'Barbenheimer' boom might be followed by fallout at theater box offices

The spectacular box office success of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” has been a boon for brick-and-mortar movie theaters. The two films have grossed a combined $525 million at the North American box office as of Tuesday, shattering records, crowding multiplexes and inspiring a seemingly endless parade of memes.

But cinema owners could soon face a plot twist.

The simultaneous actors and writers strikes that have upended the entertainment industry might leave theater chains starved of new releases. Hollywood’s major studios are starting to postpone the release of certain movies, including projects that have already wrapped shooting. The majority of film sets have gone dark, too, delaying production on high-profile blockbusters that had been slated to debut next year but may not be ready in time.

The timing is inopportune for AMC Theatres, Regal, Cinemark and other leading exhibitors. “Barbenheimer” notwithstanding, theaters are still trying to rebound from the economic wallop of pandemic-era shutdowns and reassert their cultural relevance against the rise of streaming entertainment. (Regal and Cinemark did not respond to interview requests, and a spokesman for AMC declined to comment.)

Chris Randleman, the chief revenue officer at Flix Brewhouse, a dine-in movie theater chain based in Texas that has locations in six states, said his company hopes for “a good resolution" for the actors and writers on strike. But heading into the fall, the team at Flix Brewhouse is feeling “tense,” he added.

“It’s not the best feeling to see studios say they might push the bulk of their fall and winter schedule, and we’re hoping that can be averted,” he said. “We worked really hard to come back from the pandemic and that really terrible situation. The worst thing now would be to change that and move films around.”

In a report published May 3, a day after more than 11,000 screenwriters headed to the picket lines, Moody’s Investors Service, a prominent credit-rating agency, said theater operators would be “most at risk” in the event of a “protracted strike.”

“In a prolonged strike where new theatrical product is spread more thinly or runs dry, these companies could face a difficult time maintaining metrics commensurate with their ratings, particularly if they do not have sufficient committed liquidity or cash balances to withstand a long work stoppage,” wrote Neil Begley, senior vice president for Moody’s Investors Service.

We worked really hard to come back from the pandemic. The worst thing now would be to change that and move films around.

-Chris Randleman, chief revenue officer at Flix Brewhouse

The labor stoppages are expected to last for months, and there are no signs that the striking workers and the studios are close to a deal. (The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group that bargains on behalf of the studios, represents NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News. Universal Pictures released “Oppenheimer.”)

The main reason for the release date changes: SAG-AFTRA, the Hollywood actors union, issued rules that prevent stars from participating in promotional campaigns for their movies during the strike — no red carpet premieres, media interviews or other publicity events that marketing executives believe help boost awareness and drive ticket sales.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for example, bumped the premiere of Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers” from September to April. The awards-courting drama, set in the world of competitive tennis, stars Zendaya, a global superstar who regularly draws wide attention for her media appearances and connects directly with her roughly 183 million Instagram followers.

Sony last week announced that the fourth entry in the “Ghostbusters” franchise and the Marvel action saga “Kraven the Hunter” would move from this year to 2024. The studio pulled “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse” off the calendar altogether, saying it was “considering several dates depending on how long the strike lasts.” It’s a sequel to “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” which has grossed a robust $378 at North American theaters.

Searchlight Pictures, the Disney-owned art-house label, moved the surrealist fantasy “Poor Things” from September to December. Disney is mulling moving the dates for likely Oscar contenders (Taika Waiti’s “Next Goal Wins”) and kid-friendly features (“Wish”), according to Bloomberg. Warner Bros. is considering shifting the November debut of “Dune: Part Two,” one of the most eagerly anticipated blockbusters on the fall lineup, according to Variety. (Zendaya stars in that one, too.)

The release date changes are just one ripple effect of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. The major studios and their counterparts in the streaming world have paused production on several films that were penciled in for the summer and fall of 2024, including Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator 2,” “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part Two” and Universal’s big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical “Wicked.”

The impact on moviegoing “increases the pressure to resolve these strikes sooner than later, because the longer this goes on, the more profound the implications for the industry,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at Comscore, an analytics company.

SAG-AFTRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The union’s members, who have been on strike since July 14, argue they have been disadvantaged by the economics of the streaming era. They are seeking higher base compensation for their labor and stricter protections against the use of artificial intelligence. The members of WGA, who have been on strike since early May, took to the picket lines over similar issues.

The commercial triumphs of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” came as a relief to theater chains that were on rockier footing earlier this year after a string of franchise entries underperformed at the box office. “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” “The Flash” and “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” all came in below expectations.

The completed movies still on the docket for late summer and fall, barring any more calendar changes, include “Gran Turismo,” “Blue Beetle,” “Sax X,” Universal’s “The Exorcist: Believer,” “The Marvels,” “Wonka,” an Aquaman sequel, and an adaptation of the Broadway version of “The Color Purple.”


Related Posts