there was with the WGA on May 1 with pencils down.
Even with the statement from SAG-AFTRA about promoting projects, several reps and studio insiders tell us that they haven’t been apprised directly by the guild about the dos and don’ts should a strike occur. As we near June 30, reps are expecting to hear more about what actors can and can’t do.
The studios may shave off some marketing expenses by not touring an actor around the globe for a film, but a release-date change would be too much for any studio, and the exhibition sector, to afford after Covid turned the business upside down.
“You don’t want to take yourself out of the release calendar,” says one studio insider. “We’re all similarly hamstrung by this one.”
David Robb contributed to this report.