Movie Theaters Brace for Holiday Season Blues and More Delayed Blockbusters as Strike Drags On

Without Taylor Swift and Martin Scorsese, the October box office would have been a ghost town long before Halloween hit.

It was thanks to two unconventional releases — “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” one distributed by an exhibitor and the other backed by a major streaming service — that anyone went to the movies at all.

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It may get worse before it gets better. Hollywood hoped SAG-AFTRA and studios would resolve their contract negotiations by the end of October. But the strike drags on, preventing major stars from promoting their new films and adding to exhibitors’ anxieties about the upcoming holiday season.

“The lack of any resolution in labor conflicts is bad news for movie theaters,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro. “The longer the strike goes on, we approach that worst-case scenario of impact. Some movies don’t need actors to promote them, but smaller releases could benefit from having stars on the press circuit.”

Overall, the domestic box office has generated $7.5 billion to date, which is 17.1% behind 2019 and 25.6% ahead of 2022, according to Comscore. Analysts project the year could wind up at around $9 billion, though reaching that benchmark will depend on the performance of the final few 2023 tentpoles. Already, B. Riley senior media analyst Eric Wold has revised down expectations for the fourth quarter. That’s mostly due to the high-profile delays of “Dune: Part Two,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and “Kraven the Hunter.”

“Taylor Swift wasn’t enough to offset the movies that moved,” Wold says. Although Christmastime is without “Avatar” or “Star Wars” sequels to bring in families, he believes there’s enough left on the calendar to keep multiplexes bustling from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. “It’s a decent mix of superheroes, young adult content and nostalgia to drive audiences,” he says.

But there’s a concerning absence of surefire hits on the horizon. Disney’s “The Marvels,” the sequel to the billion-dollar blockbuster “Captain Marvel,” arrives in November and is tracking on the lower end for comic book adaptations. Adding to the uncertainty, it has a short window before “The Hunger Games” prequel “The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” makes its way to theaters around Thanksgiving. Then again, will moviegoers care about a Panem without Jennifer Lawrence’s Girl on Fire?

There’s an adage that moviegoing begets moviegoing, though exhibitors fear that some of these blockbuster hopefuls don’t have enough of a runway beyond opening weekend. A similar pileup is cooking with family-friendly films around Turkey Day as Universal and Dreamworks deliver the threequel “Trolls Band Together” a week before Disney’s latest animated musical, “Wish.” Fingers crossed for a “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”-style earworm to inspire more than one trip to the movies.

The strike-related gaps on the calendar have prompted some top pop stars — like Beyoncé, whose “Renaissance” concert film lands on Dec. 1 — to fill in the void. Even though few musical acts operate in the sphere of Swift and Queen Bey, analysts believe these movies could ignite a trend. Swift’s “Eras Tour” is minting money, with $180 million worldwide and counting. However, concert films don’t need to make anywhere near that much to justify their low costs.

“It’s been very clear for years that exhibitors need to step outside the box and find alternative content when studios aren’t putting out a tentpole,” Robbins says. “Whether it is COVID or the strikes, things keep delaying a consistent level of content hitting the big screen.”

A few films are sticking to their original release strategy despite the unpredictability. Warner Bros.’ superhero sequel “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” will attempt to buck this year’s string of DC flops, while Timothée Chalamet’s fantastical adventure “Wonka,” a feel-good film about the famous fictional chocolatier, may appeal to broader audiences. And there’s “The Color Purple,” an adaptation of the Broadway musical that could hit all the right notes with young and old alike.

Box office watchers are optimistic that, unlike during COVID, there is an end in sight. And when the strike gets resolved, there’s not the added pandemic-era pressure of convincing people it’s safe to go to the movies.

“Now, it is going to be product-driven,” says Chris Aronson, Paramount’s president of domestic distribution.

Aronson’s worried about a larger problem. Once Hollywood gets back to work, there will be a logjam of projects that need reshoots and other tinkering, stalled while actors and writers were picketing.

“Then begins the Rubik’s Cube of ‘Where does talent go first? Where do crews go first? Are actors going to complete pickups of one movie before they go into production on another?’” Aronson says. “It’s going to be very complicated.”

Several upcoming films may stumble in their race to get to the finish line. Paramount’s action adventure “Mission: Impossible 8” has already been pushed to 2025 and the post-strike scramble will likely force studios to postpone other 2024 summer blockbusters, like Disney’s comic book tentpole “Deadpool 3,” that haven’t finished filming. That could create a domino effect of delays.

Among other possible tweaks: Warner Bros. is considering shifting around dates for next year’s titles, such as “Wise Guys,” a mob drama starring Robert De Niro, and “Beetlejuice 2,” the follow-up to Tim Burton’s 1988 film about a pesky poltergeist. Sony’s symbiote sequel “Venom 3” and Universal’s disaster epic “Twisters” also face setbacks unless production can resume in the next few weeks.

“There will be a number of 2024 titles that move into 2025 and beyond because of production delays,” Wold says. “Studios are holding back and not talking about it to avoid showing their weak hand during negotiations. But people are waiting for it.”

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